When planning our trip to India, the Taj Mahal was not originally on our agenda. We wanted to spend time visiting friends in Chennai, so I figured we would stay in Southern India. Many people commented, however, how incredible it was to see the Taj, and they highly recommended we visit it while we were in India. Even the boys, who aren’t usually that interested in buildings and tourist sights, said they were really keen to go there. So, it was added to our itinerary. Don’t get me wrong. It’s not that I didn’t want to visit – but it meant adding another destination, therefore more money, and moving again, and I wondered if a building could really be “worth it”.
Traveling to Agra from Delhi takes about 3 hours and we decided to visit in one day (rather than stay over there), so it meant getting up early. We asked for “toast to go” for breakfast from our hotel and climbed into our van before the sun was up, at 6:30 a.m. Connor, our “morning man” was bright-eyed and bushy tailed, as usual, but Caleb was not impressed with the early morning start. We don’t generally speak to him in the morning for about an hour, as it takes him that long to fully come to life. He sat, leaning against me in the back of the van, with his toast perched on his lap, for the first hour of the journey!
Any Antony, Krishna, or Vivek can take you to Agra. In fact the man with his little travel desk, in the front corner of our hotel, had offered to take us there when we first arrived in Delhi. I had decided, however, to spend a little bit extra and to go with the same company that took us on the slum tour: Reality Tours. They included a stop at a small village, a local lunch – that we would help to prepare, as well as a visit to Agra Fort, along with the Taj Mahal.
After driving for about 2 ½ hours, along surprisingly good (and straight) highways, we pulled off the main road and into a very small village. We hopped out of the van and walked along the one dirt pathway that made its way between the village homes and fields.
The villagers did not have regular electricity in this village – sometimes it would be on for 2-3 hours a day. So the homes did not depend on it. Instead they cooked over small fires inside the homes. The fuel source was cow patties – cow dung that they shaped into patties and stored in piles.
They would use this along with a few sticks or grass to serve as kindling. They also had to bring their water from the village pump – which the boys were keen to try.
The people were very friendly and invited us to sit and have tea. They brought what looked like a bed frame (made with rope and sticks) out of the house for several villagers to sit on and provided us each with a plastic chair. Then they brought us each a tin cup with a small bit of Chai Milk Tea (typical Indian tea) in the bottom. They seemed very amused by the boys and with the help of our guide one of them asked Connor if he was hungry. Connor surprised us by replying that he actually was a little!
After about 10 minutes of sitting and trying to communicate in our non-existent Hindi, one of the women (who was covered from head to toe – even her face was covered with a cloth) brought out a basket with some naan-type bread and a bowl of potato sauce.
Everyone gathered around to watch the boys eat it! Our guide showed Caleb and Connor how to break off a piece of bread, fold it, and use it as a scoop to scoop up the sauce.
Connor took a nice big scoop………….and then his face started to form these strange contortions! He gasped, “Water! Water!” I handed him our thermos of water, which he began to glug back. The villagers started to laugh! They found this most amusing!
One of them signaled for us to come into the house to see how the bread is made. We slipped off our shoes and walked in to see the small fire in the corner. Everything was covered in flies and the smoke from the fire filled the very small room, but the people were just so kind to share it with us.
After visiting with the cows and taking some pictures of the little children, we were on our way again.
We drove through Agra and pulled right up in front of the walkway leading to the Taj Mahal. We were, of course, welcomed by many touts, all claiming they had “best price” for us. As we walked down the road way, the camel carts rode past us, carrying some of the tourists who had opted to enter in a different manner.
Entering the Taj Mahal, as with most places in India, required you to go through a security check. Women must go through a separate entrance from the men, so I went on ahead through the short women’s line and met the boys on the other side. Clay got stopped because he was carrying a flashlight and a 4 inch mini tripod for the camera, neither of which were allowed. Our guide had to return these to the van.
We were all keen to see this impressive building. Our guide had explained the history and background to us in the van on our way there, so we felt we knew a little bit about it. The entry to the building contained a number of tourists but was not nearly as busy as we thought it would be.
We walked in through the main entrance, under the archway, and could see the Taj Mahal ahead of us.
It really is quite spectacular but I think what makes it even more interesting is the story that goes along with it. To think that all of that money and time was spent for Shah Jaha (emperor during the Mughal empire’s period of greatest prosperity) to create a “perfect” building for the body of Mumtaz Mahal, his favorite of three wives and beloved companion who died during the birth of their 14th child.
We were so interested in the story behind the building that our guide sat us down under a tree and spent a half hour or so explaining the history to us. After that we put on our little shoe covers and joined the line that flowed through the front of the building, around the tomb, and out the other side. When you get up close you can see how precious gems were painstakingly carved into the marble to form the symmetrical designs on the building. The designs inside are even more stunning. And of course one of the “guards” pulled us aside and with his flashlight showed us how the colourful red stones glow, when the light is shone on them. (Then he held out his hand for money!)
So, am I glad we went to the Taj Mahal? Absolutely! But I would still argue that it is the experiences (not just buildings) we have had and the people we have met, that are the most valuable part of our travels. It was thanks to learning the story about the Taj and meeting the people of Agra, that made this yet another incredible part of our journey.
After visiting the Taj Mahal, we set out for lunch at a wonderful homestay. The woman there showed us how to make a vegetarian meal and we each had the chance to roll out our own puri (Indian bread).
To finish off our trip, we visited a marble shop, where they showed us how the gem stones are cut and shaped, and then carved into the marble, in the same way it was done in the Taj Mahal. This was followed by the typical sales pitch and an offer to mail us a giant 3000 lb marble table, to which we politely declined!
The final stop was at the Agra Fort. This is considered one of the finest Mughal forts in India. Construction of the massive red-sandstone fort, on the bank of the Yamuna River, was begun by Emperor Akbar in 1565. Further additions were made, particularly by his grandson Shah Jahan (the builder of the Taj Mahal), using his favourite building material – white marble. The fort was built primarily as a military structure, but Shah Jahan transformed it into a palace, and later it became his gilded prison for eight years after his son Aurangzeb seized power in 1658.
It was a long day and one filled with an incredible amount of history. We were all very happy to sleep in the next day and spend time processing everything we had learned.