Day Trip to the Taj Mahal
Blackthorn March 6, 2010
My buddy and I decided that our India trip would not be complete without our having seen the Taj Mahal, so we set up a tour through the front desk at the hotel where we were staying in Delhi. The day began long before sunrise when our driver picked us up in the hotel lobby. He said his car needed gas before setting out, so we pulled in to a filling station nearby. There were no other cars there besides ours. A man was walking back and forth next to the cashier’s cage with a single shot 12 gauge shotgun slung on his shoulder like a rifle. I was intrigued and as our guide began filling the tank, I asked him in a low voice if he thought the shotgun guard would be upset if I took his picture. Without looking up, he slowly nodded, then in a whisper said, “Yes.” My question clearly scared him, so I took the hint and left the camera in its bag.
The roads were deserted at that hour of the night. Soon we were out of the city and onto a divided country road. In the distance I saw headlights coming toward us on our side of the road. The closer they got, the more nervous I got. Finally a truck passed by us, driving on the shoulder of the road. Our driver never batted an eye. Adventure travel….
As the sun began to lighten the sky we passed by several camels pulling flatbed wagons on the shoulder of the road. I made a comment to my partner about what an odd sight it was, and our driver asked us if we wanted to stop and get some pictures. He obviously knew how to earn a good tip, pulling the car over and backing up to the caravan.
Our man didn’t speak their language, so he knew nothing of who the camel drivers were or where they were going. Since they were wearing turbans, it was a good bet they were Sikhs, which make up 3 % of India’s population. Evidently they were used to tourists like us stopping for pictures because they posed for me, then stuck their hands out for money. I put a few bills into their hands and we were all happy. I surmised that they were beginning their day’s work because they were traveling empty, on their way to pick up their loads for the day. This is the kind of thing I love about traveling. Sometimes you’re on the way to a legendary place like the Taj, and unexpectedly you run across colorful local people living a lifestyle you won’t see anywhere else in the world.
As soon as I took the above picture, I used my ten power zoom to get in close for a photo of the drivers and caught them in this glance as if they’re saying “What kind of idiot thinks this is interesting?” There was only a split second to get the pic, so I snapped it without looking at any detail. My wife still gives me grief because I cut off the top of the camel’s head, but hey…they weren’t posing. I was fortunate to get this shot below left.
About two hours into our four hour journey we passed an enormous Hindu temple where a festival would soon begin. Our driver told us that a quarter million worshippers were gathering here. We stopped for pictures and it wasn’t hard for me to believe that he was right about 250,000 people being here. My buddy snapped a picture of me with the temple in the background.
Nearing Agra, where the Taj Mahal is located, we went through a suburb called Sikandra. Our driver made a cell phone call, then a few minutes later pulled over and picked up a young Indian man who was introduced as our guide for the day. From there we soon turned into the parking area of a place known as the Tomb of Akbar the Great. We hadn’t reckoned on this addition to the tour and were a bit irritated at first, but as the day wore on we realized we were simply getting a lot more for our money. The Taj Mahal only takes a couple of hours to see, and our driver-guide team was giving us a full day of sightseeing.
Akbar the Great was a Mughal emperor who lived from 1542 to 1605. The Mughal Empire ruled the Indian subcontinent from 1526 until the mid nineteenth century. Akbar built most of his own tomb, picking the site and designing the architecture himself. He died before it was finished so his son, Jahangir, continued working on it, finishing it in the year 1613.
Behind me (as I played the whistle in yet another exotic location) was the entrance to the grounds that surrounded the tomb.
The grounds are situated on a beautifully landscaped 119 acres inhabited by monkeys and blackbuck antelope.
This is the building that houses the Tomb of Akbar. In the foreground you can see what had been a reflection pond in more prosperous times.
We entered the building, walking down a hallway….
…to see where Akbar is buried.
It was a bit of a letdown, but it didn’t cost us anything extra and was a piece of history we’d not heard of before that day.
Back in the car, we headed for the Taj Mahal. Our driver dropped us off in a parking area surrounded by large trees, then drove away. He would earn part of his money by guarding the backpacks that we left in the car, and for standing by to pick us up afterward. Our guide got the tickets and we entered the grounds. I was confused at first because after we passed through a security checkpoint, this was the building we saw, definitely not the Taj Mahal I had expected.
But in looking through the doorway of that building, we could see a hint of brilliant white marble in the distance. Proceeding on through, a magnificent sight greeted us.
The Taj Mahal was built in the 17th century by a Mughal emperor named Shah Jahan (Shah Jahan means “King of the World”…clearly no one consulted James Cameron before installing that title on the Indian emperor). Shah Jahan was beside himself with grief when his third wife, Mumtaz Mahal, died giving birth to their fourteenth child. He decided to build her a gigantic mausoleum, the Taj Mahal. Building began in 1632 and was completed in 1648. The surrounding buildings and gardens took five years longer. The structure is built of white marble inlaid with yellow marble, jasper and jade, polished and leveled to the surface of the walls. One can run their fingers over the surface and never feel the seam where the marble leaves off and the precious stones begin.
Our guide told us that 22,000 craftsmen worked on the project and when it was done Shah Jahan had the thumbs cut off each man so he could never again build anything to compare to the Taj Mahal.
The best place for pictures is this reflecting pool. I’ve been to more exotic places, and places that amazed me more than this, but I’ve seen nothing that compares with the grandeur of the Taj.
This was obviously before I discovered fedoras. I’m the one in the baseball cap.
Seeing the Taj from a distance is deceptive. Its true size only becomes apparent when you get close enough to see the people walking on the main deck.
The closer you get, the more majestic it becomes.
As you get near the Taj, this enormous mosque is on the left.
Two kilometers from the Taj is Agra Fort. The Fort was probably built in the 11th century as a small brick building. As different rulers came to power over the centuries, Agra Fort gained importance and became a secondary capital of India. It was expanded upon over the years and eventually included several palaces and a mosque. Akbar the Great arrived here in 1558 and decided to make it his capital. The Fort was in a dilapidated condition at the time and he had it rebuilt with red sandstone. Legend has it that more than a million builders worked on the fort, but we do know it was built between 1565 and 1573. Its massive walls would have discouraged any invader.
Agra Fort comes into the Taj Mahal story in a rather interesting way. Shah Jahan had many children, but one outshone the others in military skill and ambition, a son named Aurangzeb. He killed two of his brothers and overthrew his father, imprisoning him in Agra Fort for the last eight years of his life. Shah Jahan died there in 1657. Lest we feel too sorry for the Shah, it should be remembered that he killed one brother and two nephews in his own climb to power. And lest we mourn too deeply for him, he nonetheless lived in luxury those last eight years, including this view every day of those years, [Pictured Right.]
As we headed home, this motorcycle passed us. Initially I was only trying to get a picture of the riders because one of the women was holding a baby on the far side, away from the camera, thus making a total of four people on this bike. I was disappointed that I couldn’t see the baby from this camera angle, but when I saw that I had captured the setting sun in the background, I realized it made a fitting final picture for this adventure.
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