Saturday, April 06, 2024

Incredible India – Part 4: Agra – The City of Love

Agra - the City of Love

Saturday and Sunday, February 10 – 11, 2024

What better nickname for Agra, the home of the Taj Mahal, than “The City of Love.”  The Taj Mahal, considered one of the New Seven Wonders of the World, stands as a reminder of a famous and very sad love story. 

Taj Mahal
Thanks to Linda Purviance for the use of this photo.

Shah Jahan, a powerful Mughal ruler in the early 1600s, was deeply in love with the third of his three wives, a Persian princess named Arjuman Banu Begum.  It is said that he fell in love with her on first sight and dubbed her Mumtaz Mahal, meaning “exalted one (or jewel) of the palace.” They were inseparable throughout their marriage, with Mumtaz even accompanying Shah Jahan on his military campaigns. When she died giving birth to their fourteenth child, he grieved so much that his hair turned grey within a few days, and the entire court went into mourning. He had this mausoleum built as a tribute to his beloved, bringing in artisans from all over India and central Asia. He even used specialists from Europe to work on the marble and semi-precious stonework inlay.

But his story becomes even more tragic. Some years after Mumtaz’s death, Shah Jahan anointed his eldest son Dara Shikoh as his heir.  Sibling jealousy led to a battle between Dara Shikoh and two other brothers.  Aurangzeb, the sixth child of Shah Jahan and Mumtaz Mahal, was the victor. This man - brought into life by a great love story - killed all of his brothers, declared his father incompetent to rule, and imprisoned him in the Agra Fort for the rest of his life.  Shah Jahan spent the ten years before his death looking through the window of his prison at the beautiful building he had erected to honor his love.

Shah Jahan's view of the Taj Mahal from his prison at the Agra Fort.

Saturday - Travel from Varanasi to Agra

Saturday was a long day of nothing but travel between Varanasi and Agra. Rob and I left the Brij Rama Palace at 9 a.m. for our flight from Varanasi to Delhi where we were met at the airport by our driver, Pawan, for the long drive to Agra. The traffic out of Delhi was horrendous, and we finally arrived in Agra at about 6:45 p.m. feeling completely worn out.

The bright spot in the day was settling into our hotel, the gorgeous Oberoi Amarvilas where every room has a view of the Taj Mahal.

The entrance to the Oberoi Amarvilas

Interior of the Oberoi Amarvilas - elegant and charming.
(The parents of the two adorable children playing in the lobby
kindly allowed me to take their picture.)

A room with a view! 
(Every room in the Oberoi Amarvilas has a view of the Taj Mahal.)

The pool and gardens of the Oberoi Amarvilas

Sunday - The Sights of Agra

The Taj Mahal

Sunday was a much more interesting day. We rose early to join the crowds that visit the Taj Mahal at sunrise. Our guide, who said to call him PG, met us in the lobby and we rode an electric cart to the nearby gates of the monument.  The line snaked past historical photos of the Taj Mahal as the grounds and building were restored in the 1800s.

After passing through the ever-present security screening, we walked into the outer courtyard through the Eastern Gate. The Southern Gate, Western Gate, and Eastern Gate that stand on three sides of the courtyard are beautiful – large archways of red sandstone decorated with designs of marble.  I was surprised by all of the buildings near the Taj.  From photos I had seen, I had envisioned it as standing all alone in a great open area.

The courtyard in front of the Taj Mahal

On the north side of the courtyard is the beautiful Drawaza-e-Rauza, meaning “gate of the mausoleum,” which provides entry into the gardens and long reflecting pool that lead to the Taj Mahal. PG explained that Taj means crown and Mahal means palace, so the Taj Mahal is the “Crown of the Palace.”  

Drawaza-e-Rauza is the entry gate to the Taj Mahal

The twenty-two white pillars on the Drawaza-e-Rauza represent
 the twenty-two years it took to build the Taj Mahal.

I could feel my heart beating with excitement as we passed through the entrance to see this iconic building.

We walked slowly through the gardens toward the mausoleum. The stunning building sits on a high platform above the Yamuna River which flows behind it.  It was deliberately placed so there is nothing behind it but sky. 

In the morning mist (and pollution), the pearly white building looked dim and ghostly, but as the sun rose, its true beauty began to emerge. The building appears white, but as we walked closer, we could see in the marble facade the inlaid stones of carnelian, jade, and lapis lazuli that decorate the building. The marble is translucent, and some of the stones were selected because they sparkle in the moonlight.

Taj Mahal and reflecting pool in the morning mist.

The rising sun allowed us to see the building with greater clarity.

Inlaid stones, shades of marble, and carves floral designs add to the
beauty of the Taj Mahal.

We were provided with blue paper booties to cover our shoes before entering the crypt where replicas of the tombs of Shah Jahan and Mumtaz Mahal are displayed.  (The tombs in the central room are ornamental. Their actual tombs are in a crypt just below this room.)

The Taj Mahal is celebrated for its perfect symmetry, but PG pointed out the one "flaw." Mumtaz lies in a tomb in the exact center of the monument, but when Shah Jahan died, his son had his tomb placed next to Mumtaz, with nothing on the other side to balance the symmetry.

No photos were allowed inside of the mausoleum.
Photo from Wikipedia Commons

According to Muslim law, every mausoleum must be accompanied by a mosque.  Thus on the west side of the Taj Mahal is a mosque of red sandstone and marble which faces Mecca, as do all mosques.  But to maintain the symmetry of the site, the mosque is mirrored by an identical building on the east side that was used as a guest house.

The Mosque of the Taj Mahal.

Itimad-ud-Daulah, aka "Baby Taj"

Somewhat to my surprise, the Taj Mahal is not the only major site in Agra. After breakfast back at the Oberoi, PG took us to Itimad-ud-Daulah, another mausoleum nicknamed “Baby Taj.” This is the resting place of Mizra Ghiyas Beg, the Persian nobleman who was Mumtaz Mahal's grandfather. While much smaller than the Taj Mahal, its more colorful stonework was just as beautiful. I loved it immediately, and it was nice to wander the grounds without the huge crowds at the Taj Mahal, which is the most visited and photographed place in India.

Itimad-ud-Daulah, the mausoleum of Mizra Ghiyas Beg

The entry gate and gardens of the Baby Taj at the top
with the rear gate over the Yamuna River and the city of Agra beyond on the bottom.
There were several macaque monkeys in the gardens.

Both the exterior and the interior of Baby Taj are more ornately
decorated than the Taj Mahal.

Some of the interior artwork in the Baby Taj

Sadly, some of the beautiful decorations had been defaced by vandals over the years.
(Top right photo)

The tombs of Mirza Ghiyas Beg and Asmat Begum 

Kachpura - a Mughal Heritage Village

We continued on to a "Mughal Heritage Village," the small town of Kachpura, a village that has existed here for hundreds of years right across the river from the Taj Mahal. The village is part of a community-based tourism initiative that was started to help the villagers make an income from tourism and improve their living conditions.  Just outside of the village, we passed by a large field filled with men and boys playing cricket.  This sport is one of the legacies of the British colonial rule of India, but this is one legacy the people embraced. Cricket is very popular all over the country.

Cricket field outside of Kachpura Village

A young man from the village served as our guide as we walked through the streets. He told me about the contributions of the US Aid program, providing education, funds for toilets for every family, various youth programs, and women's groups that are giving girls in the village the chance to learn practical skills. 

My guide was very proud to say that he had accompanied Jill Biden
on her visit to this village a few years ago.

One of the village projects is making shoes, and my guide
introduced me to these young women who were weaving sandals.

The village appeared very poor, so I was glad to learn of the assistance they get in return for sharing their lives with visitors.  But they are proud of their long heritage.  Within the village stands the oldest monument in Agra, Humayun's Mosque. Humayan was a Mughal emperor of the 1500s, so these great walls have stood here for centuries, although the building is now just a shell of the original mosque.

The streets of Kachpura

The ruins of Humayan's Mosque.

The adults of the village are used to visitors and didn't pay much attention to us as they went about their daily lives, but when I greeted them with "Namaste," they would smile and respond. And the children were hilarious and fun. They would run up and wave with enthusiastic "Hi!" When I asked one group of little boys if I could take a photo, they ran into a group and began to dance and jump and laugh, acting completely wild and goofy. Kids are the same everywhere!

The friendly children of Kachpura Village

We also enjoyed the animals...herds of goats walking through the village, cows, and water buffaloes with the most interesting short horns curled into loops.

A water buffalo with the cutest curly horns I've ever seen.

Some of the animals of Kachpura -
cows, water buffaloes, and goats roaming the streets.

The final treat of the village visit was a climb onto a rooftop for a view of the Taj Mahal in the distance, a cup of chai, and some time with a young woman who painted my hand with elaborate swirls of henna. This was an unforgettable visit!

A rooftop visit with the Taj Mahal in the distance, a rooftop kitchen,
and a henna artist.  

Agra Fort

We returned to the Oberoi for a light lunch, then PJ picked us up again for the last visit of the day, the enormous Agra Fort. This UNESCO World Heritage Site was built by Emperor Akbar in 1573 and was the home of the Mughal rulers until 1638.

Rob and I stood open-jawed upon our first look at the immense walls. We walked through the gates of the outer wall, then the gates of the even larger inner wall, then up a long ramp to the interior courtyards where the palaces stood. It would have been nearly impossible for any invaders to get past these massive barriers - or the crocodile-infested moat that also surrounded the fort at one time!

The massive outer walls of Agra Fort

The inner walls of Agra Fort

The passageway to the buildings and palaces within the Agra Fort

There were more "oohs" and "aahs" inside the fort as we walked from palace to palace, past the chambers that had served as the homes of the hundreds of concubines of the Mughal rulers, and finally to the rooms where poor Shah Jahan had gazed at the Taj Mahal in the distance, mourning his lost love. 

Jahangiri Mahal was the principal palace for the royal women of the Mughal courts.

Khas Mahal was built by Shah Jahan for his two favorite daughters,
Jahanara and Rohanara. 
The garden in front is meant to resemble an Indian carpet.

The buildings surrounding the courtyard in front of the Khas Mahal
were the residences of the many concubines of the Mughal rulers.

The beautiful stonework in the Agra Fort palaces

Diwan -i-Am  -  The Hall of Public Audience

The prison rooms from which Shah Jahan could gaze at the Taj Mahal.

And one last view of Taj Mahal from the Agra Fort

Today was a day filled with the beautiful buildings of the past and a glimpse at the real life of villagers in the present. And when we returned to the Oberoi, we found this waiting for us.

What a lovely ending to another very special day!


1 comment:

tlryder said...