Agra, Part II: The Taj, and a Word About Public Toilets in India

DSC_1928Fog greeted us this Taj day, so a sunrise visit was not to be. Clouds parted only briefly, the day giving a less than stellar royal show. Even with the fog and gray skies the monument is wondrous, though truth be told not my favourite site in India.

DSC_1969-1In the days of the Mughals, the way to show your devotion was to build an edifice to your beloved. It is said that Mumtaz’s last wish was that Shah Jahan make something to honour her time on this earth for all eternity. Hindu poet Tagore called the Taj Mahal a “teardrop on the cheek of time.” It took 22 years to complete. So money meets romance in this fairy story of true love. I wonder if Bill would build a monument of this stature to his beloved Melinda?

The mastery of these kinds of artisans is lost today in our immediate gratification and disposable thing-filled world. And maybe as a cry for help we see the once-pristine Taj Mahal graying these days. Ironically, electric vehicles and horse-drawn carriages vie side-by-side to provide tourist transport. And new mandates aim to curb coal fires and other carbon emissions within 10km of this precious landmark. The question that comes to mind, of course, is whether there’s time (or true willingness) to save it.

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I leave the Taj Mahal feeling something like longing for the romance and gallantry surrounding the forts and palaces of Rajasthan, though I would not have missed seeing this Wonder for anything. Its smooth precision and imposing grace make you forget that you are in a mausoleum and not a palace. One might envision a concert with pitch-perfect acoustics in the main chamber or perhaps a grand ball, though Maharanis did not dance with men other than their husbands, and jewel-bedecked grand saris aside, this might have been a rather dull affair. Mughal or Rajput, these dynasties were steeped in princely tradition and familial honour. And as visions of these luxurious lifestyles dance in my head, I follow the teeming crowds to the exit and on to the next destination.


An aside: This is as good a place as any to add my thoughts on being a Westerner and using public toilets in India. As expected, these come in a wide range of, erm, conditions. I give the pay toilets at Agra Fort 5 stars for being cleaner than most. For a mere 10 rupees, a woman shows you to the stall, demonstrates how to use the high/low flush buttons and (once business is finished) turns on the sink. In contrast, though not the worst I encountered, the Taj loo gets maybe 1-1/2 stars. Under the best of circumstances, queues in India are a joke, and he (she) who pushes hardest (or perhaps speaks the best Hindi), usually gets to the head of the line before foreigners. This is where the orderliness of the western world does not work in our favour. Relegated to the queue for “first available Western toilet” was not how I had hoped to spend my last hour at the Taj Mahal. Suffice to say, I see the value in both Indian squat toilets and the accompanying squirt nozzles, though I have yet to figure out proper operation of the latter. The trainer in me thinks there should be a discreet how-to video at immigration.

Agra, Part 1: Where Mughal Emperors Reign(ed)

Having recently finished The Enchantress of Florence by Salman Rushdie, which takes place in and around the city that is Fatehpur Sikri, I have newfound appreciation for the great sandstone marvel that is this place. (I highly recommend that you read it if you have a chance…it does an incredible job of bringing alive the history of this World Heritage Site)

I share some history I learned while in India in this blog post, as we in the West (at least in the suburban NY high school I attended) do not necessarily learn these Eastern historical tidbits in school – we need to seek and ask questions and walk among the ancient structures that survive. The magic of the stories has been carved deep into and woven among the sandstone bricks that have been preserved all these centuries. And as I wander amongst the terracotta and marble structures, I am continually in awe of the handiwork, the craftsmanship and the grand vision it took to erect these palaces, fortresses and walled cities. Will they say this about our McMansions and strip malls 1000 years hence?

Depending, of course, who you ask, it is said that one of the finest Indian emperors was Akbar the Great. This was a Mughal ruler who had a vision for the future and devised – I’m sure much to the dismay of those around him – his own brand of religion, combining core principles from Islam and Hinduism. To show his broader faith, he took Muslim, Christian and Hindu wives. The Hindu wife*, a Rajput princess, was his favorite. *Rushdie introduces an alternate yet fantastic tale about her existence, which is simultaneously believable and enchanting. But I digress…

Akbar was a visionary for his time and an advocate for women, strongly discouraging the common rituals of the day of child marriage and the practise of sati – widows’ throwing themselves on their husbands’ funeral pyres. This was revolutionary for the time – it wasn’t until Gandhi that the concept of women’s rights began to gain a modicum of traction in India.

Fatehpur Sikri, this palace complex and microcosm built by Akbar, contained a city within a city (markets, lakes, parks, recreation) and residences for himself and each of his three wives. These were built in the Mughal style with accents from each wife’s tradition. The Christian wife’s palace seems to have a mix of styles, and the Muslim wife had the most intricately-carved and most lushly-decorated residence (jewels, gold inlay, fine painting). But his Hindu princess received a literal palace within Sikri. As she came from Rajput royalty, she was entitled to a residence befitting a queen with a royal pedigree. While less ornately-furnished, this palace is immense and combines the Persian domed ceilings with intricately-carved columns and Hindu architecture, an immense courtyard and the layout I had seen in the other Rajput palaces. It is gorgeous.

As you wander the courtyards and the complex’s structures, you find an astrologer’s room, a “treasury” room with its hidden wall wells in which Akbar stored jewels and treasures (we are still in the age of battling kingdoms here), and Akbar’s sleeping quarters, with a 10-foot high 15’x15′ sleeping platform that allowed cooling water to pool on the floor in the summertime and fires to be placed below the platform in winter. So as not to let anyone forget that Akbar was indeed a Great, in the main courtyard his men constructed a human parcheesi board… his concubines would act the part of playing pieces and he’d order them to their respective places. Great fun for one with that level of power over human lives.

There is also a mosque dedicated to his favorite elephant, Hiran (Hiran Minar; said to have been studded with elephant tusks). This elephant was responsible for the execution of bad guys… (Tarantino might have been impressed: this task was accomplished by Hiran squashing their heads like watermelons!) A hook still can be seen in Sikri’s public courtyard, where Hiran was tied as he did his duty. Rushdie’s words come back to me in vivid sandstone colour as he writes of the raging elephant in its old age… These rulers lived in a manner and with societal rules I can’t even process.


As if Fatehpur Sikri was not enough grandiosity for the day, the next stop was Red Fort in Agra (also called Agra Fort). Truth be told, I was a little “forted-out” by this juncture and was prepared to be unimpressed. But as we arrived at this landmark, I was once again wowed by its largess. While most of this building is still currently used as a military fort (i.e., used by the Indian Army), the public side does not fail to impress…

So the history lesson continues in Agra proper. Akbar began the construction of Agra Fort in sandstone (it is reminiscent of Fatehpur Sikri, though much more fort-ified in many ways), then Shah Jahan (Akbar’s grandson, and the emperor who commissioned the Taj Mahal) finished it with touches of the white marble he loved. Agra Fort became Shah Jahan’s prison for the final years of his life as his power-hungry son, to ensure that the throne was his, killed his brothers and imprisoned his father. Bittersweetly, Shah Jahan’s quarters held a spectacular view of the Taj Mahal. The inlay work in the marble alone should be a Wonder…not to mention the lattice work (carved in marble) and the attention to the views from every angle of this part of the fort.

View of Taj Mahal from Red Fort

And so it was here that I received my first glimpse of the Taj Mahal in the foggy foggy distance and was surprised at the awe (and wonder) that this Wonder of the World elicited in me. We have all seen pictures of this iconic structure, but they don’t do it justice. It all seems surreal. As soon as I left, it was as if it was all a big fairytale. And maybe it is…