The magical lure of Agra is not merely the Taj Mahal, the symbol of love but several interesting sites in and around the city that are worth a dekko including the mini Taj, Sikandra, Fatehpur Sikri, the Agra fort and a rescued dancing bear sanctuary at Sur Sarovar. Manju Ramanan, as part of the UP Travel Writer’s Conclave 2015, discovers the echoes of the faint sounds of the warrior horses that once trot the walkways of Agra fort, the cry of the peacocks from the zenanas that housed the queens, concubines and their entourages, the murmurs from the Diwane – e -Aam and Diwane- e – Khaas where the Emperor met his subjects and courtiers, the wafting aromas from the royal kitchens… all this while crowds from today’s world tour the city and stand mesmerized soaking in all its heritage, opulence and beauty
I am a reluctant traveller who loves to visit places but detests the commute. As a child I actually believed that by the time I grew up, teleportation would be a reality like in Star Trek and I wouldn’t have to use transport to reach places. And I am thoroughly disappointed that we still haven’t managed to invent what we saw on television years ago. Back to reality, I started the trip on a frantic note – miscalculated the time I needed to fly, realized it at the nick of time, threw things into my bag with help from my son and reached the Abu Dhabi airport gasping for breath. But made it on time for the flight – the Etihad flight from Abu Dhabi to Delhi, part of the Uttar Pradesh Travel Writer’s Conclave 2015, that included a guided tour of Agra, Chambal and Lucknow.
At the Delhi airport, after munching on a paneer roll and sipping comforting masala chai, I met my Polish co-passenger and travel writer to Agra, Mieczyslaw Pawlowicz who we later learnt to address as Mitek or Mitech, depending on your love for technology. While Mitek snoozed through our road trip to Agra from Delhi, I couldn’t help watching the landscape as well as several barber shop boards that had Honey Singh peeping out of them. And a poster of the hugely popular Baba Ram Rahim of the famous Love Charger song.
The Double Tree Hilton, with their customary chocolate cookie and welcome drink ushered us in and its corridors lent us a distant view of the monument that has made Agra what it is – the Taj that seem to rise in the horizon tantalizing us. But we had a while till we got a close glimpse of this symbol of love. Tired and famished I ordered lunch in my room and was served the most delicious Khatte Aalu – a dish I would gladly go back to Agra for.
The next morning was first meeting the teams that had been flown in from India and across the world just before sunrise and our visit to the Taj. As guests of the Chief Minister of the State, we were escorted everywhere and guided across the monuments with stories and asides that thrilled the history buff in me.
When I first saw the Taj as a twenty year old, it reminded me of a beautiful full moon. The second impression of the Taj, this time was no different. One minaret of the magnificent monument was being face-packed by multani mitti – the same mud used as a beauty face pack by women across the world – to restore its lost glow back. The Taj, you see, was being treated in a very feminine manner.
Known for its precision in architecture where each half is a mirror image of the other, the Taj has no background and is set against the sky – even today, there are no high rises around it just like its architect Ahmed Lahori had envisioned it. Surrounded by the char bagh (four gardens) with four channels around it, each depicting nectar, honey, milk and madera, the marble is carved by inlay work by the Pachikar community who still practise the art. We met some members practicing the art at Sanskruti, the artisan’s workshop that houses several beautiful mementoes that you can shop for.
The Taj was built by 20,000 artisans over 22 years. Following the concept of Paradise of Jannat, the Taj‘s royal gate has inscriptions from the Yaseen that is at the very heart of the Holy Quran. The interesting thing to note however is that the writing at the very top is as readable as the writing at the eye level – the inscriptions though different in size were created such to ensure that they look like a seamless rendering – technology dating back 360 years! The space follows Moorish architecture and has a spider web design that is reminiscent of the well – known tale from the Quran where the Prophet (PBUH) took refuge in a cave after which the spider wove a web at its entrance. The interesting part of the naming of the Taj was that it was named “Rozay Munawaray Mumtaz Mahal” (the Holy Enlightened tomb of Mumtaz Mahal) – the last two words were all the British could decipher and also the reason why the Taj was christened so.
As my feet touched the chilled marble of the Taj and we were taken into the monument, a well-etched deja vu moment struck me. I remembered watching this seventy-year-old European couple slow dancing in the raised platform outside the Taj idealizing it as a symbol of love. The sharp sun that fell on them didn’t bother them and they were truly engrossed in their little world. So many media personalities including Lady Diana, Michelle Obama etc. have posed against this beautiful monument. Perhaps the only asymmetrical part of the Taj was Shah Jahan’s grave that is next to his favourite queen, Mumtaz Mahal.
Sikandra, Akbar’s tomb that we recently saw in the Bollywood film Wazir is a spectacular monument as well. Therein lies Akbar, the great monarch whose simply created tomb is enveloped in a beautiful kind of peace. Flowers and coins are scattered around it and the blackened walls talk about an era when the tomb was plundered and used to store hay. What is striking about Sikandra is the intricate inlay work on the monument and asymmetric but aesthetic roof corners of the space – it is an artisan’s delight.
Perhaps a lesser-known side to Agra is the Sur Sarovar sanctuary that houses 160 species of birds, 35 species of butterflies and 300 pythons along with rescued dancing bears. These bears have been rescued from India and Pakistan by the kalandars or bear keepers who trap them young and train them to perform for them for a fee. Most of the rescued bears were once treated badly, singed, pierced and tortured to submission and here they are looked after. According to bear conservationist, Biju Raj, “At one point of time bears were hunted for bear paw soup in China, even beer bile, their nails and teeth removed etc. Most of them are sterlised as well. Here, they have undergone root canal treatment and have each other for company.