Agra, Uttar Pradesh, India
I had never planned to go to Agra, the home of so many Mughal architectural wonders, on this trip. It just sounded like the touristy of the tourist sights of Asia. But a train trip from Mumbai to Haridwar runs right through Agra, so it seemed stupid not to stop and take a gander at one of the wonders of the world.
So I booked a hotel for two nights and hoped that Agra wouldn’t be as bad as all of the travel sites and books had warned. My worst fears came true the second I stepped off of the train when four sets of hands went to help me with my bags, a child asked for money, a guy tried to sell me a soapstone elephant and a chorus of voices asked if I need a taxi, a beer, sex, drugs, a pirated copy of “Dirty Picture” (the box office smash over here right now), or all of these things at the same time.
A westerner traveling to Agra on the train isn’t the norm, most western tourists go to Delhi, and then do Agra as a day trip on a bus, see the Taj, get a bite, and go back to Delhi. That being said, there were a few other faces in the crowd at the Agra Cantonment train station that were being inundated with touts, so I didn’t feel like I was alone. A German gentleman was screaming “Nein! Nein! Nein!” as he walked down the platform.
I made it to the front of the station without losing anything to the touts, the only payment I made was to the official “red shirt” porter with Indian Rail who carried my bag to the pre paid taxi stalls for 100 Rupee (A shout out to the red shirts who do a thankless job of carrying huge pieces of luggage on their heads, often up stairs and over bridges while passengers scream at them to be careful with their precious semi-trailer truck tire).
The pre-paid taxi stand turned out to be a front for prepaid tour packages of Agra. It seemed that if you wanted to get to your hotel, you needed to buy an all inclusive tour of Agra. I knew where my hotel was in relationship to the train station, and I was fully prepared to walk, but it was late, dark, and I didn’t know the neighborhood yet. I searched through the booths trying to ignore the many many voices trying to sell me something, and found a booth that was away from the rest. He did one thing right off the bat that put him in my good books. He chased all of the touts away. This may have been by design, but at the moment I didn’t care.
This young guy was named Khan Shabbir, he had the official Uttar Pradesh tourism pass which made him a legitimate guide, and his offer seemed fair and reasonable. A ride to the hotel, a car for the day from 5am to 6pm to see the three important buildings in town, a trip to various handicraft shops, and a ride back to the train station the next day, 950 rupee ($19).
Khan’s suggestion was to get up early, skip breakfast, get to the Taj Mahal when the gates opened and see it at sun rise when the light is particularly good and the crowds from Delhi hadn’t arrived yet. So I told him I would see him in the morning and I hoped I hadn’t made a mistake.
Khan and a driver were waiting for me the next morning and off we went. There are four major Mughal monuments in Agra. The Taj Mahal, the Itimad-Ud-Daulah or Baby Taj, Agra Fort, and Akbar’s tomb. All the monuments have an entrance fee, but if you buy them all at the same time, you save 250 rupee. And you can buy the tickets for all of them at the Taj ticket booth. All four monuments cost 1000 rupee with the savings. After getting the tickets, Khan explained I should be very careful who I talked to once inside the Taj. If I had any problems go directly to the tourist police.
At 5:30 am, the line to get in was already over a thousand people long, but by the looks of the zig zagging queue gates, I’m sure there would be many many more in line by noon.
You start off at one of the red sandstone gates (there are three, I was at the west gate) which each by themselves would be a marvel without the Taj.
You swing around to a large open garden, and go through one more gate, and then you see it.
The Taj Mahal really is as stunning as people say. Not just from far away, but up close. The inlay work of the ruby, emeralds, and other precious stones in the white marble, along with the outlay sculpture work, is what makes it so incredible. The red flowers in this picture are not painted. Each one is an inlaid ruby.
At dawn, the fountains in front are turned off so you can get the reflection of the building in the still water.
And so you take some pictures…
And more pictures…
But even for all it’s beauty. After walking around it for 2 hours… Well… You’ve seen it. There was only one other interesting thing on the site which was a museum that had a lot of the original correspondence about the building and a set of plans that were kind of an elevation view (no pictures inside the museum).
By about 9:00 the crowds started to get denser, and as if by invisible time clock, the touts started up. Every tourist had cheap soapstone carvings or scarfs or picture of the Taj, shoved into their face and the tourist police were on the case… But there were just too many of them. One guy grabbed my arm and motioned to my camera meaning to take my picture for the low low price of 300 rupee. A cop whacked him on the head with a baton (they’re not supposed to touch the tourists), and it didn’t even slow him down. I felt really bad for the police because they were hopelessly outnumbered.
I made for the exit with the urge to start yelling “Nein! Nein! Nein!”
Khan explained that it wouldn’t get worse than that, and as the day went on, more and more touts would flood the Taj grounds and the surrounding areas. His advice was to act as if they were not there, but if they touch you, go to the police. Apparently it gets worse and worse every year and the authorities were going to have to act soon before they completely chase all of the tourists away.
Next he took me to a place for breakfast that had nice dosa, veg cutlets, omelletes, and decent coffee. I couldn’t help but notice that all the customers were white.
Then we went to Agra Fort which is a huge complex made of red sandstone with similar inlay and outlay work that is used in the Taj. It is still a working fort with the Indian army using half of it as a base (which is off limits) and the other half as a tourist attraction.
Next we went to a workshop where they do the same Mughal inlay work by hand. Workers use wet stones and wheels to shape small stones, then the marble is chiseled away at a thickness of 1-4 mm and glued into place using a combination of plaster of Paris, sugarcane juice, and coconut oil.
After a demonstration, there was a huge gift shop that sold everything from tabletops to jewelry. That’s when the salesmen came out asking which one I would like to buy and the smell of snake oil fills the air. The biggest difference between this shop is that the product is unique and very beautiful, but you can’t really browse without having a really pushy salesman in your face.
I decline to buy anything but the salespeople are very persistent, and ask why I would want to leave Agra without buying such a wonderful product that will last forever?
They say that everybody has their breaking point in India. That point where the endless enquiries for money from beggars, touts, children, taxi drivers and wallahs just boils over. I’m sure the German fellow at the train station was having his the day before at the train station.
Well this one was mine, and I lost my mind. I screamed at this poor little man about how “I would have considered purchasing something but the constant pressure from the salesmen made me sick to my stomach and now I want to throw up all over the store, and I hated his shop, his city, and his country for making me feel this way!”
“Ok. But this piece is really nice and you can get it shipped for free”
I guess it happens all the time, because it didn’t even phase him. He just kept on going.
I laughed and laughed and laughed, and walked out, knowing that ignoring them was my only weapon.