Thursday, April 5, 2012

The Incredible Taj Mahal

We were up bright and early to take a bus to the train station for our trip to Agra to see the Taj Mahal. What an experience!

First, the bus went to the wrong train station. Then once we reached the right station, our tour guide took us in the wrong direction. So we walked all the way to the end of the station before doing a quick turnaround and jogging in the opposite direction. As Barb said later, it was like the survival of the fittest with the weakest getting left behind. She was doing her best to keep up and I was trying to keep our guide in sight ahead, and Barb and Ed in sight behind. Finally, I gave in to the “every man for himself” attitude and focused on getting onto the train. We all made it, arriving sweaty and shaky! With all that excitement, I didn't take a single photo.

One memory that sticks in my was still dark and there were people sleeping everywhere on the ground outside the train station. We were scurrying amongst them as we ran to our platform with our suitcases and bags barely clearing their sleeping heads. One little girl was sitting on a piece of cardboard, watching us, and she caught my eye and gave me the biggest smile that just lit up her face. It broke my heart...I won't ever forget that face and that smile.

The train ride was uneventful and pleasant. India Railways is the biggest single employer in the world and is run by the government.

We arrived in Agra and boarded our buses to drive part way to the Taj Mahal. Gas vehicles are not allowed near the Taj, so we then had to get into battery powered vans to go the rest of the way. Here are some of the vans used, along with horses and carriages.

It’s Taj everything!

This is one of the four gates, the Great gate, used to enter the Taj Mahal.

This was our first view of the Taj Mahal...magnificent!

The name Taj Mahal comes from two words: Taj meaning crown and Mahal meaning palace. It was built by Mughal emperor Shah Jahan in memory of his third wife, Mumtaz Mahal.

When she was about to deliver her 14th child at age 39, Mumtaz realized that she would die. She asked her husband to promise her three things: 1) to build the most beautiful mausoleum in the world for her body; 2) to never marry again in his earthly life; and 3) to bring up his children as a father and not an emperor. Shah Jahan kept those promises. Unfortunately, his third son wanted to be emperor so badly that he killed his two older brothers, and imprisoned his father in the Agra Fort. Shah Jahan died at age 76, still imprisoned and looking at the Taj Mahal which was close by. 

Here I am...

We asked about the two lines, and were told that foreign visitors pay more than Indian tourists, and so are given preference in entering.

Construction began in 1632. It took 22,000 workers, 22 years working 24/7 to complete this Wonder of the World. The minarets on the four sides are not straight, but tilted outwards at a 2 degree angle. In the event of an earthquake, they wanted to be sure that the minarets would fall outwards, and not in, saving the Taj from damage.

The white marble changes colour depending on how the sun hits it. It can be brilliant white, ivory or it can take on a yellowish hue.

The intricate work that looks like tile, contains jewels that have been laid into the marble. As our guide explained, “they aren’t valuable jewels, but are jewels nonetheless.”

You have to take your shoes off before you walk up the stairs to the Taj. They are doing all they can to preserve its white beauty.

Looking back at the gate through which we entered. The gates have 22 small domes on the top, one for each year that it took to complete the Taj.

Everything with the Taj is done in perfect symmetry. They built a mosque on the west side, and then had to build an exact replica on the other for balance. This is the second building which was used as a guest house.

The mosque…

You can go inside the Taj Mahal, where there are two tombs, one for Mumtaz Mahal and one for Shah Jahan (no photos allowed). Another view…I wanted to be sure I took a picture from every angle!

This was so interesting. We had noticed that Indian people (men, women and children) stare at us as if they haven’t seen Caucasians before. I noticed these ladies staring at me, and soon they all gathered around so their husband/son could take a picture. I gave him my camera as well. I asked Ash, our guide, about this after and he said “You’re tall and blond…maybe it’s your hat.” That cracked me up!

Even doggies visit the Taj…

It was getting more crowded now and I think I had taken all the pictures I could. They really don’t do it justice.

A group photo and then we were off. Bus #2 people...

We were hoping to have a minute to shop at the stalls. We wanted a few postcards, but shopping wasn’t in the plan. We did finally get some from one of the vendors, who surrounded the bus every time it stopped. For those who received a Taj Mahal postcard, they looked like they were made in the 1960s. They probably were!

We checked into our hotel, the Jaypee Palace. It was very nice, but had an odd dank smell. It might have just been my room, which was on the lower level overlooking the garden.

Security was tight at every hotel. Our purses and bags were scanned, and then we would walk through a scanner much like being in an airport. It was strange to see a sign like this.

The grounds were beautiful.

We went for lunch. Barb was hamming it up and going for a pony ride...and this is the last happy picture I have of Barb for several days. She, and several other guests, got very sick that evening.

After a rest, it was back on the buses to visit the Agra Fort. I briefly thought about not going. A fort didn’t sound that exciting, and I was pretty tired having been up since 3:30. But I didn't want to miss anything, and headed out into the heat. It must have been at least 37 or 38 degrees.

We arrived at the fort.

There were lots of people and it was blazing hot.

I’m assuming this was originally a moat. The sewage smell and the heat were memorable.

And surprise of all surprises, the fort was actually a walled city with several palaces and mosques. It is a UNESCO World Heritage site located about 2.5 km from the Taj Mahal.

It was originally a brick fort dating back to 1080 AD. The Mughals captured the fort and its vast treasure, and then expanded the fort to include the many palaces. 

The Mughals were direct descendants of Gengis Khan. The Mughal empire began in 1526 and continued into the 18th century. They were the dominant power in the Indian subcontinent until the army was disbanded by the British in 1805.

This is the Hall of Public Audience, which was used to address the public and listen to petitioners.

Part of the Glass Palace which was built with extra thick walls to ensure the interior was cool. The beautiful gardens with their geometric designs produced the choicest grapes and flowers throughout the year.

Once again, jewels were inlaid in the marble. These were more precious, including blue aquamarine, rubies and some emeralds.

The palace was quite dark inside. As they didn’t have furniture and instead used cushions and rugs for seating, the windows began at the floor level.

Shah Jahan was imprisoned here by his son and died looking out at the Taj Mahal in the distance…

The courtyard for the harem of the Emperor...

Intricate work on the walls…

This is a distinctive Hindu style architecture.

This massive bathtub had stairs on the outside and inside, showing that it was mobile and could be transported outside of the palace. An inscription on it led to the belief it was made around 1610 AD.

And with that amazing visit, we headed back to our hotel. I’m not sure what was in these packages, but it was impressive how he balanced it.

Well, we thought we were heading back to the hotel. Instead we stopped at this store for shopping. Sigh…a typical ship's excursion stop—a rug store. It wasn't what most of us wanted, but with the lure of clean bathrooms and air conditioning, we headed in.

The presentation was actually very interesting and the AC was going strong, which we all appreciated.

Uh oh! Once you expressed an interest, you were doomed!! Two of the couples did buy small rugs. They were beautiful and the prices were quite reasonable.

That evening before dinner, we watched an Indian dance performance. It was very enjoyable for the first half hour…after that when it got to be 8:00 p.m., it was standing between us and our dinner! Unless you were at the front, you really couldn't see too much.

What a memorable day! We have another early start tomorrow with a wake-up call at 5:30 a.m. as we head back to New Delhi on a five hour bus ride.


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