More to Agra than the Taj Mahal – Agra, India

More to Agra than the Taj Mahal
Agra, India

For once the queue for the ladies was miles shorter than for the men and I had time on my own to savour a sneak preview of the most beautiful building in the world. Like a mirage, the Taj Mahal lies at the bottom of immaculate, symmetrical gardens and from this distance it looks like it is made of fine French lace. The reflection in the long stretch of water is hypnotising and everywhere you look the paths, trees and water seem to draw you towards the building silhouetted against a clear blue sky.

Green parakeets fly through the trees, butterflies dance over the flowers and tiny squirrels scamper beneath the trees. The atmosphere is calm and peaceful, particularly along the shady tree-lined paths that run parallel to the red sandstone walls surrounding the gardens. Here you will not only get away from the crowds but also enjoy previously unseen aspects of the Taj Mahal.

What the classic Taj Mahal photograph doesn’t show is that the building is square and looks the same on all four sides and sits on a raised platform of marble. The world doesn’t end beyond the building but I was still surprised to see the wide River Yamuna. The views up and down the river and the first glimpse of the enormous Agra Fort on the hill were breathtaking.

The Taj was built as a mausoleum for the Emperor’s wife of 19 years who died giving birth to their thirteenth child. Everything about the building is delicate and feminine. The ingenious use of the translucent Makarana marble explains how it changes colour throughout the course of the day. In the morning the stone is yellow, during the day it is white and in the evening pink and when there is a full moon it glows white standing out against the darkness.

It is not until you get up close that you can see what looked like painted frescos are in fact carvings inlaid with semi precious stones. Cornelian, a orange coloured stone, glows like a light bulb when light hits it and the other stones such as lapis lazuli, malachite, turquoise, mother of pearl and black onyx are all equally dazzling.

The best time to see the Taj Mahal is as the sun rises at 6.00 am and it is well worth the early start. As with other temples and mausoleums you have to remove your shoes or wear shoe covers to go inside. A hexagon shaped screen of carved white marble sits in the middle of the room and looks like a crown made out of honeycomb. In the centre lies the tomb of Mumtaz Mahal and to her left is her Emperor who joined her when he died. The sun’s first rays enters through the arched window and between the intricately carved screen, catching the precious stones and casting lacy shadows on the walls before falling on their coffins.

The ingenious use of optical illusions and symmetry adds to the allure of the Taj Mahal. Around each of the four main archways is a border with writing from the Koran inlaid in black marble. The Arabic letters look like they are the same size all the way around but in fact the letters get bigger the higher up they go. The four minarets that surround the Taj look straight from the distance but up close you can see that they are leaning outwards, designed that way in case of an earthquake so they would fall on the gardens and not on the tomb.

On either side of the Taj are two sandstone buildings with white marble domes, again for symmetry – one is a mosque and the other is known as the guesthouse although it was never used as such. Looking back down the gardens you can admire the magnificent entrance gate with its crown of arches and marble domes, one for each year it took to build the Taj. On the other side lies a large walled outer courtyard and more gardens with three smaller gateways whose paths bring you before the main gate and the Taj Mahal beyond.

The Emperor had planned to build himself his own mausoleum on the opposite bank of the river. His would have been identical to the Taj Mahal but made out of black marble instead of white. There would have been a marble bridge joining the two together half black and half white. Only the foundations were built before his son imprisoned him in the Agra Fort and took the throne for himself.

Agra Fort is even more magnificent up close. Made out of red sandstone, the fort contains the palaces of the Mughal emperors who each added his own style of architecture. Two thirds of the fort is out of bounds and home to the Indian military but it is the palaces that everyone comes to visit. The older palace buildings are made from red sandstone covered in white stucco and would have been painted with flowers and the newer buildings are of white marble.

Small bats live in the palaces now and you can hear them from inside the buildings or occasionally see them sleeping on the cool marble. Two moats surround the fort – the outer moat was filled with water, alligators and snakes, and the inner moat was an impenetrable forest full of wild animals. Green parakeets fly through the remarkably well-preserved buildings and two had built a nest in a peculiar hole in one of the marble palaces. The perfectly round hole was created by a canon ball fired at the fort, which miraculously bounced off the King’s throne before implanting itself in the wall.

The views down the river to the Taj Mahal are incredible and at least the Emperor could see his wife’s tomb from his white marble octagonal prison. Even when his eyesight failed him he wanted to see her so mirrors were put around his bed so that the Taj would be reflected everywhere he looked.

There is no smoke coming from the chimneys on the far side of the river opposite the fort. UNESCO made Agra a pollution free zone to protect the Taj Mahal and closed down all the factories, which also explains why there are no flights in and out of Agra. Cars are also not allowed within a five-mile radius of the Taj and there is a large bus park outwith the restricted area where you can catch a rickshaw to the entrance.

As we walked around the palaces our guide described how the empty rooms and courtyards would have looked back in the 15th and 16th century. He showed us the Queen’s white marble throne located in the centre of a terrace overlooking a courtyard and surrounded by the women’s quarters. Special ladies-only bazaars were held and traders and shopkeepers would display their goods on the floor of the courtyard. Above the Queen’s gallery was another smaller gallery covered with latticed windows where the concubines could watch without being seen.

In the room where the Emperor slept we were shown the rings in the ceiling where carpets would be hung in the winter or silk in the summer. Empty recesses on the walls would have displayed flowers, bottles of perfume and candles. Large water tanks were situated on the roof and would be filled with water from the river. The water would then flow between the walls, cooling them down in the summer before finishing their journey as waterfalls, pools and fountains. Vents were made in the thick stone walls, which channelled cool air throughout the buildings.

There are two other mausoleums in Agra made out of white marble, similar in style to the Taj Mahal, although much smaller. These older buildings have larger carvings and inlaid with coloured stone. By the time the Taj was built they had finessed their art creating delicate carvings, only millimetres thick and inlaid with slithers of semi-precious stones.

Like the Taj they are set amongst beautiful gardens, some home to black faced monkeys with amazingly long fingers, and antelope. Dragonfiles and kites fly overhead all adding to the dramatic and mystical feel of these buildings. As soon as you step foot inside the gardens the noise from the road vanishes. Chaos is replaced by serenity and you can feel your heart slow down and tension leave your body.

One of the tombs lay on the other side of a bridge built by the British. Made out of iron, the road is a little wider than single track and probably the right width for two elephants to pass. The bridge was built in two tiers for a train to cross above but thankfully we were saved that experience. Squeezing over the bridge with all kinds of vehicles and animals travelling in both directions was exciting enough without having the special effects of the bridge shaking under the weight of a train.

There are roundabouts in Agra but it doesn’t seem to matter which way round you go and the cross roads are manned by uniformed police standing in little sentry boxes. Being a passenger is almost as important as the driver with the responsibility of watching the traffic on their side of the car. I watched in amazement as our guide used small hand movements giving silent warnings to our driver Mr Singh, to which he would automatically respond with a peep of the horn. Although manic there is no aggression as the horn acts as a manual alarm system that goes off when anyone gets within an inch of metal.

Black water buffalos and white cows appear to be free to do their own thing and most choose to stroll down the centre of the road, oblivious to the traffic. We were told that the biggest traffic jams are caused when two water buffalo decide to have a tussle in the middle of the street and everyone stops to watch. We also passed elephants on the road, beautifully painted with the same colourful designs that we later saw on the cabins of trucks.

Driving through the 10th century streets of Agra was fascinating and my neck ached as I looked this way and that, left and right, back and front trying to take it all in. Barbers sat under trees cutting hair or shaving the faces of their customers. Beautifully displayed carts selling perfect looking fruit and vegetables brought fresh from the country. Fathers teaching sons the intricacies of tuk-tuk mechanics by the side of the road and whole families precariously balanced on the backs of scooters and motorcycles. Outside temples, beautiful bright yellow and pink flowers were being strung together as offerings and ancient speakers blast out music or prayers. Everyone is busy doing something or going somewhere.

We visited a factory that specialised in inlaid work similar to what we had seen at the Taj Mahal, a skill that has been passed down from generation to generation. Although the larger pieces of furniture were such works of art I couldn’t imagine them in our house, we settled instead on a pair of miniature white marble elephants inlaid with semi-precious stones to remind us of the incredible detail that makes the Taj Mahal so beautiful.

Although the Taj Mahal has put Agra firmly on the tourist map the city is full of amazing buildings and a drive through its streets is an experience in itself. An hour outside of Agra lies the remains of the beautiful walled city of Fatehpur Sikri that is also well worth visiting.

There is an unmistakeable aura that surrounds the Taj Mahal that makes it more than just an architectural wonder. Love went into creating every inch of carvings and with each precious stone set and all for an Emperor who lost his soul mate. The result has transformed a mausoleum into the world’s only monument to love.