On our early morning train ride from Delhi to Agra, we passed by dozens of small villages, or maybe they can't even be called a village. More like a group of lean-to ramshackle huts and rooms. Dirt and litter and filth everywhere I looked. And people out next to the train tracks, squatting. At first I thought they were just sitting out there watching us pass by. There were dozens upon dozens of them. Women, men, children, elderly.
But then I realized they weren't just squatting. Those areas by the tracks were their toilets. I didn't know whether to be depressed or grossed out or both. I truly did not expect to see that. Ever. Anywhere.
Train ride over and we were met by our driver from yesterday, Ranna, and our new guide, Shengha.
Our agenda today was a busy one. An hour's ride out to Fatehpur Sikri, an old palace founded by a Mughal emperor from the 16th century. Built of red sandstone, it was a beautiful place, quite serene.
Returning to Agra, we checked in to our beautiful hotel - the ITC Mugdahl. Such a stark contrast to the city just outside its walls. Every place here has security to get onto the property and then more security checks of our bags and bodies to reach the lobby. Sigh. The whole world seems to be on security lockdown. Sad doesn't even seem to be the right word for what I'm feeling.
We enjoyed a nice lunch at an Indian buffet across the road from our hotel. The food was good and we filled our bellies.
Fortified, our next stop was the Agra Fort. More like a fortified palace, this is where the Mughal emperors lived until 1638. It's also known as the Red Fort, for its red sandstone exterior. It's a very beautiful place. The architecture is known as Indo-Islamic. Everything is designed to be symmetrical. Lots of inlaid work and carvings in white marble. Carefully laid out gardens. It's an OCD person's delight.
The fort lies about 2.5 kilometers from its sister creation, the world famous Taj Mahal, which we visited twice - once at sunset from across the river. This allowed us a rear view. And then once the next morning at sunrise - through the main gates. The Taj has no lighting inside or out. And being symmetrical it looks essentially the same from front or back. A mosque was built to its left, so because of symmetry they built an identical building to its right and used it as a meeting or guest house.
I'm getting a little ahead of myself though.
So when we got to the Fort, there was quite a commotion going on. People were running from inside the gates outwards towards the street. The guards were yelling at people to stand away or go back to the street. There were bees flying everywhere! Apparently someone had broken a hive just inside the entry to the fort and we had a situation of pissed off bees!!
Our guide didn't want us to go in because we might get stung. But then people were saying that the bees were just around the entry point and about 900 yards in it was fine. So we all covered up as best we could and walked quickly but deliberately into the fort and past the problem. No one got stung. Yay!
This fort is more gorgeous than at Fatehpur Sikri. One of the emperors and his wife who lived here were the same couple for which the Taj Mahal is built. It is said that the emperor's wife liked to look down across the river from her rooms and see the gardens and fruit trees across the river. She told her husband it gave her great pleasure and when she died she wanted to be buried out there.
After the fort, we went on to the city of Agra where we picked up a new tour guide who would lead us on a several hour night tour. We first visited a dhobi ghat, an open air laundromat by the river. It was small and hard to see as the river was low and the men washing the laundry were far away on the other side.
It was getting near sunset so we headed out to the river bank by the Taj Mahal to see the sun set behind this great building.
When it was completely dark we went into the marketplace streets on a combo walking and rickshaw riding tour. We got to sample some local street foods including a stop to taste poori, a kind of air filled crepe deep fried quickly in hot oil. Served with some curries and other sauces, it was scrumptious! They also served us chai masala, the milk and spice hot tea. Best chai I've ever had.
Completely exhausted, we were taken back to the hotel and everyone collapsed and went to sleep. We had one more early morning call - to see the Taj Mahal at sunrise.
So now we get to the Taj Mahal story. This is a story of great love between Shah Jahan, the grandson of Akbar the Great, and Mumtaz Mahal. When he was a youngster, around 14 years old, Shah Jahan was out walking one day and spotted Mumtaz. He fell instantly in love and told his father he wanted to marry her. Five years later they wed, in 1612.
While he had other wives, she was his favorite, the only wife to bear him children. They went everywhere together. She even followed him into battle. In 1628 Shah Jahan became emperor after the death of his father. He was very popular and well liked and did great things for his people. In 1631, while Mumtaz was delivering her 14th child (only six survived), she had bleeding complications and died.
Grief stricken, Shah Jahan went into mourning for two years. When he came out of mourning he began to have a mausoleum built as a testament to his eternal love for Mumtaz. It was built on the very spot where she so loved to view and walk by the river.
It took 22 years and 22,000 people to complete the marble mausoleum that today is known as the Taj Mahal. It is one of the 7 wonders of the world. The words "Taj Mahal" mean "crown palace".
Sadly, in 1658, Shah Jahan's son imprisoned his father at Agra Fort until his death in 1666. For his last years he was only able to gaze out across the river from his balcony at his beautiful dedication to his beloved wife. His eldest daughter looked after him and it is said that he took his last breath sitting on that balcony looking out at the Taj Mahal. He was buried next to his beloved Mumtaz inside the Taj Mahal and they lie together even to this very day.
Sigh. Is that not the sweetest love story EVER???!
So that's the story.
We spent a couple of hours visiting the complex. There is very little inside-just a rotunda with marble crypts which are symbolic of the real ones, which are down below these replicas and not open to the public. The marble work and beautiful carvings cannot be conveyed properly in a photograph. A picture can't show the glistening of the jewels encrusted in the marble walls from the morning sun. A picture cannot evoke that eerie silence when you stand next to the crypts.
Our time at the Taj over, we went back to our hotel, had breakfast and then left for our 4 hour car ride to Delhi and the airport, where we would fly to Mumbai and rejoin the ship.
Our first class cabin