Monday, June 29, 2009

Day 4: Agra

There was no leisurely morning mulling over the previous day’s experiences, however, as our fourth day began bright and early with a drive to Agra, a visual and architectural testament to the wealth and grandeur of the Moghul rulers in India. After experiencing breakfast at the Indian equivalent of an interstate roadside stop, we were off to Sikandra to view the glorious tomb of Akbar the Great, a sixteenth-century Moghul emperor who is remembered not just for his military success, but his attempts to reconcile religious differences within his kingdom. Though Akbar belonged to the Muslim Moghuls, his court incorporated great religious diversity of scholars as well as the religious preferences of his wives. His tomb, though not as famous as that of his grandson, is nevertheless a marvel of Moghul architecture, featuring rich marble inlays set in red-orange sandstone. The detailing is absolutely exquisite. Though there is a lack of human figures or animals, the building is completely covered in geometrically based floral and abstract designs as well as carved Arabic calligraphy in relief. For those of us used to western architecture, the level of detail can be overwhelming, but the immaculate beauty is matched by the setting of the tomb itself, sitting amidst antelope-strewn verdure fed by irrigation.

We were adequately awed by the tomb, needless to say. Imagine our reaction, then, when we went to the building constructed by his grandson Shah Jahan: the Taj Mahal. Manav told us that the best way to see it for the first time is to forsake incomplete glimpses on the trek up to the main viewing area, instead keeping your eyes down until you can see the whole building in its entirety. Well, when we finally came through the dark arch and lifted our eyes up to the sun, the view was absolutely dazzling. Pictures cannot adequately convey the profound natural complexity of the swirls in the white marble of the mausoleum's dome. Neither can they show how the perfect symmetry of the building and grounds render the Taj itself more beautiful by removing aesthetic distractions, but without reducing it to formulaic components. Even while facing the battles of the hundreds of Indian and non-Indian tourists all trying to take the same exact picture from the same exact spot (placing one's hand in the air in such a way that it looks like one is pinching the top of the dome is a must), the radiance of the Taj shines through (a slight caveat: some RLC members, after having viewed thousands of pictures of the Taj Mahal throughout their lifetimes, found the Taj slightly underwhelming after all the hype). We did discover, though, why few ever see pictures of the inside of the tomb. In contrast to the outside complex of landscaped pools, tree-covered gardens, delicate white marble exteriors inlaid with semiprecious stones, long patios with clear vistas of the Yamuna river, the inside is rather plain. Plus, cameras are forbidden inside. Shah Jahan built the magnificent complex as a mausoleum for his favorite wife, Mumtaz Mahal, who died giving birth to their (count 'em!) fourteenth child. A funny story we learned from the tour guide we hired to take us around the Agra sites: the wife's full name was much, much longer; in fact, the emperor gave her the nickname Mumtaz Mahal because he couldn't say (or couldn't remember) her full name. Of course, this is probably a little exaggerated, especially given Shah Jahan's great devotion to this wife. After completion of the Taj Mahal, he intended to make an identical black version facing it on the other side of the river, but, in keeping with royal drama, his son imprisoned him in the Agra Fort not long after construction started. Shah Jahan's only request was that he be placed in a room granting him a view of his wife's burial site, which he did have until his death eight years later. As a result, we only have one Taj Mahal, but the foundations of the second one can still be seen from the Taj's observation patio facing the cattle-strewn riverbed.

Those responsible for the upkeep of the tomb take great pains to maintain its pristine conditions: parking is around two kilometers away from the tomb itself, presenting innumerable commercial opportunities for those hawking mini "marble" Taj Mahals, bottles of water (much needed!), camel rides to the entrance (watch where you step!), and beaded jewelry. Tourists also are subjected to surprisingly stringent entrance measures, including metal detectors, paddings-down (genders separated, of course), and prohibitions on certain electronic devices, as one RLC-er learned the hard way when the security guard insisted that her telephone earphones were an attempt to bypass the anti-mp3 player restrictions.

Speaking of tourists, it must be noted that the RLC posed for Indians a significant tourist attraction in and of itself. The white skin and fair hair of many of our members was a source of great curiosity for many of the locals, particularly that of Olaf and Rebecca. Nowhere was this more apparent than at the Taj. All throughout India there are now scores of photo albums featuring a decreasingly-smiling Olaf standing next to increasingly-delighted Indians. We found it sad that throughout our trip Indians evinced such deference for foreigners, whether the result of colonialism or otherwise. For example, billboards throughout Delhi featured skin lightening creams boasting, "So white, so beautiful," and the treatment we received at the sites we visited was far beyond what was necessary and what was typically given to visitors. Not only are such advertisements ironic given the sale of their antitheses in the United States and the western world, but they betray a lack of pride in their own country which many of us found very saddening.

Several members of the RLC saw this deference for foreigners manifested in an even clearer way at lunch following our visit to the Taj. Manav had already planned on lunch at a pure vegetarian restaurant which would allow some of our Jewish members to eat Indian food along with the rest of the group. Unfortunately, by the time we got out of the Taj Mahal, it was afternoon and the restaurants had retreated into siesta-mode. Yet Manav and Nikhil were not yet ready to give in to our guide's increasingly resentful and irritating pressure to take us to a restaurant where he would receive a commission. Enter a clash-cultural experience: Indian Pizza Hut. Where else can you get "Kadai Paneer" pizza featuring paneer (similar to cottage cheese), capsicum, and paprika or "Golden Surprise" crust with a mysterious meat collage exploding out of it? We definitely weren't in Kansas anymore. But beyond the food, the Pizza Hut wait staff gave us treatment beyond that of the typical Agra-ite, or so we assume. At least, we don't think it is typical for waiters to suddenly break out into a combination Indian/break-dancing extravaganza. The RLC Naacho members were especially impressed, and those of us who aren't members of that esteemed group increased our insistence on an upcoming RLC Indian dance performance.

In addition to the Taj Mahal, the Agra area is also known for its incredible marblework. Like at the Taj itself, local artisans are expert at inlaying semiprecious stones such as lapis lazuli, malachite, jasper, cornelian, and turquoise into hard marble in delicate, detailed designs that dazzle the eye. Right next to Pizza Hut was a government-sanctioned store selling such wares, so, our stomachs sated, we went over for an all-out shopping diversion. The very accommodating salespeople gave us a quick demonstration of to tell high quality marble from imitation by placing a light bulb within a Taj Mahal miniature and watching the whole building glow from within. Then, we got to work, sifting through exquisite samples of marble plates, coasters, animals, statues, and boxes in order to be able to exit the shop with much lighter wallets and much heavier backpacks.

From there, it was off to the last stop on the day's tour: the Agra Fort. Not only is the site famous for being the place of Shah Jahan's imprisonment, but the fortress is remarkable for being a pristine example of the attainment of the heights of both luxury and security. While the red sandstone walls are double ramparted, seventy feet high, and utterly impermeable (at least to a non-military viewer), the inside is characterized by room upon room of sumptuous decorative inlay, massive pillars, intricately carved walls allowing the viewer to gaze at the Taj Mahal beyond, and vast planned gardens. It was built by Emperor Akbar in 1565, and since then has only grown in extent and magnificence. Even the pillars themselves are objects for adornment, as one gets the impression that anything solid enough to be worked on and dead enough to stay still was subject to decoration--not that this is at all a bad thing, though. The detail of the palace is even such that one can tell the religion of the emperor's many wives by the shape of the room in which each lived.

We were at the fort right at sunset, which meant that the photographers among us had a field day playing with the shadows cast by the many-pillared halls, hidden recesses, and colorful visitors. The local monkeys were less willing subjects, though, running off as soon as we approached (evoking empathetic pleas for the animals' privacy from the more faunal-friendly RLC members).

This being the last stop on the Agra excursion, we then exited the fort for the long four-hour bus trek back to Delhi (once again very thankful for the air conditioning). As usual, dinner was late, even by Frist late meal standards, and conducted at the same good ol' Indian rest stop. There we were able to sample the amusing fusion of Indian and international cuisine (who knew Mexico was a big pasta consumer?) before wilting back to the bus for joys and challenges. Once again, another jam-packed day, with the prospect of even more prospects to come!

No comments:

Post a Comment