Thursday, June 30, 2005

One day in India, 1998

15/9/98 AGRA Hotel Safari
We were up at 5 and on the road to the Taj Mahal at 6. We walked for half an hour through a sort of military reserve area and then through Taj Ganj to the Taj gates.
We were stalked by a few trishaws. Bree and PJ were taunting them in various ways. I thought up a new one: I just stood behind the trishaw while the driver was trying to talk to me. They are in a little enclosed shell. As he spun it around looking for me, I just jogged after him, staying right on his bumper so he couldn't see me. I ended up chasing him down the street as he fled.
It was overcast, so rather than pay 100R extra to get in for sunrise, we backtracked and had breakfast at Joney's, nice cheese parathas and great masala chai (spiced milk tea). Colourful, plastic Pepsi décor, with black velvet paintings of English cottages.
Back at the Taj a few guides approached us. We engaged a Mr. Hashmal, who cost us 250R between three. It only costs 15R to get in to the Taj Mahal, about 60 cents.
Inside the entry gate we walked 100m to a central square filled with Indian tourists, many in large groups. Mr Hashmal showed us where to stand to take all the classic photos. On our right as we came in was a huge gate, and through it was a tantalising glimpse of white. We took turns to occupy The Spot, as people in front of us obligingly ducked and people behind us grumbled good-naturedly.
We were searched on our way through the gate. PJ was carrying a carton of cigarettes for bartering, and they were seized. We waited for her, so we would all see the Taj together.
My first sight was a magical moment. It is very, very, very beautiful. We entered a large open garden from the right, with red sandstone colonnades on three sides. The Taj sat at the far end, with the Yamuna River behind it. On the left and right facing one another were two ornate identical buildings, the mosque and the guesthouse.
Mr Hashmal led us to the next Photo Spot for the famous symmetrical shot. Bree had with her a tray with cotton-wool kittens under glass, given to her as some sort of punishment by her work colleagues, and I had my Richmond Tigers sponge bag. We took a few silly photos featuring them. Indians are very fond of trick photos where people are leaning on/eating/wearing on their heads the Taj.
Most people know the story that Shah Jahan built the tomb for his beautiful wife who died. He planned to build an identical black one across the river, but his son Aurangzeb deposed him and locked him in a tower, with a tiny window to look out on the Taj.
Everywhere were crowds of Indians from all over the country. There was a large group of Communist convention delegates wearing green scarves. A group of women called Bree over to be in their photo, and she dwarfed them. A group of teenage boys asked us to be in their photos too - the girls especially seem to be a huge novelty. We got a few shots of the lads with the kittens and the sponge bag.
I met and talked to a couple with a little 2 or 3 year old boy. He was very shy and they scolded him for it. They kept picking him up and placing him back in front of me. I played pat-a-cake with him for a while. It was lovely and cool, sitting in the shade on the damp marble. It was their fourth or fifth trip to the Taj, I think they were from Ahmedabad.
We took our shoes off to go up the marble steps to the tomb. There is a large terrace around the main building, with a slightly sloping tower at each end. In case of earthquake or bombardment, the towers were supposed to fall away from the Taj. There was a welcome cool breeze up on the terrace - below in the garden it was quite hot and muggy. The foundation of the planned Black Taj can be seen on the opposite riverbank, and the red Agra Fort looms among the newer city buildings.
Up close to the walls you can see the pietra dura, inlay of semi-precious stones. The different colours came from all over the world; black marble from Belgium, red garnet from Zimbabwe, and jade from China, blue lapis from Afghanistan and yellow something from somewhere else. There are four-sided half-columns that have an Islamic chevron design that makes them look eight-sided.
The whole thing is so wonderfully designed, by Persian and Turkish architects. It is quite small inside. Mr Hashmal ruthlessly shoved Indians aside to let us see the wonders close up. There are natural draughts created by geometric pierced marble screens placed to catch the prevailing winds. The tomb, the doors and the gate in the distance line up perfectly. The glimpse of the outside world through the gate makes the profane world outside seem like another beautiful aspect of the Taj itself - I was quite affected by it. I found a quiet corner of the garden after we thanked and paid Mr Hashmal, and just enjoyed being where I was.
On our way out we saw a lawn being 'mowed' - a line of women and girls on their haunches with hand scythes, inching their way across the grass in the hot sun, and carrying the cut grass in their skirts.
Outside was an amazing ruck of trishaw touts and souvenir sellers. Everyone asks where you are from, where you're staying, what you're paying and where you are going next. One kid wanted to sell me tickets to Jaipur. I said I already had tickets, and why would I buy them from a total stranger like him? He said 'You spend some time with me, I buy you chai, you buy me chai, then we'll be friends and you buy ticket from me'. There were bright plastic cameras for sale that looked too cute to be real.
We engaged three pushbike rickshaws to take us back to the hotel. We wanted to have a race, and the drivers obligingly overtook one another so we could all take photos of each other. My driver calls the squirrels 'gillies'.
A friend of Bree's had raved about a site outside Agra called Fatehpur Sikri, an abandoned city. We found a taxi driver who agreed to take us for 350 R, guaranteed no shopping stops. Taxi and trishaw drivers seem to make a high proportion of their income from commissions. Merchants pay them to bring passengers to them, whether the passenger wants to or not, and it can be a major pain in the neck.
The taxi was comfy, and the driver was a really nice guy with nine fingers. We saw a lot of small thatched huts in the fields. We were shocked to see captive himalayan bears dancing under coercion by the road. We took a short cut that is also used by big trucks. The road had very soft edges and the trucks were heeling over at alarming angles. I shot some very jumpy super 8.
The taxi broke down in the middle of nowhere. Nine Fingers flagged down a covered jeep, and he and we got a lift to Fatehpur Sikri. He roused a few passengers out to make room for us - some were hanging on the outside and some were left standing on the road waiting for another hitch, while we looked out the back guiltily. Soon the jeep was flying along, overtaking and veering around bears. It was not at all scary since we were oblivious of each oncoming vehicle until we had already survived it.
We tumbled out at the village of Sikri. Nine Fingers pointed the way to the site. He didn't speak much English, but I think we agreed to meet in two hours. Two boys were labouring up the hill with a big market barrow called an 'Indian trolley'. PJ and I thought they were slacking, so we showed them how to do it, sprinting to the top with it and leaving them and Bree behind.
Fatehpur Sikri was really impressive at first sight. Guides came out of the woodwork and the girls engaged one while I was staring open-mouthed at the huge steep flight of steps that led up to the main gate. [Banana lassi has just arrived.] He asked where we were from in Australia. When Bree said Sydney, he said 'SCG - very good for Allan Border'.
We foolishly went off and wasted one hour on a fairly nasty lunch in a flyblown dhaba (truckstop). I had a mughlai paratha, thinking that for 40R it must be delicious (they are normally 12R - 20R. It was just a big fried crispy mess with no filling, very bad value. Yuk.
Fatehpur was a city built to commemorate a Mogul war victory. Sikri was a town of Rajput warriors on a hill. Our guide Ataullha had a great gesture to say 'fighting' - clenched fists pulling apart and banging together. 'Fateh' means victory. Another story says that the king Akbar came here to ask the local saint Chishti for a son. When a son was duly born, he built a city here in thanks and installed Chishti in a beautiful mosque. It was all abandoned after only sixty years. Ataullha says Chishti told Akbar that a holy man and a fighting man (the gesture here) could not live together, so the king would have to get out of town. Our guidebook says the water supply was unreliable. Whatever.
We wandered around the outside, the walls of beautiful red local stone. This is where the stone for the Red Fort in Delhi was quarried. There were a lot of smaller less important buildings going back to the jungle, their walls crumbling and the stone blocks disappearing for houses and cow pens in the villages around.
Then we entered through a side gate and found ourselves in an enormous open square. I had to wear a little sarong arrangement to cover my knees, as we would be going into a mosque. I was in a bad mood because my camera had mis-loaded so I was out of film. Ataullha said 'I am unhappy because I don't think you are happy today'. We saw the saint's tomb, which was opposite the main gate. We stepped over many tombstones of other holy men. Ataullha led us into the mosque, where prayers were just finishing. The crowd were all men and boys. As they filed out a couple of the boys practiced their bowling actions. I did one too and they grinned. One man had blue eyes - very odd.
The view from the main gate was (again) breathtaking. This hill dominated a vast flat plain, you could see for miles. I was soaking it up as much as I could, on account of having no camera, while a youth tried to sell me a sandalwood chess set. He understood and spoke English quite well, so when I said it was the ugliest chess set I'd ever seen and if he didn't beat it I'd push him down that flight of steps I mentioned earlier, he got the message.
Ataullha took us out behind the mosque through the modern village built literally against the wall of the old city. He was after a commission by taking us to a souvenir shop, but we were running late so we just marched back out again. The blue eyed man was running the shop. On the way we saw the grave of a prince, with a tiny grave next to it of his beloved parrot. An old man in the village had a grey beard fringed with red henna. Mr Hashmal had told us that henna in the hair kept the head cool, but it seemed to be largely a cosmetic thing.
Nine Fingers and his brother were waiting for us at the bottom of the steps, in a different and very flash taxi. On the way back we stopped to buy some old bike inner tubes, which became a towrope when we got to the stricken taxi.
Unfortunately, a bear-man was there. I tried to ignore him, but we had to have the windows down or we would have suffocated. It wasn't just the bear, the guy was a maddening bastard, so I had a go at him, and if he'd had somewhere handy to tether the bear I think we would have ended up toe to toe. I was having a surly day.
We finally got going, then stopped after nightfall in a no-tourists part of Agra to drop off the first car. On the way into town there was a broken down trishaw blocking a narrow market street. We somehow squeezed both taxis through.
What I saw today from the car; tin trunk shops, boys sliding down an upturned cart, a play fight, a real fight, loads of goats, some pigs, a moped graveyard, people squatting and talking right in the middle of fields, a beautiful house painted blue and green, walls painted pepsi pepsi pepsi pepsi pepsi, a female soldier, a huge railyard, a stationary train out in the country, lots of stuff.
Lots of small shops; goods are piled in front, then the shallow shop, then a long yard behind. Water is everywhere and people shitting in it. Barbers, electrical repair shops, lots of STD/ISD phone shops, baby clothes. The barbers have a picture of sixteen standard haircuts on the wall to choose from.
I am drinking plenty of chai as advised by Arian. Joney's masala chai is my favourite so far. I have spent 20R on clothes-washing soap, 150R on Relaxo thongs that don't fit, a little on drinks and food, and the rest through the kitty on meals, travel and accommodation. I have 800 rupees left from the $US50 I changed at the airport.
Geckos on the walls, squirrels on the ground.

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