37th Post: 5th INDIA – On the Road to the Taj

Bharatpur – traffic problems

Having completed the shows in Delhi, the party has gone travelling on the tourist trails of India:

2006 November: Friday

Moving eastwards we left the hills of Jaipur behind and travelled across the flat country towards Agra. Along the roadside one vignette of India appeared that seemed almost as if it had been deliberately posed. Sari-clad women were bending over crops in the fields, while one guided an oxen-pulled plough. In front of them stood three schoolboys in smart, crisp school uniforms – it seemed like the future was watching the past.

As everywhere else in the country, the road was mostly occupied by hundreds of small lorries. Each truck had intricate designs on their sides, hand-painted by the drivers, with an almost obligatory ‘HORN PLEASE’ scrawled on their rear – i.e. if you wished to overtake, toot your horn. If such individualistic sign writing were ever to become popular in the UK, it could launch a whole new hobby of ‘lorry-spotting’ that could eclipse train-spotting. I wondered if Eddie Stobbart had ever been to India?

View of the Road – 1

There were far fewer cars than trucks, while the rest of the traffic consisted of cyclists, often hauling huge piled loads on carts behind them; motor scooters, often with a family clinging to the driver; and donkeys and camels, loaded to the limit of endurance. The odd cow or black bull occasionally sauntered through to a chorus of screeching brakes.

View of the Road – 2

Darkness fell as we drove on. What had been a hair-raising journey already, now took on a new and terrifying dimension. The sheer blackness of the night was constantly slashed by full oncoming lights in our faces. While headlights were ubiquitous, rear lights were rudimentary or non-existent. Now and then we could see a dimly lit lantern swaying from the rump of a camel, but it was much more common to see nothing at all until the blurred shape of the truck, or donkey, or cyclist ahead was virtually on our car bonnet. Dimly perceived dogs scampered across the road like scurries of mist. We’d driven past or over at least five squashed animal corpses within an hour.

Occasionally as Arjun was about to pass a large lorry, he would start muttering quietly. These, according to Vinod, were prayers. Sitting in the front passenger seat, I realised that Arjun was overtaking completely blind to anything ahead.

Finally, to add to the nerve-shredding, the road that previously had been reasonably smooth now became a river of ruts. The road-menders had given up at some stage about fifty miles short of Agra. We bounced from one pothole to the next.

View of the Road – 3

The journey had become openly dangerous – and even Arjun admitted to doubt. It was decided it might be best to stop in a place called Bharatpur. We circled the town and came to rest at a hotel called the Pritas Palace. After the previous five hours, it was like reaching a rest camp after a spell in a front-line trench.

Hotel at Bharatpur, near Agra 

2006 November: Saturday

The day did not start well. Firstly, I woke with stomach trouble for the first time since arriving in India. Secondly, we were almost arrested.

As we drove about five miles further on towards Agra, we reached a partial roadblock. As it appeared to be unmanned, Arjun drove on through. Shouts from behind us proved that it was not unmanned. Then a Landrover roared past and skewed in front of our car, forcing us into the verge. Men in uniform spilled out and approached us. It turned out that this was the border between Rajastan and Uttar Pradesh and the occupants of the Landrover were border guards. Arjun was ordered out and taken off for questioning.

Pushing her way through a group of predatory peanut sellers who had emerged from the seemingly empty bushes of the roadside, Vinod went off to find out what was happening. She returned with the news that Arjun did not have the correct licence to drive taxis in Uttar Pradesh – the cops wanted an immediate payment of 5000 rupees. She added that if we didn’t pay up we could be stuck here for hours, or even days. We struck a grudging deal with the guards and Arjun was released. His already hangdog expression increased as he realised that he had left his mobile phone behind at the hotel. Finally, we set off once more towards Agra.

Fatehpur Sikri – Christi tomb

We halted again at another of the great sights of India – the ghost city of Fatehpur Sikri, the capital of the Mughal Empire, built in the 1570s and abandoned soon afterwards due to the lack of any nearby water. It struck me that although the Mughals had some wonderful architects, their town planning left something to be desired. Still feeling under par, I stayed back in the car as the others went to look around. Tourists flocked past – there seemed to be far more Indian visitors than foreigners, by a ratio of twenty to one.

One feature of both Old Jaipur and now Fatehpur Sikri reminded me strongly of somewhere else – the rounded wall turrets. Then it struck me. If you stand in Whitehall in London and look along the skyline of the nineteenth century Government buildings, you see exactly the same thing. The British may have influenced Indian architecture – obviously in New Delhi – but the reverse had also happened. The Mughal influence had left its mark on London as well.

We drove into Agra about noon and, on Vinod’s advice, stopped at a visitors’ centre in the city. She chose a burly university student as our guide, saying that this was the wise thing to do. The guide would keep the touts off us once we reached the Taj Mahal. The Taj touts were notorious even among the Indians.

She was correct. As we halted in the car park, a swarm of them descended on the car. Arjun and our guide fended them off until we managed to reach a horse-drawn rickshaw to travel the final mile to the monument. The acid rain from the city is affecting the structure itself, hence the de-motorised cordon surrounding the site.

Pollution was not the only threat to the Taj, as we discovered at the main gate. Being a famed Moslem shrine, it was under the constant menace of terrorism. Security was at airport levels – the notice listing banned objects had about thirty items on it. At the end of a lengthy queue for the checkpoint, every pocket had to be turned out and the body search bordered on indecent assault. Each ticket cost 750 rupees – damned expensive by Indian standards. In return we were presented with a free bottle of water and some slip-on foam shoe covers (to protect the shrine marble).

Taj Mahal

We strolled through the West Gate into the entrance gardens. The Taj was built in 1653 and twenty thousand people were employed on its construction. Some later had their hands amputated so that they could never create such beauty again.

At first, passing through the outer gates along the flowerbeds and walkways, the place did not seem particularly remarkable. Then, as we came through the tall entrance hall, we saw the Taj itself. The huge ball of white with its four corners of minarets floated in the sunlight. No matter how many photographs one has seen or how many words one has read, nothing can capture this first breath-stopping sight.

The Taj from the Jumna

Unlike the rest of the great spectacles of the world, either natural ones, or those built for religion or utility, I think that this was the only one built for love – or lost love. It was Shah Jahan’s tribute to his dead wife. It also led to his ruin. Having already depleted the Mughal finances by building the Taj Mahal, he proposed to build another similar building, this time in black marble as opposed to white. His son, deciding enough was enough, imprisoned him till he died.

We walked inside the Taj itself. In the dark cool centre of the building was a marble block – the cenotaph of Shah Jahan’s wife Mumtaz Mahal, whose coffin lay below. The hollow dome above reverberated with the voices of our fellow tourists. I thought – well, now or never – and recited the opening lines of the show:

 ‘One should not play Narcissus to a photograph. Even water is treacherous. The eyes of those who love you are the only mirror.’

It seemed appropriate and possibly the only time Oscar Wilde’s words have echoed through the Taj Mahal.

The tomb inside the Taj

Outside again, as I gazed across the lethargic waters of the River Jumna at the rear of the dome, I felt a recurrence of the stomach problem I’d had earlier. I did not feel well at all. We returned back through the ornamental gardens to the main entrance hall and I turned for a last look. Despite the touts and the pollution and the security and the crowds and now the guts ache, this was a truly wonderful place.

NJT at the Taj

Then it was back through the shouts and arm tugs of the postcard sellers, back on the rickshaws to the car park, back through another tout scrimmage, and finally back to the car.

The return journey to Delhi passed in a blur. In a kind gesture, the others squashed up to allow me to lie down at half full length on the back seat of the car. I laid my head on my rucksack and tried to doze. The news that we were passing the world renowned Red Fort of Agra and that we had a splendid view of it left me unmoved – I didn’t even lift my head. Vinod asked if I needed anything. I muttered back: “A noose might be an idea.”

The next three hours were spent in a state of suspended animation. The brass disc of the sun set rapidly as kites hovered above us. I revived slightly as night fell on the Delhi road. We pulled into a roadside café that consisted of a table and some chairs beneath a bed sheet supported by four poles and a dangling bare electric bulb. After arguably the most revolting cup of coffee I have ever tasted, I lurched off to find a lavatory. I found one in a concrete shed about a hundred yards away – there was barely an inch of the interior that was not covered by excretions of some sort or another.

Back at the ‘café’, our group had been joined by four Indians. As I slumped back into a chair, one of them said something – his companions laughed, as did Vinod and Arjun. Vinod explained that the man had said: “What is Sanjay Dutt doing here?” It turned out that I resembled a Bollywood star – both being tall, with long hair and spectacles. I felt slightly flattered by the comparison until Vinod added that as well as his film star fame, Sanjay Dutt was currently in prison convicted of arms possession and involvement in terrorist bombings.

We carried on driving north through the gathering dark of the evening. Although not as horrendous as the Agra road, it was still a daunting experience. It was still one wandering cow too many and Goodnight Vienna. However, I felt too rough to care much.

We reached Vinod’s home in Gurgaon at 11pm, and I reeled speechlessly to bed.

View of the Road – 4

Next post on February 20 – on to the Himalayas and facing the Monkey Menace.


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