Tuesday, January 10, 2012

The greatest dead

I confess, I find it slightly disturbing that India's trademark monument is a tomb. For one, the whole concept of a dead body being your most recognized landmark is unappetizing and for another, it looks like an opulent palace which is bound to be under-appreciated by those no longer inclined to tea parties.

It is the city of Agra that boasts the Taj Mahal, a day trip from Delhi by train. In theory, it should have taken us just three hours to reach our destination, but this timetable was designed without allowances for the Delhi fog. I was all for blaming this unexpected twilighting of the city on pollution (the auto rickshaws may run on natural gas but those road-walking goats just looked guilty) but it turns out it is a genuine weather phenomenon that attacks Delhi's winter. The net result was we departed Delhi at 7 am but did not arrive in Agra until 1 pm.

While rather long, the train ride itself was captivating. We travelled by slum dwellings that looked like whole villages with winding streets, monkeys sitting on walls by wheat fields drenched in mist and once a large pig on a station platform.

We rode in a second class carriage, seated in what was called a 'sleeper coach' with three people sitting on each long bench seat. There was no air conditioning, but about a gazzilion fans hung from the ceiling to ease the hot air in the warmer months. Up and down the carriages, venders walked with tea, cold drinks and crisps. Oddly, a woman also came by and demanded money. I ignored her since THIS DID NOT MAKE SENSE but she shook my friend awake who gave her some change.

"I don't understand," I said. "Why did you have to give her money?"

"It's what she does," was my reply.

I have to say this was a rather unsatisfactory answer.

The train network in India was first laid down by the British but has been maintained and extended by the Indian government to become the forth largest rail network in the world. Longer distance trains are designed for more comfort than the carriages for our relatively short journey, and are one of the best ways to get around the country.

When we arrived in Agra, we hired a taxi for the day at a flat rate; a good move since the major sites are surprisingly far from the station. Despite its size, the Taj Mahal is amazingly well hidden from the surrounding streets so that the first glimpse I caught of its large marble macaroon domes was after I'd passed through the site's main gates.

We took a camel up the long driveway because.... well, because we could.

The Taj Mahal was build by the 5th Mughal Emperor, Shah Jahan, to be the mausoleum for this beloved third wife, Mumtaz Mahal, who died during the birth of their 14th child. Its construction began in 1632 and was completed around 1653. Shah Jahan dictated that a huge brick scaffold would be used for the building work, whose design mirrored that of the tomb itself. This led to concerns regarding the time it would take to dissemble, but legend has it that the Emperor decreed that anyone who took a brick could keep it and the structure disappeared over night.

Rumors also persist that Shah Jahan intended to build a second mausoleum for himself, a mirror of the Taj Mahal built out of black marble. Regardless of whether this was truly his intent, he was overthrown by his son and spent his last years in the Red Fort in Agra, gazing out over his wife's tomb where he himself would also be buried.

Despite the fact it is a tomb, the Taj Mahal lives up to its name as India's most impressive landmark. Entering through the main gate, you are confronted with the classic view of the Taj in front of you, reflected in the long stretch of water that runs to its plinth. Closer up, it does not disappoint as it is an experience to walk on a structure made of nothing but spotless white marble.

To stand on the plinth and enter the tomb itself, you must either remove your shoes or cover them in elasticated cloth wraps. Notably, Indians visiting the site seemed to opt for the former while tourists the latter, although this might just have been a product of the shoe coverings being included in the more expensive tourist ticket. I was also given a bottle of water which possibly reflects the number of foreigners who collapse with dehydration in the grounds during the summer season.

Due to our late arrival, we were not able to see Agra's Red Fort before it closed for the evening but instead went for dinner and then took the train home. More delays meant that our train did not depart Agra until after 10 pm but then mercifully, took the predicted three hours to reach Delhi.

This was merciful because I was about to freeze.

In India.

Having lived in Northern Japan and Canada, that would have been plain embarrassing.

The problem was that the carriages weren't sealed, so the cold night air rattled through ill fitting windows in an icy draft. This direction, the train was much quieter so we were able to use the 'sleeper carriage' as had been the intention for quieter routes; with each person taking one long seat to lie on. The temperature was such, however, that long before we reached Delhi I wished we were more packed. Perhaps it was nights like this that caused people to design tombs.

This feeling of peril was intensified by a guard with a rifle asking my friend how she knew me. Apparently, he was just curious.

Finally we were at Delhi. My friend was bobbed on the head with a rifle to wake her and I tumbled onto the platform before the same fate awaited me. Slightly nerve wrecking, but ultimately worth it to see the most scenic of India's dead.

[Photo: left is... do I really need to specify? Right top is the view of the Taj Mahal's mosque while standing on the plinth of the Taj and bottom is the inside of our train.]


  1. When I was in 5th grade I learned about the Taj Mahal in Geography class. I became fascinated by it and it's symbol of his love for her. It's a place I've always dreamed of visiting, next to Egypt and the Pyramids/Sphinx. Maybe someday. Glad you got to see it and posted about it. Thanks!

  2. It was really worth the trip! An incredible place.

    I too, would really like to visit Egypt and see the pyramids. Ironically, I've always been concerned about food poisoning in Egypt but, since I was basically fine in India, maybe I shouldn't worry anymore!