Sunday, April 28, 2013

India’s Golden Triangle–Second Stop: Agra

Fatehpur Sikri and Agra Fort

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Agra Fort is a UNESCO World Heritage Site
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Doorman at the Gateway Hotel
We rested as the intercity train rolled from Delhi to Agra. Because the 10:30 p.m. train was late arriving, we had to fend off taxis and call the hotel for a car. What a great feeling it is, when you see a well-dressed driver holding a sign with your name on it! The driver asked us, first time in India? How do we like it? How long in Agra? What sights will we be seeing? It was 11:30 p.m., but there was a doorman to assist us and three smiling staff members waiting in the lobby of the Gateway Hotel.

Taj Mahal at daybreak, seen from Gateway Hotel
View of Taj Mahal from our room

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The pool and grounds were gorgeous
We chose the Gateway Hotel because it offers rooms with a view of the Taj Mahal, and we weren’t disappointed. Although the Taj is not lit at night “for security” we were told, we could just make out its ghostly shape in the dark of midnight. The next morning, I awoke as daybreak illuminated the large dome.

After breakfast overlooking the gorgeous gardens and pool, we extended our stay to two nights, and approached the concierge to book a car and tour guide as well as train tickets to Jaipur the next day. No problem! We can arrange for a guide to take you wherever you want to go; when would you like to leave on your tour? And, we will find out what your options are for trains and timings; then you can make your decision. As a lifelong American do-it-yourselfer, I was really enjoying this great service.

We decided to do a little window shopping in the hotel concessions while they were closed, but it turned out that they were opening up so we browsed while the shopkeepers pressed us look at their fine wares. We admired the silk paintings – several of my friends are taking a silk painting class in Abu Dhabi – but what really caught our eye was the marble inlay.

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Agra is famous for its marble inlay with semiprecious stones. Malachite, agate, lapis, onyx, mother-of-pearl, and turquoise are inlaid in local marble from Rajasthan by descendants of the craftsmen who built the Taj Mahal. We spent a lot of time combing through the shops and asking questions, but left without buying anything, much to the shopkeepers’ disappointment.

Right on time at 10:30, our tour guide and car arrived. It was the same driver who had picked us up the night before! I was about to be amazed at the coincidence, and then it suddenly hit me. Of course. This is how it works, and this is why our driver in Delhi had taken us on the impromptu tour. He wanted us to hire him to take us around the city and, with luck, he could drive us to Agra. We just didn’t get it, yet. We weren’t ready.

Our tour guide was named Pradeep, the was Dularam, and they told us they were both locals from Agra. Pradeep suggested we first visit Fatehpur Sikri, a now-uninhabited walled city about 35 km from Agra. Later, we would tour the Agra Fort and Taj Mahal.

Along the way, we learned a little about life in 21st century India.

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Middle class neighborhood?
As we drove west out of Agra, on  the Agra-Jaipur Road, we noticed that it is lined with dilapidated looking buildings, hemmed in by piles of trash. Just as Mark and I were both thinking about the poverty in India, Pradeep said, “This is the middle class district.” Really! I thought of what middle class looks like in the USA. I’ve seen some pretty bleak places, trailer parks and inner city blight, but I have never seen anything like what we saw in India.

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Dung patties are big business
We noticed the piles of dung patties, which are used as cooking fuel. I thought that only the poorest people cooked over dung, but Pradeep explained that, while compressed natural gas (CNG) is used widely it is rationed and so, when it runs out, people still cook over dung. CNG must run out a lot, because everywhere we went in India, along the highway or the train corridor, we saw artfully stacked piles of dung, dung drying arrays, dung storage containers, and in some places dung patties just scattered, like the last scraps of a cord of firewood.

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Water buffalo look a bit like cows
We also saw what we thought were cattle until Pradeep told us that, actually, people prefer water buffalo to cows because a water buffalo are not considered sacred, as are cows. Thus a family can take out a loan for the equivalent of $1500 USD and pay it off over the 20-year life of the animal. Water buffalo milk is more common than cow’s milk, he said, and people eat water buffalo cheese and meat, and use the leather. They don’t, however, make a point to tell tourists that the milk, cheese or meat is from water buffalo.

“So, does this mean that the milk in the chai tea we drank at the tea cart in Delhi, and on the train, was made with water buffalo milk?” I asked. Yes. I had sensed that it was different than cow’s milk, but hadn’t thought much about it. I didn’t mind, since I’ve been enjoying camel milk in the UAE, and I like trying new foods. I did a little search and found a comparison of four types of milk – water buffalo, camel, cow, and goat, and learned that both water buffalo and camel milk have health benefits including that they are higher in vitamins and lower in fat than cow and goat milk. If you are interested, you can read more here.

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Wheat harvest

Mark and I were happy for the opportunity to see some of the countryside, and we were passing through a landscape that was mostly fields of wheat. It was harvest time, and groups of people, men in dark pants and white shirts, women in colorful saris, were cutting and bundling wheat, a process humans have been doing since the invention of agriculture.

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Modern threshing machines

As we drove, we passed a couple of threshing machines, a relatively modern technology in India which Pradeep said has made life a lot easier for the farmers. I asked about wealth – were landowners a wealthy class? Yes, he said, people who own the land are rich, but they still get out and work hard in the fields, alongside the migrant workers.
We arrived at Fatehpur Sikri, but we had to take a bus in because cars are not allowed. The exhaust pollution from the many vehicles was detrimental to the site, so now only buses are allowed.

The Victory Gate commemorates Akbar's victories.
Fatehpur Sikri

The planned walled city of Fatehpur Sikri was founded in 1569 by the Mughal Emperor Akbar – yes! the same one that Akbar, The Greatest Cat is named after. It’s a fascinating place, and Akbar was a fascinating character – a man of many interests. Following the conquest of neighboring cities, he decided to move the capital from Agra, and conceived of a new city.

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Favorite wives' palaces

Akbar dictated the design of the city-fort, which took 15 years to build and was abandoned soon after completion due to lack of water. Its mosques, tombs, palaces, and pavilions include Islamic domes, Persian turquoise roof tiles, Indian elements such as wall paintings of Hindu gods, and architectural columns.

Akbar was interested in more than conquest and architecture. He believed in religious tolerance – so much so that his three favorite wives, one Muslim, one Hindu, and one Christian, were all given separate palaces and allowed to worship freely according to their own religions. Sometimes Akbar would join them, and eventually, as he saw similarities, he developed his own ideal religion, Suhl-e-kul, based on tolerance and universal peace. Blending what he saw as the best of each religion, he proclaimed himself the new religion’s prophet. Suhl-e-kul died out following Akbar’s death.

Pradeep guided us through Fatehpur Sikri, explaining each important sight and telling historic anecdotes. First we went to the huge and magnificent Jama Masjid, or mosque. We had to remove our shoes to enter. Mark and Pradeep were both wearing socks but I was wearing sandals. It was 10:00 a.m., but the red sandstone courtyard was already so hot it burned the bottoms of my feet, making me run from one shady spot to another!

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Tomb of Shaikh Salim Chisti
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Asking for sons

My feet got some relief at the white marble tomb of Shaikh Salim Chishti, a saint to whom Akbar prayed for a son. Now, four hundred years later, women wishing for a son tie a thread on the jali, the carved marble lattice screen. As a sign of respect, women cover their heads when entering the tomb.
The tour of Fatehpur Sikri took about two hours, and there was always something amazing to look at. It’s incredible that this city was built of local red sandstone and marble over 15 years during the 16th century, only to be abandoned. If it had been inhabited, it would probably look much different, and only fragments of the original grandeur would remain.

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We were just getting started. We still had two more places to visit – first Agra Fort and, saving the best for last, the Taj Mahal.

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Entrance to Agra Fort at Amar Singh Gate

Agra Fort is the most important fort in India, situated next to the Yamuna River, on an ancient site whose first recorded capture was 1080 A.D. A succession of sultans and emperors lived in and governed from the fort in the 16th century, battles were fought and won in surrounding areas, and a vast treasure was amassed.

Agra Fort's moat was once filled with alligators.
Moat once filled with crocodiles.

We entered through Amar Singh Gate, now the only entry, crossing over a moat that was once infested with crocodiles to keep out intruders.

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When Akbar arrived in 1558 the fort was brick. Akbar decided to make Agra his capital, and ordered the fort rebuilt in red sandstone. The project was begun in 1565 and completed 8 years later. 4,000 builders placed red sandstone over the brick inner core, and built a palace inside the walls. It’s an impressive undertaking in any circumstances, but especially so when you consider that Akbar also began building Fatehpur Sikri during this time.

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Did one of these doors lead to 500 wives?

According to our guidebook, there is a locked door somewhere in the courtyard, with a staircase leading to a two-story underground labyrinth where Akbar is said to have kept his 500-strong harem. Pradeep said that there were the inevitable fights, and when that happened the offenders would be locked up in isolated cells.

I find this a bit difficult to contemplate.

Mark's favorite -- Akbar's huge bunk bed.
Everything about Akbar seems bigger than life to me, including his bunk bed. It’s huge a huge stone platform, about four times the size of a normal bed, and high up so that he could see out into the courtyard, so that he could view the dancers.
The bunk bed was one of Mark’s favorite features at Agra Fort.

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Medieval bathtub

One of the interesting items in the courtyard is the hauz, a large portable bathtub, created in 1610 for Akbar’s son, King Jehangir. Carved from one large piece of stone, it’s 5 feet high and 8 feet across, with built-in steps inside and out.

Jehangir's Palace
Jehangir's Palace

Jehangir’s Palace reflects the Mughal style, a blend of Indian and Central Asian roots.

King's Palace and harem complex
Shah Jahan favored white marble
over red sandstone

During the 17th century Akbar’s grandson, Shah Jahan, replaced the Agra Fort’s red sandstone palace structures with the Khas Mahal, a marble palace set out out in the harem with courts, gardens, fountains, and an indoor waterfall. Majestic settings such as this, overlooking the Yamuna River, became a trademark of Shahjahanian architecture, culminating with Shah Jahan’s ultimate architectural statement, the Tal Mahal.

Shah Jahan must have spent many hours gazing at the Taj Mahal.
Gazing at the Taj Mahal

Shah Jahan was a victim of love. He spent the last 8 years of his life under house arrest in the Khas Mahal, gazing at the Taj Mahal and pining for his lost love, Mumtaz. He was spending so much money building the Taj Mahal, and so weak with illness and grief, that his son, Aurangzeb, overthrew him and seized power.

Khas Mahal
Marble column with inlay

Although this was the place where Shah Jahan was locked up, it was a palace, not a prison. The Khas Mahal and Taj Mahal are both marble inlaid with precious and semi precious stones.
Next: Taj Mahal. 



Phyllis said...

This was great. I loved reading and looking at the pictures. There's just the right amount of both. I like the way you wrote it. Is this the blog you asked me to write in right?

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