We caught the train to Agra Cantt from New Delhi train station. The station was less chaotic than we expected, with the incredibly easy to use online ticket system and electronic boards telling us exactly where to go. The platforms themselves were full of people climbing on and off the rather industrial looking carriages, selling everything from paperback books to samosas and chai, from packets of pens and postcards to chains with which you could lock down your luggage if you so wished.
We were on carriage 3A (3rd class with a/c) which was perfect for us. Designed to be a 3 tier bunk sleeper coach at night, the middle bed folds down during the day to become the backrest for seats below. There were western style toilets, and it was even pretty spacious, allowing me to lie down and have a little recovery nap mid journey. The other people sharing the carriage with us were friendly and interested in where we were going and where we were from. All of the Indian people we’ve met so far have a huge respect for medical doctors, and much to Rich’s delight, he has been told many times on this trip already that he is in fact a living God among men…
The train to Agra took us 3 1/2 hours, although if we had wanted to we could have stayed on all the way down to Kerala in the South of India (monsoon floods permitting…), which would have taken almost 3 days in total! Jumping off at Agra, once again we were bombarded with the sights and smells and suffocating heat of the city, and we could barely get down the station steps because of the sheer number of touts crowding round and trying to urge us into their tuk-tuks, insisting that our guesthouse (wherever it was) had surely burnt down and we needed to go with them at once for our safety, only 10 rupees (that’s about 12p) a night at good hotel they knew. Nice try guys, but we were already wise to this well known tuk-tuk driver scam.
Still, it was a relief to see our names being held up on a board by our prearranged tuk-tuk driver, and even more of a relief to get the breeze in our faces as we bundled in and trundled off towards our non-burnt down guesthouse, Safarnama.
The streets of Agra were chaos. Cows, pigs, dogs, goats, people, horses, motorbikes, vans, buses, bicycles and tuk-tuks, rubbish heaps were being waded through, blue tarpaulin covered carts stood at the side of every road, selling fly ridden pastries and sweet snacks. Makeshift houses would spring up anywhere there was space, with people passed out and sleeping wherever they could find some shade – at the base of scrubby trees, in the bonnets of abandoned cars, under filthy looking canvas sheets, in the middle of the roads, using cardboard as sleeping mats and rubbish heaps as a mattress. People living next to and in amongst huge puddle-ponds of the recent monsoon water mixed with the rubbish and spilt sewage, cows wallowed in this muddy stench to keep cool in the unforgiving heat of the midday sun. And always always the honk honk honking honk of the buses and lorries and vans and motorbikes and tuk-tuks and trucks whirring and whizzing by. Pot holes were numerous, bumps were common, 3 legged dogs limped around, and even the sacred cows (10000+ rupee fine if hit!) had a generous helping of bumps and bruises and dried blood to show for the price of living here amongst the masses in Agra.
That afternoon, we headed over to see the Taj Mahal, surely the most photographed building in the world. I was expecting to find it underwhelming due to the hype surrounding it, but I must admit, my heart was won. To enter the Taj, you pass through grand gates, built of red brick and marble, these are already breath taking in their own right. As you pour through the gates with the thousands of other sight seers you can’t help but be caught up in the excitement of the atmosphere. A glimmer of white white, a glimpse of green trees and turquoise lakes, a catch of breath, and you’re through and faced with one of the wonders of the world, the Taj Mahal. Build to commemorate the wife of Shah Jahan, who died giving birth to their 14th child, it is a work of love, with breathtaking symmetry from all 4 sides, gem stones set in sparkling marble (designed to glimmer under the light of a full moon), the majestic grace of the domed central roof is framed by the 4 elegant corner minarets to create a mausoleum that despite its simply massive size and weight, looks light and delicate. I told Rich I want its design for our wedding cake, and in return I agreed that I’ll build him a mausoleum like it when he finally gives birth to our 14th child.
For dinner, delicious and creamy paneer butter masala, served in copper bowls- we’re enjoying the richer curries of the Uttar Pradesh region before we cross the border into Rajasthan.
The next morning we headed to Agra Fort, an enormous red rock fort towering over the city. Even with only 30% of the fort open to the public, there was still more than enough to get lost in. With it’s grand courtyards and open balustrades gazing dramatically over the Agra plains towards the Taj Mahal and beyond, I felt like we’d walked into the set of Star Wars The Phantom Menace.
Inside the fort itself it was surprisingly grand and intricate in design, with beautiful details carved into the red rock on every surface in sight. The dark, cool passages were a welcome relief from the baking sun.
We finished off the morning by exploring some of the local shops with help of our tuk-tuk guide. The first we visited sold gems and precious stones, and the owner was keen to impress on us the superstitions and beliefs of healing properties within the crystals, including the power of moonlight to transform the colour of certain stones (such as in the Taj Mahal). Next we were taken to an embroidery shop, where we saw reams of intricate beading work on beautiful patchwork quilts, the largest of which was the size of a double bed, and the smallest of which (around A3 size) we were told would take the women who work on it 3 months to complete. Finally we were taken to a marble work shop, where we were shown the technique of setting stones and polishing into marble. We weren’t talked into buying anything, apart from a small box of Petha- famous Agra sweets made of crystallised pumpkin, rolled into balls about the size of ping-pong balls, which explode when you bit into them, sugary syrup filling your mouth with sweet fruity juices.
Next stop, Fatehpur Sikri the abandoned fort town…