Sunday, 3 July 2011

Marathon - Day 7

The next day, we woke early and set off about 9.00am in our Toyota Innova Car for our 4 and a half hour journey south to Agra 205kms away.

Mum and dad’s luggage was tied to the roof of the car with some rope and we all were a bit worried that as we were driving, it might come lose and we’d see their underwear and clothes strewn across the road behind us. Every time we pulled up next to a reflective surface, e.g. the side of another car, building or bus, I had a quick look to make sure it was still there on the roof.
I was so glad to be getting out of the car and stretching my legs when we arrived at our first sight of the day at 1pm; but I was very quickly hit with the urge to dive back in as it was so unbelievably hot!

The sight was a place called Sikandara which is in the outskirts of Agra and on arrival we were greeted by Ghopal, who was to be our guide for our whole stay in Agra.  He spoke perfect English, was very knowledgeable and looked like a really tall Michael Jackson from his pre surgery ‘Rock With You’ era (minus the huge afro).

Sikandara Is the Tomb of Akbar the Great who started the build but it had to be completed after his death by his son Jahangir in 1613. The tomb is surrounded by large gardens which are enclosed by a large wall that has four grand entrances. The largest and grandest of the entrances is the south gate which has four marble minarets. All the buildings are constructed mainly from red sandstone, enriched with features in white marble, black slate and semi-precious stones in beautiful geometric, floral and calligraphic designs.

South Gate.

South Gate.

The calligraphic marble work on the South gate was incredible, it was extracts from Islamic scriptures and each line of writing was slightly bigger that the previous line, so the effect of perspective wouldn't affect it and the writing appeared the same size up the whole building! It was so clever!

Close up of carved marble Islamic scriptures.

Leading from the south gate to the tomb are channels cut into the ground, like mini canals, that would've at the time been filed up with water that ran down and collected in a pool at the front of the tomb.

Akbar's Tomb and water channels in the ground.

Akbar's Tomb and water collection pools in front of it.

Inside the tomb building, was just one long corridor that sloped down and led to a high dome ceilinged room with a marble coffin in the middle of it. When we walked in there was an old strange man that stood and made some sinister loud barking noise that seemed to echo for about 10 seconds after he’d stopped. It was very dark, creepy and cold in there I didn’t feel comfortable to stay in there for a long time. Apparently, (according to Ghopal) the reason it was so cold was due to the design of the building. It had a double dome system roof which acted as an air conditioning element and kept the building cool at all times of the year.

Surrounding the building was an arched promenade that was specially designed so that you could stand facing the wall in one corner of the room, whisper something and someone in the opposite side of the promenade could hear what you were saying. It was so clever! Especially as it was built so long ago, it seemed to be such sophisticated architecture!

At the corners of each arch pillar, you can get the whisper effect.
All the grubby marks on the walls are where people have put their hands and tried the effect.

We were taken to our hotel to check in have lunch and a short rest before beginning our sightseeing again. The hotel was called Howard Sarovar Portico and was really nice; it had a large lobby that had a full height ceiling with a large chandelier hanging down. Our room was on the second floor overlooking the lobby just a few doors away from mum and dad’s.

Front of the hotel.


Once in our room, we had about an hour to shower and relax, however after about ten minutes, there was a horrendous screaming and banging noise that came from our window! I drew back the curtains to investigate and was greeted by a huge monkey hanging from the above window ledge outside looking at me! There was in fact a large group of monkeys climbing all over the building; some of them even had baby monkeys clinging to them. It was quite a novel and a strange thing to encounter, but also scary because they were so loud and it seemed that some of them were trying to pull open the windows, luckily though, they were locked.

View from our room of the monkeys.

Baby monkey!

After our lunch in the hotel restaurant, we were off to our next sight, Agra Fort, which was just a short drive away into the heart of Agra. On the way there, the guide pointed out that you could see the Taj Mahal in the distance and I tried not to look at it because I didn’t really want to see it until we specifically went to see it.

Agra Fort was originally a ruined brick fort that was rebuilt and restored with red sandstone by Akbar the Great and was completed in 1573. When it was occupied by Akbar’s grandson Shah Jahan (who built the Taj Mahal) he ordered parts of it to be destroyed, redesigned and built using his favourite material, Makrana marble and detailed with inlay of precious stones.

Agra Fort entrance.

Shar Jahan, died in 1666 after spending 7 years imprisoned in the fort by his own son Aurangzeb. It is believed that this was because Aurangzeb was furious with him for using most of their wealth on not only the building of the Taj Mahal but on his plans for building an exact replica of it in black marble, the opposite side of the river (the foundations of which were started and can still be seen today).

Today over 60 percent of the fort is still under Indian military occupation so we weren’t able to see all of the beautiful palaces that were built in it. What we did see was beautiful, there were sunken pools, herb gardens, marble palaces and pavilions.

One of the palaces in the fort.

Courtyard of one of the palaces.

Palace where Shar Jahan was imprisoned.

Beautiful marble and precious stones inlay work.

Each cavity in the wall would've contained a candle for light.

Another palace and sunken herb gardens.

Ornate pavilion where the Shah Jahan would've been entertained.

One of the best parts of the fort was the view of the Taj Mahal, and there was no avoiding it for me here, but it was worth seeing as the view was amazing.

View of the Taj Mahal from one of the palaces.

The Taj Mahal in the distance.

As it was getting towards sunset, we drove round to the other side of the river to view the Taj Mahal properly for the first time from the back. The short drive took us through the crowded windy streets of Agra and down a small lane where we had to get out of the car and walk the rest of the way down the small dirt track towards the dried out river bank.

When we reached the bank, we were hit with the Taj Mahal’s grandeur and amazing beauty. At that time of the day the white Makrana marble that the Taj is made from glistened and appeared a magical pinky colour. Every second that the light changed throughout the sunset, the marble seemed to change to another colour. It was magical!

The Taj Mahal from the riverbank.

Surrounded by crows!

On Friday’s the Taj Mahal is closed for restoration work, where a selected group of craftsmen are allowed exclusive access to clean and replace missing precious stones in the detailed marble inlay work.  So the view we had of it was luckily unspoilt by the lack of thousands of tourists which was the best time to see it and just appreciate it magnificence.

Adjacent to the river where we were standing was a small campsite occupied by a group of men who were apparently security for the Taj Mahal and permanently lived there just to guard it from the backside. I think that that wouldn’t be such a bad job, looking at that view 365 days of the year; it really was a beautiful sight.

After standing there in awe for about an hour, we were driven to see some crafts places in Agra. It was really the guide taking us to his friend’s shops and hoping we’d buy something in order for him to gain some sort of commission, but it was actually really interesting

This first place we were taken to was a warehouse where they made Persian rugs. We were led down stairs by an employee to a work/show room where another man was sitting at a loom making a rug and they both then proceeded to demonstrate and emphasise to us the art and skill it took to making a single rug.

After the demonstration, we were ushered to the other side of the room, offered a drink and a seat where we were then bombarded with loads of rugs that they had begun to spread across the floor in front of us. Tom and I weren’t that bothered about buying a rug, but my mum and dad actually were interested in getting one for their hallway at home. So we were then sat there for nearly an hour whilst prices, styles and colours were thrown back and forth. Eventually, they settled on a particular rug and a price and we were on our way to our second shop.

Some of the Persian Rugs.

As we pulled up at the second shop, a group of men, upon seeing our car, seemed to run out from a building to right of us (where they had been relaxing and drinking tea) into the building in front of us where they all promptly sat down at work stations and began to ‘work’. It all seemed quite fake and amusing.

Inside, once again, we were given a demonstration (by these men) the skill of creating a single piece of detailed marble inlay work, which was actually quite interesting and I could appreciate the beauty of these more than the rugs we’d seen earlier.

We were then led into a large show room down stairs where there were hundreds of marble souvenirs ranging from small elephants to vases to enormous dining tables. This time though we all weren’t interested in spending a lot of money but, we did buy a few small souvenirs. Mum and dad bought some elephants and I bought a pair of cuboid candle holders that had Carnelian gem stone inlay. When you shine an intense light on the Carnelian, it glows red and this element of it means that it is also known as firestone, it is beautiful.
Marble elephant souvenir. 

My candle holders.

That was luckily the last stop of the day and we all went back to hotel and had a few relaxing drinks in the hotel before bed. We didn’t stay up long because the next day we were going to see the Taj Mahal at sunrise, which is apparently a must see as the marble again appears to change into another array of colours.

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