It was almost inevitable that we would end up in Agra at some stage; although we had both visited India before, neither of us had been to see it’s most famous of sites. Instantly recognisable and known as the ‘greatest monument to love’ in the world, our visit to the Taj Mahal was cemented when we tried to book a train to the north of India as Sam’s visa expiry drew closer. The only train with seats available was a 23 hour rattling, bustling mess to Agra and we found ourselves at Agra Cantt station at 6 in the morning with 4 days booked at a guesthouse so we would visit the city and it’s sights. After almost a full day on a train where we had feet thrust in our faces, loud snoring in the adjacent bunks at night and the near constant calls of “biryani, biryani, biryaaaaani”, we arrived and promptly sat back to relax, chatting with the owner of the guesthouse and figuring out the lie of the land, planning to visit India’s most popular tourist site the next day.
On exploring the area to the south of the Taj, called Taj Ganj (it is bordered by the Yamuna river to the North) we found narrow lanes, houses crammed in over small dark shops offering everything from sewing machine repair to brass bands for hire, smiling kids and some really appetising open sewers. A few days in the city taught us that the place really smells, and if the wind is blowing in just the right direction, it permeates your clothes, hair and you can almost feel it seeping into your pores. Considering that 500 rupees of the entrance fee to the Taj goes towards the Agra development fund, it really makes you wonder exactly what they’re doing with the money. Surely sorting out the constant smell of human poo would be the top of anyones wishlist! The streams of fecal matter pouring past on either side of the road also make finding decent food a challenge with hygiene being difficult to implement in such challenging conditions. Luckily for us, the first few days of our stay coincided with the Shilpgram Festival. It’s 10 days long and mainly consists of businesses from all around the north of India coming to flaunt furniture, clothing and other household items. Alongside this, were massive food stands from Lucknow, Delhi, Jaipur and many other places serving up a staggering array of dishes. While the festival was on, we’d head down and stuff ourselves with chilli honey potatoes, momos, stuffed kulchas, sheekh kebabs and any other number of tantalising dishes and we ate like two little tubby piggies. Uniquely for India, it was free for foreigners!
We did indeed visit the Taj Mahal, which we have a plethora of photos of, you can find them here. As we had predicted, the visit was plagued by the ever present layers of Indian beauracracy, but to go on about it would take away from what is genuinely a stunning sight, all at once familiar and exotic. We followed it up with a visit to Agra Fort, which was stunning with the fading afternoon sun illuminating the 70 foot high red sandstone walls. Agra Fort, which was built in approximatey 1475, is where Shah Jahan spent his final years in a marble prison like the gilded cage of a songbird, overlooking the Taj Mahal, tomb of his beloved wife having been imprisoned there by his son. Currently, much of the site of Agra Fort is in use by the Army (particularly the Parachute Brigade) and so is inaccessible to tourists, however, the part you can visit is impressive, with beautiful Indian and Islamic architecture and we spent a great couple of hours exploring the buidings and views. For anyone who is a fan of Arthur Conan Doyle (of Sherlock Holmes fame), the book ‘The Sign of the Four’ centres around a fictional event at the Fort while a group of Indians held it under siege in opposition to the British Occupation in1857.
After kicking back for a couple more days, during which time we spent our hours updating the auld blog, we realised that we were planning on cycling through the area north of Agra and on into Nepal during Holi, a Hindu festival, celebrating, amongst other things, the Spring. It’s also known as the festival of colour, with clouds of brightly dyed powder and water used to bless family and friends. It sounds great, but in reality, there tends to be a lot of drunkeness and it’s not considered particularly safe for women, particularly as the day progresses. As accustomed as I have become to catcalls and staring, the thought of being groped by drunken men as we tried to cycle was not something I wanted to deal with and so we decided to stay put until after the festival. Besides, we had a comfy, clean guesthouse where the wifi even worked sometimes! And we had met a great French couple and a Dutch guy who we were enjoying hanging out with.
In the mean time, we dedicated quite a lot of time to viewing the Taj Mahal from as many conceivable angles as possible. It’s perfect symmetry can be viewed north of the Yamuna River. In fact, we ended up there by accident. We stopped a tuk tuk close to our guesthouse and asked to be taken to the Baby Taj (the Tomb of I’timad Ud Daulah). It’s a well known monument, and our driver nodded sagely, named a price and we hopped right in. It quickly became clear he hadn’t a notion where he was going. He weaved around the tiny streets of Agra, eventually stopping to ask someone. Obviously they didn’t know either as, after receiving their intructions, he sped us through the traffic to Mehtab Bagh, a manicured (I use the term loosely) gardens with views over the river towards the Taj. We decided against paying a pretty steep 110 rupees to visit the badly mown lawn and instead tripped down the lane to it’s side where we reached the river bank and drank in the view for free instead. Our drivers error had not been such a monumental fuck up after all and when we were done, we walked over the railway bridge enjoying some more great views as we went, women and men hauling seemingly impossible loads of washing to the river, children flying kites and the general madness that is Indian life.
By the time Holi rolled around, we had spent a couple of evenings watching the sunset over the Taj Mahal at various little rooftop cafes in Taj Ganj. As the festival approached, we decided it was time to go and arm ourselves with powders and water guns. One stall holder thought it would be great craic to show me how the dyes worked; sprinkling a little dust in to my hands, he dribbled water from a bottle in to them and indicated I should rub my hands together. I spent the rest of the day with bright green hands and took every opportunity I got to scare the living daylights out of the local kids who thought I was going to cover them in what seemed, after about 3 goes at washing it off, to be a fairly permanent dye!
And so Holi came and went. We had a good time with some friends from our guesthouse and had a wander round the local busti, meeting a family who insisted we all come in to eat some traditional food and have an auld dance. As the morning progressed, the local men became drunker and star getting a little handsy, lunging towards me with hands all set for a grope. Luckily, my many years of supporting the Irish Rugby team paid off and I managed to neatly side step all attempts, like Brian O’ Driscoll in the days gone by. Having been feeling a little off for a few days, I decided to head back to my room a little earlier than everyone else. And not a moment too soon, for it was apparently then that the boob grabbing really got going! Nothing makes a good festival like a bit of sexual harrasment.
We had planned to leave Agra the day after Holi, giving us an ample 5 days to cycle just over 300km to the border with Nepal, but at this stage I found myself sick with a blinding headache, nausea and too weak to walk and would spend most of the proceeding two days in bed after a brief venture out for something to eat. It was impossible for me to cycle and so Sam, with the patience of a saint, waited on me while I struggled to recover. By then we were running out of time and took a bus half the distance to our next destination. Two days of grimy hotel rooms and pot holed roads later, we found ourselves crossing a narrow bridge to Nepal, we had made it, only a few hours before Sam’s visa expired. Phew!