Northern India 5

Wednesday February 22nd

Last night was rough thanks to both of us getting the proverbial and literal’Delhi Belly’. Imodium quickly sorted me out, but Christine was not so lucky and had to retire to our bed with a headache and nausea. I managed some dinner and by 10.30 we were tucked up in bed. A loud bang and we were plunged into darkness. We phoned down and an electrician, looking like Supermario, arrived and reset a trip switch in a locked cupboard in the corridor. After checking everything turned on and off he left. We settled down and were soon asleep. Another loud bang woke us up. No lights again, another phone call and a different electrician arrived and performed the same trick. We were now aware of pounding music coming from somewhere, presumably the Skybar directly above us. I went out and asked the staff on duty to turn it down. I had no effect. Back in the room the lights blew again, so I phoned the manager. He said he would come up, but failed to materialise. So clad only in my pyjamas I went to the lobby to find him. He apologised and said he had got the wrong room number and came up with me. He quietened the music and summoned the electrician and by 1.00 we were able to settle down to sleep. Needless to say we were not at our best by 8.30 when we had to leave. Just about everyone had had some complication with their room, including safes that wouldn’t open and noisy air conditioning. Our collective advice would be don’t stay at the Royal Plaza Hotel in Delhi. Several of us have mentally prepared Trip Advisor reports dripping with vitriol!

Anyway the day began well with a visit to a large mosque Jama Masjid, indeed the largest in India. It is built of red sandstone and marble and in the early light looked stunning. It was completed in 1665 after 6 years of work by 5,000 labourers. Unfortunately there wasn’t time to go up the south minaret which is open to visitors.

Regaining our shoes and hoping not too much pigeon poo had accrued to our feet we were loaded onto cycle rickshaws for a hair-raising trip to the Spice Bazar. I know it was a very touristy thing to do, but it was great fun and the journey was full of incident  and interesting sights. We scrapped down narrow alleyways, overhung by a cat’s cradle of electric wires. Once in the Main Street there were bullock carts and men pulling unbelievably heavy loads to the market.

Having dismounted we walked past shops and stalls selling walnuts, figs, dates, sultanas, almonds, and spices of all sorts. There were also brightly coloured flower stalls displaying marigolds and roses. I was taking a picture of one when the stall holder thrust a rose at me to smell. He insisted I keep it and even now it is perfuming my camera bag.

We ended up in a shop of course where our guide clearly had connections. I suspect he was also on commission! We were given a quick talk and smell of various spices and teas and then invited to buy. Christine and I bought a couple of gifts and then went back into the street and found tea and chillies at a fraction of the price he was asking for them. If we only had more room in our luggage!

Then it was back in the rickshaws and another dice with death as we squeezed down an alleyway given over largely to textiles. The material was brightly coloured of course and there were shops selling sequins and ribbons……a real feast for the eyes. Back in the Main Street the congestion was so bad our rickshaw wallah dropped us off so we could walk to our coach. Death where is thy sting? Having survived that there is little that can scare us!

A short drive, distance wise, and we came to the Raj Ghat where Gandhi was cremated. It is a beautifully simple memorial to the great leader. A plain, black stone slab with circles of marigolds on it marks the spot and at one end a flame is kept burning .  The whole thing us set in a delightful garden.

Then on to Agra. Once on the motorway, built by Jaypee, the Tata of cement companies, we paid our toll and sped along, past fields of rice and marigolds, herbs and fodder and a whole new crop of concrete skyscrapers. We were passing Jaypee Sports  City, a complex of stadia, golf courses and racing tracks built by the ubiquitous concrete company. It all looked pretty ghastly, but would provide a good deal of housing, which is clearly much needed. Whether the local farmers had got a fair deal for their land is another matter, of course.

Lunch was at a service station. This was none of your KFC or Little Chef though. The plates may have been melamine and the cups made out of clear plastic, but the food was surprisingly good. It was also quite cheap. If only our motorway services were as good as this!

We then caught up on some sleep – the whole coach did, I suspect and, before we knew it we were approaching Agra (not to be confused with Niagra, as Christine wittily  said). Luckily no one on the coach is agraphobic, I said which illicit end groans all round. On the skyline the unmistakeable silhouette of the Taj Mahal appeared. Below is the view from our hotel room. We have to be up at 5.15 to se the Taj at sunrise! No one had better play loud music tonight anywhere near our room!

Thursday 23rd February

An early start, but well worth it to see the Taj Mahal at sunrise. We got to the East Gate at 6.15 and queued until about 6.50 when the gates opened. Coming through the Gateway and seeing it as the first rays of the sun hit it was breathtaking. I was afraid it would be disappointing, but it wasn’t. It is just so perfect. The minarets on the 4 corners are angled slightly outwards so that should there be an earthquake they would fall outward away from the tomb. This also has an affect on the perspective as they do not bend away when viewed from below.

To the west of the tomb chambers is a beautiful mosque while to the east is a guesthouse which lookidentical to the mosque. Thus the whole site is in balance.

We drove back for a late breakfast and were then taken to one of those ‘craft workshops’ that are really tourist rip-off joints. Thus one specialised in inlaid marble and certainlay the craftsmanship was superb. However the salesmanship was pretty high powered and some of us got out quickly. I went for a walk down a lane into an agricultural area which was very pleasant. Some people bought a few items, but overall it was not a very pleasant experience.

Then we headed for the Agra Fort, built by Emperor Akbar between 1565 and 1573 out of the local red sandstone. It is a vast site only 25% of which is open to the public. There is a very impressive gateway which leads into pleasant gardens and then a number of courtyards with buildings around the, all built by various Murghal emperors. Some areas are in white marble and have cool elegance. As in many Islamic structures, water played a major part and there were fountains and canals fed by large water tanks. The water was lifted up by a series of water wheels from the river below – a remarkable feat of engineering. Again it was quite crowded, but as the crowds tended to coagulate around a guide they moved on and left a brief breathing space before another clot of visitors formed. I quickly wandered away from our guide and Christine soon joined me. There were very informative panels around so we really didn’t need his services.

As I wandered around I followed two trains of thought. The first was trying to imagine what it must have been like to live in such opulence. Akbar was a great ruler who tried to unite his kingdom by taking 3 chief wives, one from each of the main religions. He also had 500 other women in his harem! He employed the craftsmen who built the fort , they were not forced labour. He held meetings in his Diwan where he would try to dispense justice and wise counsel. It was amusing to speculate what it would have been like to be at his court.

My second train of thought was more prosaic. Why do we do this visiting of ancient sites? What do we get from it?  Do we really learn very much, or do we just consume the place and move on. The crowds taking their selfies in front of arches or views seemed happy enough. It clearly gave them pleasure and perhaps that is enough. The crowds moving around with their guides listened intently, but I doubt if they retained much of what they heard , so what was the point? I am part of this travel consumption and I don’t really know why I do it. Is buying an experience really any different from buying a new shirt of T.V. ? i need time to reflect on this!

After  a late lunch and a lounge by the rooftop pool we headed off to the far bank of the Yamuna River to look across to the Taj Mahal as the sun set. No roseate hue I’m afraid, but it was very pleasant to sit in the gardens and watch the sun going down. Flocks of egrets started up every so often from the water’s edge and a kingfisher sat meditatively on a post. A pleasant end to a very good day.

Tomorrow we head for Jaipur.