Snippets of Agra, India.
Snippets of Agra, India.
After an intense week in India’s frenetic capital, New Delhi, my travel mate Allan and I jumped on an equally hectic train to the city of Agra. Almost everything about my India trip thus far had felt like a relentless assault on the senses. Including, it turned out, the presumably simple process of boarding a train. Joining the chaotic throngs of people on our platform at New Delhi Railway Station, we found ourselves shoved and jostled as we literally fought to reach our pre-booked economy class seats.
The service from Delhi to Agra took just under three hours, by far the shortest journey of my entire Indian adventure. And the trip flew by faster still when we found ourselves seated opposite two bright-eyed young Indian men. “Welcome to India sir!” grinned the guy in the checkered shirt. We then got chatting, our newfound friends telling us about their lives working as call centre operatives in Delhi.
Every weekend they took the train home to Agra for some much needed rest and family time. The quieter of the two men, bespectacled and with a curtains haircut, excitedly told me how he was a big cricket fan. As I was British, he assumed that I was also crazy about cricket (I couldn’t care less) and proceeded to hit me with an array of questions I couldn’t answer. “Sir, how rich is Ian Botham?” was probably my favourite.
Snippets of Agra, India.
When we finally pulled into Agra I made sure to carry out the photographic honours. Then presented them both with 50 pence coins plucked from a little bag I’d prepared for such occasions. “Thank you, sir! God bless The Queen!” cried checkered shirt. And off we went in out separate directions, never to meet again.
From all the hundreds of hotels, guesthouses, B&Bs and apartments I’ve stayed at during my world travels, very few were as memorable as Agra’s filth-ridden but highly characterful Hotel Shahjahan. Our reasons for choosing the place were straightforward. 1: it was cheapy cheap and 2: centrally located within walking distance from The Taj Mahal.
We weren’t expecting much, but nothing had prepared me for the abysmal room the receptionist gave us on arrival. Nevertheless, I have fond memories of hanging out with the hotel manager, a grisly, marijuana-fuelled philosopher by the name of Guddu. That’s him straddling the motorbike above.
Guddu had a whole host of children born from a variety of women. One of his offspring could usually be found on Hotel Shahjahan’s rooftop playing with his toys in the shade. One afternoon I let him handle my growing collection of elephant figurines, during which I managed to grab this treasured shot. I had such great memories of this awful/wonderful hotel. To find out more, check out my short stories The Shithole and Same Same But Different.
The Taj Mahal.
It was from Hotel Shahjahan that we left at dawn for the atmospheric walk to The Taj Mahal. I remember the early morning light seeping into the quiet streets, monkeys hopping between the trees as we went. Arriving ahead of opening time, Allan and I succeeded in beating the infamous Taj queues to swiftly buy our tickets and pass straight through the security barriers.
The Taj Mahal really is as breathtaking as its reputation suggests. How I would love to go back one day and photograph it with the camera I have now. Construction began in 1632 upon the order of the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan, who had been left heartbroken after the death of his favourite wife, Mumtaz Mahal.
She died giving birth to their 14th child! And, as the legend goes, begged him to honour her with the grandest mausoleum ever built. It was a promise he duly delivered with a quite spectacular white marble building that took twenty one years to complete. Shah Jahan eventually ended up joining Mumtaz to rest in The Taj for evermore after his death in 1666.
The mausoleum sits in a simple but elegant Mughal Garden with a reflecting pool. The very one, you may recall, that Princess Diana famously sat in. And of course the moment was photographed, perfectly encapsulating her sense of isolation and loneliness during Britain’s royal visit to India in February 1992.
Snippets of Agra.
Getting hassled by rickshaw drivers was par for the course in India. But there was something different about Mona, a sombre, softly-spoken man who offered to ferry me around Agra for a sum of money so insignificant it seemed rude not to accept.
Somehow, I felt he was completely genuine and that he wouldn’t subject me to any of the usual lies and game playing that came with the territory of rickshaw travel. Happily, Mona didn’t let me down and at the end of the day I gave him a generous tip. I remember he reacted with just the faintest trace of a smile and a weary but appreciative nod of the head.
My main stop that day was Agra Fort, one of India’s finest Mughal castles. Mona dropped me off and told me to take my time, before climbing into the backseat of the rickshaw for a well-earned nap.
Agra Fort was built from red sandstone in 1565 by Emperor Akbar, Shah Jahan’s grandfather. It subsequently became one of the Mughal Empire’s most iconic structures, a symbol of its creator’s fearsome power.
While Akbar envisioned the fort primarily as a military installation, his grandson Shah Jahan later transformed it into a lavish palace. I’m talking luxurious living quarters, grand mosques and vast, sweeping courtyards. Once again his favourite white marble was employed throughout. Agra Fort was also where Shah Jahan spent the final eight years of his life trapped in a prison cell. Tragically, it was his own son Aurangzeb who betrayed him and left him to rot.
Cruelly, Shah Jahan’s cell window overlooked his grand creation, The Taj Mahal. I couldn’t help but take a moment to sit there myself and try to imagine the depths of his despair.
Throughout my Indian travels, I endeavoured to buy an elephant-themed souvenir in every place I visited. In Agra I found just what I’d been looking for in this tiny, shack-like store near the train station. In fact, I fell for these little marble elephants as soon as I saw them and met the store’s owners, a pair of friendly (and somewhat goofy) brothers.
Beautifully carved and worryingly delicate, I felt certain my marble elephant would break as I lugged my gear around the country and ultimately back to Scotland. Somehow though, the little fella survived.
Moreover, it remained intact when I later moved to the city of Leuven in Belgium. And then again when I moved onto the Belgian capital, Brussels. Later, it emerged unscathed once again following my move to The Netherlands. And had not even a single scratch when, some years later, I shipped my possessions to southern Spain.
Snippets of Agra.
Finally though, my beloved Agra elephant’s luck ran out one Spanish afternoon. This was when my mischievous cat Bill climbed the TV, jumped onto the shelf above it and brought the entire thing crashing down. Mr. Elephant now has a large hole in his side, but is no less adored. I was furious with Bill, but of course forgave him as soon as he shot me one of his adorable, wide-eyed looks.
Check out more of my travel reports from across India.
For a deeper look at my time in the country, have a read of my short story collection Incidents In India.
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