Sunday, 31 January 2016

Agra and the Taj Mahal

So we made our early morning deadline (own up - you thought we would never make it!) and boarded the Bhopal Shatabdi express to Agra. This is Hazel's photo - I was intent on keeping up with the guide who had set off at the same breakneck speed as Harry yesterday, with both of our large cases in tow.

In the first class carriage there is acres of leg room, and breakfast is provided. Our hotel had also provided breakfast ...

Looks exciting but actually not very inspiring - sliced bread sandwiches with an Indian version of Sandwich spread, the obligatory tomato ketchup, fruit and cake. The tea was courtesy of Meals on Wheels, the railway company caterers. 

Breakfast #2 from the train was more interesting - we avoided the cornflakes which came with boiled milk, and opted for 'South Indian Food' - a kind of rice cake with coconut sauce and chutney, probably the third thing on the vegetarian menu above. Don't you just love all the detail on that menu? And a little handful of sweetened fennel seed as a digestive - we're quite getting to like all the variations of this  we've been offered.

Arriving in Agra at 8am we were met by our driver for the day and taken to our hotel. Here we were collected by our guide ready to start the day's itinerary.

The Taj Mahal has got to be top of every tourist's list of things to see in northern India, and it was first on ours too. To prevent discolouration of the white marble by pollution no cars are allowed near, only electric vehicles and pedestrians. 

Here's the park-and-ride ...

but we chose to walk. 

As we did, our guide explained the history of the place: a mausoleum built in the 17th century by the Mughal emperor Shah Jehan in memory of his third wife Mumtaz who died in childbirth at the age of 39 - her 14th child! He brought in craftsmen from all over the Mughal empire. His plan was ultimately to build a matching tomb of black onyx for himself on the opposite river bank, but he was dissuaded (somewhat forcefully) by his son (who put him in jail) as a poor use of public money.

There are 11 cupolas over this entrance and an identical 11 at the back, representing the 22 years it took to build the Taj Mahal.

The buildings surrounding the Taj Mahal itself are all of local red sandstone, all intricately carved and decorated. From the point where we are standing you can see the arches of the identical entrance buildings to the east and the west. 

The inscription round he arch is a verse from the Quran, which continues in the mausoleum itself. Black onyx inlaid into the marble. The horizontal above the door is deeper than the sides are wide so that the perspective makes everything look the same size. 

Stop and look up - another intricate pattern ...

It was interesting to see Indians from all walks of life, often dressed in their best clothes, visiting their heritage monuments. As non-Indians, we were well and truly outnumbered, and in demand for souvenir photos with random people!

Through the gate to the first glimpse of the Taj itself ...

And the full reveal ... you can appreciate the sheer scale of it from the size of the hoards of  visitors.

Work is being done to clean the white marble with a kind of mud pack, hence the scaffolding. This is a rickety affair, given the height of the minarets (40metres). Look carefully and you'll spot the worker sitting precariously on his plank seat.

They are also repainting the lakes in front of the Taj. The technique involved filling pots with paint and slinging the contents into the empty lake. Note the blue legs!

Couldn't resist these ...

The Taj Mahal and its surroundings are all about symmetry.

There are numbered triangulation points in the marble pavement and if you stand on one you will see exactly the same thing in both directions.

The view from this circle in both directions :

The carved designs on the walls are also symmetrical. The marble has been inlaid with precious stones - lapis lazuli, malachite, mother of pearl, carborundum, jasper - and the work is incredibly detailed.

These pillars give the illusion of being six sided stars in cross section, but if you look closely you'll see they only have three faces

Everywhere you turn there is opulence and skilled craftsmanship. But there's also beauty in the simple lines, such as these cloisters on the way back to the gate ...

and the views through ...

and the makers' marks

More in part 2.

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