Agra, India – 13th March 2015
It was an early start for our first experience of the Indian Railway system. We were catching a train from Delhi to Agra, the city famous for one of the most spectacular monuments in the world, the Taj Mahal! I was hoping it lived up to the hype.
As we entered the train station there were a number of people sleeping on colourful, warm and snug blankets. They weren’t homeless, just those waiting for their particular train to arrive. I was hoping our train was on time today, as it’s common in India for trains to arrive way over due with little or no explanation to why.
We boarded the train on time in AC (air-con) chair class which was rather pleasant. While we declined our recently cleaned leather black seats we were treated to tea, omelette and almond biscuits by the train porters as part of the package. The environment inside carriage C was a million miles away from what I was observing out of my window as the train passed the outskirts of Delhi.
Looking out of the train window I could see hundreds and thousands of poorly constructed shanty houses, ‘the slums’ as they are better known as in the Western world. Some crudely contracted tents, others concrete walls with dented metallic roofs. Most surrounded by mounds of rubbish, stagnant water, human and animal waste. Some piles blazed a fire to clear the way for the next or future loads. Disheveled, tired and dirty faces stared back at me as I gazed towards them. I wondered what was going through their minds. I wondered if they detested me as I travelled onwards in what seemed to feel like a golden chariot compared to their surroundings. To be honest and frank, what I intended this blog to be, I felt a degree of guilt and shame and I wasn’t quite sure what I could personally do about it at that moment in time. Things like toilets and clean water can be hard to come by in these areas. It’s a situation I still struggle to fathom.
As we passed the slums we travelled through a contradicting area to that of the last. Luscious green agricultural fields sprawled to the horizon until we finally reached Agra. Today we were visiting Agra’s Red Fort and The Baby Taj, both of which were built by Mogul Emperor’s.
We headed to the Red Fort with a local guide, who looked like an Indian version of ‘Neo’ from the blockbuster film ‘The Matrix’. Standing tall at a height of at least 6ft 6″, wearing a loosely dangling jet black, two part robe and reflective mirrored aviator sunglasses, he honestly looked like a paid bodyguard that had most likely killed at least 2 people during his career. Introducing himself and removing his sunglasses he looked like he’d either been on a 24 hour bender, just smoked a snoop dog sized spliff or was up all night polishing his personal armoury of guns, as his eyes were a blood shot tomato red. I daren’t ask the question, just in case I was at risk of becoming his 3rd victim!
As he walked us through herds of oncoming traffic, wondering tourists and the onslaught of Indian touts, each one seemed to cower out of his way as if he was the great Moses parting the Red Sea. We made it to the Red Fort of Agra and it was even more impressive than its counterpart in Delhi. Only covering 25% of the grounds the forts size was incredible. It was built by Emperor Shah Jahan during the reign of the Moguls over India and was never breached by any army.
If you somehow dared to challenge the fort these were the mean feats you had to conquer to break into the fort. It reminded me of some tactical computer game you’d most likely play on a P.C back in the U.K.
Step 1 – Firstly you had to miraculously swim passed ever snapping crocodiles in the surrounding moat.
Step 2 – Tacitly tip toe passed hungry and viscous Bengalese Tigers.
Step 3 – Climb the mountain high, red sandstone walls which were impossible to mount without some form of apparatus.
Step 4 – Smash your way through reinforced, highly secure 30 foot gates. Even elephants would struggle knocking these things over as the Moguls intentionally curved the path to the gate so that their run up was considerably shortened and thus weakened.
Step 5 – If you somehow made it through the unbreakable gates you were greeted by an uninviting slope with towering walls either side. It was similar to something you would see on a stronghold on Lord of the Rings. As you casually stroll up the inclined path waterfalls of molten oil would be poured down the walls to ensure any Calvary slipped and staggered before a solid stone ball was released down the slope to flatten you like a pancake as if it was straight out of an Indiana Jones Hollywood set.
Step 6 and subsequent steps – We didn’t get that far but I’m sure the Moguls had and few more tricks up their sleeves as like I said the Fort was impenetrable to any army while under their control.
Our guide took us deeper into the Matrix, I mean the Red Fort and we marvelled at the Mogul architecture and were enriched with the sites history rather than just observing another impressive monument. I won’t bore you with all the history but one interesting story is that eventually Emperor Shah Jahan was imprisoned by his son Aurangzeb. He was held at the Red Fort as he’d began plans to build a ‘Black Taj’ as his own tomb opposite his wives tomb, The Taj Mahal. The construction of The Black Taj would have financially crippled the Mogul empire as the Taj Mahal had already cost an incredible amount of time and resource. The Emperor spent the last 8 years of his life in prison staring out across the Yamuna river at his beloved Taj Mahal, where he lay his wife to rest.
Our next step was The Baby Taj. Built during Emperor Jahangir’s reign, it is in fact the father to the Taj Mahal. Small, slender, peaceful and proud it sits opposite the Taj Mahal across the Yamuna River. Like all Mogul architecture it’s engineered and built with complete symmetry and four gardens.
After another long day we parted with our guide, headed back to the hotel and decided to head out for some more authentic local food. We had our first taste of a desert local to Agra which shares some similarities with Turkish delight and is made of a number of ingredients including pumpkin.
“Better to see something once, than to hear about it a thousand times”