Saturday 5th December
We woke to foggy skies, as is typical for December in Northern India. Unfortunately that meant there was little point in going to view the Taj at sunrise, the light would be better at 9am.
Breakfast at The Trident was excellent as expected with an even bigger range of Indian options than before. Our waiter Munish wouldn't take no for an answer and insisted I try a Masala Dosa - a crisp savoury rice pancake filled with spiced potato, and served with coconut chutney and sambar - a hot vegetable and lentil sauce. Unfortunately he did this just after I ordered an omelette and put a slice of toast into the toaster. This meant that a few minutes later three waiters arrived simultaneously at the table, all beating plates of food for me! The dosa was delicious - as was the omelette and toast and tangerine marmalade!
We walked back to our room to prepare for our much anticipated trip to visit the Taj Mahal.
Our same driver, Jagdeesh, arrived with his car, still spotless, and now decorated with strings of limes and green chillies on the front and rear bumpers, and garlands of flowers and beads on the dashboard and dangling from his rear view mirror. He also had an idol of the god Ganesh - the elephant headed God of good fortune and remover of obstacles - on the dashboard. Jagdeesh had been to the temple and was fasting this week as he was praying for something important.
Our new guide for the day is Shefali, a 23 year old whose husband is also a tour guide, currently on a three week tour of India with a coach party from Mexico.
We learnt that 80% of Indians are Hindu, 12.5% are Muslim, 2% are Christian and 1% are Sikhs.
The Taj Mahal is a beautiful building, made entirely from translucent white marble. It was built by emperor Shah Jahan as a mausoleum in memory of his favourite wife, Mumtaz, who died giving birth to their 14th child. He was a grandson of Akbar the great, the Mughal emperor who built the Agra Red Fort. The Taj Mahal took 22 years to build - 1631 to 1653. It took 22000 labourers and 1000 elephants.
Shah Jahan was subsequently deposed by his youngest son who murdered his three brothers, in order to become king and also to stop his father building a further expensive mausoleum ('the black Taj') on the other side of the Yamuna river. Shah Jahan was kept under house arrest at Agra fort to stop him from spending all the Royal family's wealth on another massive tomb.
Our impression of the Taj Mahal? It looked beautiful, even from a distance, almost as if it was made from lace or tissue paper.
The approach was crowded and dusty and we jostled our way under the main archway to enter, but after that there was so much space that the crowds didn't really matter.
The Taj is perfectly symmetrical, there being four identical entrance gateways and approaches via sunken water gardens and avenues of trees. This meant that it was possible to see the elevated buildings easily from the garden paths. The symmetry meant that the Taj can be viewed from miles around and looks the same from all aspects. It also means that when you stand inside the building looking out, all the gates and arches line up as if you are looking into infinity in a series of mirrors.
The marble walls were intricately worked with carvings of leaves and flowers, inlaid with semi precious stones and also painted with beautiful floral designs. There were many many delicate filigree screens. Next to Mumtaz's tomb is the only asymmetrical thing in the whole creation. The tomb of her husband who lived for 22 years after her death. He is buried to the east of her, ie closer to Mecca as is traditional.
After the tour we visited a workshop to see how the marble inlaid work was done. This craft was so novel and highly prized by the Shah that he paid all his craftsmen for a lifetime of work in advance so that they would never create something similar for anyone else. All renovation work at the Taj is done by descendants of these craftsmen, some of whom worked in this workshop. The owner (a very slick salesman if ever there was one!) showed us how the design is created by cutting and shaping pieces of malachite, jasper, turquoise, lapis lazuli, carnelian and mother of pearl fragments to make the pieces of a pattern. Then the carver draws around those pieces using a scalpel, before painstakingly chipping the corresponding pattern out of the surface of a slab of white marble. Then, using a 'secret recipe organic glue' the pieces are put in place and polished. The craftsmanship is absolutely stunning, but would you really want a whole coffee table of it? Not to worry, together with Shefali we enjoy the show, accept the iced water and hot sweet cardamom tea and admire the work.
After a curry lunch we tour three more monuments, the Sikandra red sandstone tomb where Akbar the Great, Mughal emperor and grandfather of this morning's Shah, was buried. Then on to The Itimad-ud-daulah aka The Baby Taj. This was the building that inspired the Shah to built his Taj Mahal and it's easy to see why. White marble, filigree and inlaid precious stones, all on a much smaller scale. It was built as a tomb for the parents of the wife of another King, victim of yet another complicated love triangle and revengeful lover.
Last and best visit today was the Agra fort, built in 1565 from red sandstone, it took 8 years to create, had a wet and dry moat ( alligators and crocodiles included) and was home to Akbar the great. He was considered great because he believed in unification of all the religions under one god. To demonstrate this he married three wives, one Hindu, one Muslim and one Christian. He also kept 300 concubines, so he wasn't a saint!!
The fort was beautiful, red sandstone with the Royal rooms embellished with white marble inlaid with semi precious stones. There were gardens, fountains and watercourses to keep the place cool in summer. There were numerous filigree 'windows' giving distant views out in all directions.
This was our final visit of the day - just a monstrous traffic jam to negotiate on our way home. We found driving around in India to be spellbinding. Wherever we looked it was as if some film director had just shouted 'Action' and on cue, a dozen or so men on rickety bicycles appeared on the road, a group of buffalo wandered past, two donkeys laden with panniers of bricks plodded along the gutter and half a dozen tuk-tuks packed with seven or eight passengers (sometimes an entire extended family) buzzed across the road in front of us. Along the pavements there were hundreds of people going about their business, two men squatting on a half built wall, watching two other men trying to mend a bicycle, a gaggle of women in brightly coloured saris haggling over a trailer of fruit and vegetables, a man asleep in the back of his rickshaw, a smart young man in a crisp blue shirt and designer sunglasses, flying along on his motorbike, emaciated-looking, grey-bearded men pedalling rickshaws improbably loaded with mountains of boxes or sacks.
Sometimes we would drive past entire families travelling on mopeds, the mother sitting side-saddle on the back, dignified and apparently serene in her brightly coloured sari, and fluttering head scarf, whilst the children were squeezed in between mother and father or between father and the handlebars.
Amongst all this, cars, lorries and buses tried to drive. There were no lanes, each vehicle just pushed forward as best it could, sounding its horn to say 'I am here and I am going to drive forwards now, so you had better get out of the way'!
It seemed to work until we reached a major crossroads. The bus in the left hand lane wanted to turn right. The lorry in the right hand lane wanted to turn left. All the tuk-tuks just wanted to go straight ahead and were acquiring more passengers as time passed. There were pedestrians, buffaloes, bicycles and dogs everywhere. One tuk-tuk even turned round and was trying to drive back up the wrong side of the road! Horns blared everywhere!
Two or three men abandoned their vehicles, seized large sticks and appointed themselves traffic officers until the chaos resolved enough for us to slip through a gap and back to the sanctuary of The Trident Hotel.
This was sanctuary indeed and for a while we just lay on sun loungers by the pool. After a peaceful hour or so the midges appeared and persisted despite the very businesslike spraying of insecticide into the hedges using a machine similar to a garden leaf-blower. We retreated.
The gym offered respite from the insects and by the time we emerged for an evening swim, darkness had fallen, the lamps were lit and the insecticide seemed to have worked.
It is always a curious sensation to swim in the dark and this was no exception. There was a lovely atmosphere, with decorative lanterns hanging in the trees, a small band of musicians and an Indian lady dancing, people dressed for dinner, wandering in the gardens, the puppeteers setting up their theatre ready for later and hotel staff bustling about fetching and carrying, sweeping and tidying.
At dinner we played the same game as last night. We really couldn't face too much food after having already had curry for breakfast and lunch! We did try to share one main course and one plate of okra but again ended up with poppadoms, chutney, pumpkin and cinnamon soup, garlic naan and kulfi to follow... Whilst waiting for the bill we were so tired we were slurring our words and sleep came very soon after!