Wednesday, 28 August 2013

Wah Taj!

Greater Noida, being in Uttar Pradesh, has had its fortunes linked to two leaders, who alternately came to power, to start, stop and stall various projects depending on the affiliations of the people funding them. Mayawati and the Yadavs- the father son duo.

We took the Taj Expressway, which now has big pictures of the Yadavs on its ramparts, to visit the Taj Mahal and Fatehpur Sikri.

We started early morning on the deserted 180 km stretch which cost 500 rupees at the toll gate, to reach the Taj Mahal, just as the sun was beginning to rain fire.

But nothing, absolutely nothing can dilute the awe, the beauty, the inspiration and the glow you feel when you are in presence of the magnificent symmetrical structure which speaks of the heights of accomplishment in aesthetics, art and science in that century.

We were taken from the gates in a camel cart and were ambushed by a young guide with a very fraud looking identity card with extravagant guidance fees printed on it. On the way to the North Gate, we were taken to a Government emporium, which was selling products made by the inmates of Agra Prison.

There were saris made of fibre from banana and bamboo trees, extracted after letting them decompose in water. These saris don't need starch or ironing and would become softer if washed in cold water and stiffer if washed in hot water, or so the salesmen, the guides and camel cart drivers claimed.

There was a chemically impregnated bedcover, which would ward off mosquitoes in a 10-20 feet radius.

There were light quilts and traditional leather slippers.

It seems a lot of men lost their jobs when a factory had to be closed down due to environmental concerns of the Taj Mahal being damaged due to the fumes being emitted. These men have been rehabilitated by allowing them to run camel carts, horse carts and battery operated cars to ferry tourists from the road to the actual Taj enclosure.

The guide told us interesting stories about why there were 22 domes on the gate? To mark the number of years spent in building the Taj Mahal and other little details like how many wives were buried around the favourite one, the monument which used to receive royal guests in the past, how the great lady died in 14th childbirth etc.etc.  Everything helped feel part of the history being witnessed by us.

The guide also took interesting photographs from predestined spots, like the ones which made it look like the kids were touching the top of the dome of Taj Mahal with their outstretched hands or the one which put us all in a family portrait through one of the "jharokhas". In spite of the heat, it was all  very interesting for the kids and me.

Thank God for our posh guide, we did not have to take off our shoes to see the replica tomb stones with inlay work, he very resourcefully, fished out  shoe covers from his pocket. He even bribed an employee to show us the resplendent coloured stones in the inlay work under torchlight, a sight which is available on another paid tour in the night, according to him. The actual tombstones in the basement were not open to the public.

We then were directed towards what used to be the worker's quarters. These are shops now selling various pieces of art, inlay work on marble (table tops, wall plates, showpieces) along with other souvenirs like Taj Mahal replicas, key rings and "petha", traditional sweets of Agra (My children were allowed to taste pineapple, orange etc flavoured ones). We admired the work, bargained and bought a few gifts and a set of beautiful multicoloured coasters and then feeling quite pleased with the successful diminution of the rupees in my purse, we proceeded to Fatehpur Sikri.

Fatehpur Sikri had authentic guides from the Archeological Survey of India, who recreated the persona of Akbar the great, his commitment to secular thought as he with his nine jewels created Deen-e-ilahi, the religion which took in all the good points from all the religions,  the multi religious harem he had and the Rajasthani architectural influence in Jodha Bai's twin summer and winter palaces.

There was an artificial water body (which used to contain rose water) in the middle of the Fort at the top, which had a staged quadrangle in the centre, where Tansen sang to Akbar, who would be sitting high on a throne. Unlighted lamps around the quadrangle would light up when Tansen rendered his Rag Deepak.

An interesting story told was that Akbar was very short and hence had constructed the entrance to his court such that if he entered with his entourage, he could walk in straight but his men would have to bow their heads. We also saw his bedroom where there was a drainage system to ensure rosewater circulated constantly at the bottom, while he slept at the top.

Justice was meted out in a very simple manner, in those were thrown at the elephant's feet and if he deemed fit, he would trample you or let you go.

Salim Chisti's dargah, the saint whose blessing resulted in Salim i.e Jahangir's birth is where people believe heart's desires are fulfilled. We paid our respects and asked for solace.

God only knows if the stories are true but they were indeed entertaining. The way from the Taj Mahal to Fatehpur Sikri had not been straightforward and not surprisingly we could not find our way back to the expressway.

We were soon being tossed and jolted on big craters of UP roads from Agra up until nearly Mathura when we were able to get on to the expressway. The taxi driver got numerous mouthfuls from me for not getting explicit instructions from all the drivers collected at Fatehpur Sikri to ensure we got to the expressway at Agra and seeing our enthusiasm at spotting two beautiful peacocks in the fields, as we braced ourselves for each of the big ditches on the roads....joked that we should pay him extra for showing them to us.

I had an argument with his boss before paying him extra for the unnecessary kilometres he had driven and the wear and tear his Tata Indigo had had to face.....All in all it was a hugely educational, entertaining and eventful trip. The Mughals are definitely more interesting than the British, be it the hatred of Aurangzeb, who imprisoned his dad and ensured he stayed alive by looking at Taj Mahal's reflection or the greatness of Akbar, Shah Jahan's love or Birbal's wit....the stuff which stories, books and movies are made of!