India Travelogue: On To Agra

For the next few weeks, I’m posting a travelogue about my recent trip to India – my first on the sub-continent. For those of you dreaming of a trip to India or for those of you who have been, feel free to add tidbits of your travel stories in the comments section!

We left Jaipur heading towards Agra and the Taj Mahal. We chose to do this leg by private car so we could stop along the way at the stepwells at Abhaneri and the palace at Fatehpur Sikri. They lay nicely between Jaipur and Agra, but it seemed the most efficient way to visit was by car.

For the most part, the countryside zoomed passed as our driver wove in and out of traffic. I tried to capture little snapshots of daily life as we went, but we went at speed. There were small villages and outdoor cafes catering to the truckers and travelers on the highway. There were farmers in the fields and goat herders. Mostly I had to be content with the photographs in my mind.

Colorful woman Indian Countryside
Driving through the Indian countryside gave me a taste for different walks of life in rural India.

Our first stop was the small village of Abhaneri to see a stepwell – a series of steps that go down into a water well. Now, this is an archeological site, but once people would walk down – and then up – hundreds of steps to get water. The site interested us because of its incredibly precise geometric design.

stepwells at Abhaneri
Architectural wonder of stepwells at Abhaneri. Stairs geometrically precise leading down to a pool of water.

A nice surprise was a small Hindu temple seemingly cobbled together from ornately carved blocks of stone that may have once fit together, but were now stacked a bit randomly. It was a working temple with a holy man in attendance.

In Abhaneri, we got our first taste of truly aggressive merchants – we thought we had already seen aggressive merchants, but these were a step above what we’d encountered, even to the point of emotional blackmail. When we wouldn’t go into a shop, we broke the seller’s heart and walking by meant depriving his entire family.

We moved on to Fatehpur Sikri where we’d arranged a guide. We learned that a Mughal king, Emperor Akbar built the palace in the 16th century. The Emperor had no children, but a holy man at this site blessed his Hindu wife with a son to carry on the line.

It seems that this particular Emperor was very practical and even-handed when it came to religion in his country. He married a wife from all the major religions in India: Hindu, Islam and Christianity. He built a palace at the site with smaller palaces for each of the wives. In a religious twist, he mixed symbols from all the religions into the designs.

Architectural detail at the Fatehpur Sikri Mosque.
Architectural detail at the Fatehpur Sikri Mosque.

He even created a new religion to try and combine these three religions – a man way ahead of his time. The new religion never caught on.

I thought it an especially big coincidence that this was all happening in the same century as Henry VIII and his new twist on the Christian church. Maybe it was something in the water.

Our first view of Agra was of overwhelming traffic in very narrow lanes. Even our Indian driver seemed a bit annoyed by it all.

We got up early to be at Taj Mahal at sunrise. We had arranged a driver and bought our tickets in advance from the Ministry of Culture. Upon arrival we found that our official tickets included an official guide.

Taj Mahal for a foggy sunrise.

The guide was a mixed blessing. He did figure out we wanted the good photo places, but he did have a tendency to rush into places and then want to talk at us for a while. Sometimes photographers (ok – mainly me) don’t want the history or architecture lecture, we just want the photos! I finally had to leave the guide to my husband and took off to take photos, leaving them behind – they knew where I was going, they’d find me later.

We were about 10th in line for security, so this was the best possible time to take photos in terms of the crowd – but it was still difficult to get clean photos. The most disappointing part was that the pools of water in the reflecting pools had been drained for cleaning. No reflections for me!

The main problem is that the best vantage points are all the same – this being a highly symmetrical space – so everyone is jockeying for the same photos. It also seems that everyone books a photoshoot here. I am willing to wait a bit and then get out of the way after I’ve gotten my photos, but even my patience wore thin and I had to be a bit aggressive at times.

To his credit, our guide knew where all the good photographic and out-of-the-way vantage points were.

Taj Mahal
View of the Taj Mahal through a break in the trees. The gardens are lovely and worth exploring.

The sunrise was foggy – as seems to be the case on all the mornings so far in India. This provides atmosphere, but I’m not so sure it’s good for the photos.

This afternoon’s plan was the fort and then the gardens across the river. The haze continued so the views of the Taj Mahal are obscured. The view from the fort would have been spectacular if the Taj hadn’t been white in the middle of a white smog.

The fort itself is spectacular in architecture. My favorite part was finding shafts of light coming through the high windows.

Agra Fort
Shafts of light illuminate little vignettes in the Agra Fort.

We finished the day across the river from the Taj Mahal. The plan was to go for sunset – the unspoken plan known only to our driver – included a trip to what is known as “Baby Taj”. I understand that most tourists do this, but I’d finally decided I’d had enough of being toured around. I wanted to do some street photography – something I hadn’t really done for a couple of days.

I wanted to see a market instead. The driver said “not possible.” So instead of going into the monument, my husband and I struck out down the local street.

I used all my street photography skills, first by enlisting a child to pose in front of a pile of clay pots and then some men drinking coffee nearby became interested. There were photos all around!

We only had about ½ hour, but it was fun to interact with the locals. Two girls became interested, but ducked into an alley every time I pointed my camera at them. It was a fun little game and brought me closer to the people of India.

Tire Repair
The boy smiles while I take his photo repairing the tube in this bicycle tire at a local shop.

It’s easy to buy a bit of insulation from the chaos in India, but sometimes we forget that all these people we pass are — well, people. They’re living their lives and have their hopes and dreams and fun little game to play with the visiting tourists.

Tomorrow we take a train to Allahabad – a city off the beaten track and we’re going on a 2nd class train. I might get my fill of living a bit more like a local!

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