Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Cheesin' at the Taj Mahal

Today was the big day: the Taj Mahal. Going to India was the initial purpose of this whole Asia trip, and the Taj Mahal is the big ticket thing to do there. Come to think of it, the Taj Mahal may be the only thing to do or see in India that I'd even heard of before we started planning to come here.

We had a tour and a driver all planned out so everything went very smoothly. The guy picked us up and we began the drive to Agra where the Taj Mahal was waiting.

I spotted Noida Wish Town on the highway to Agra. It looks like they are trying to build a whole new city from scratch out here.

The place looks cool but it gives me the impression of a sketchy construction project that will never be finished.

We stopped at a rest stop along the way.

Our driver explained that people in the countryside here make bricks for a living and that brick making will stop in a month for the rainy season. The brick people have to live far from the city so they don't pollute the air. Air pollution is such a problem that the Taj began to turn from white to yellow, so the government created a controlled emissions zone surrounding it to try to combat this.

Agra is much smaller than New Delhi and I found the daily life I could see from the car to be much more interesting. I feel like the larger a city is, the more its culture is just "city" and less the country's that surrounds it.

Agra was the capital of Mughal India. I talked about the Mughals in yesterday's post. They called it Akbarabād at the time.

Lydia liked the ladies riding side saddle on motorcycles. I always cringe when I see people with their kids on these. We saw a motorcycle accident just in the week we were in India.

When we drew near to the Taj, our driver introduced us to our guide Faizan and we began our tour. Faizan had great English and a hipster style going on. He was a bit of a blowhard though, and often when he asked us about ourselves it was so he could attempt to one up us. He went on about how many languages he can speak and how many connections he has. Ok. Despite this he was a good guide overall I'd say.

Faizan hung back and told us to enter the gate to the Taj Mahal on our own for a dramatic first look. That first little peak of it through the doorway gave me a rush. Like "it really is real!" I felt a similar jolt when I saw the Great Pyramid.

As you can see it's not really that crowded considering it's such a big deal. Most of the visitors seemed to be Indian as well. The fact we came in the middle of the hot summer I think means that this isn't the tourist season, and so there are way less tourists. Plus although the weather was punishing yesterday it was quite nice today. Winning!

Those damn scaffolds are there for cleaning but it made our pictures less than perfect. Oh well. I'm not 100% sure how it works but apparently the foundation of the structure is made of wood that was submerged underwater. This seemed to work but now the water level of the nearby river is dropping, and the wood now partially exposed to the air is beginning to rot. Cracks have appeared and it sounds like something serious is going to need to be done to save the place.

One nice thing about having a guide is that you have a third person to take pictures. No arms length selfies for me!

Now let's see, what did I learn? The Taj Mahal translates to Crown Palace in Persian. Wikipedia: "The Taj Mahal was commissioned by Shah Jahan in 1631, to be built in the memory of his wife Mumtaz Mahal, a Persian princess who died giving birth to their 14th child, Gauhara Begum. Construction of the Taj Mahal began in 1632."

There are verses from the Qur'an written all over the place in frilly calligraphy.

Something that sets this building apart from earlier ones is the use of white marble with semi precious stone inlays.

Apparently when the light hits the building during sunrise and sunset the light passes through the translucent marble and changes the building's color. We weren't allowed to take pictures inside the building but a worker turned on a flashlight and held it against the wall to produce a really cool effect. Not only did the white marble light up but all of the colored inlaid stones lit up vividly as well. It was super cool.

The zigzag patterns on the exterior gave an optical illusion. I think they played around with perspective as well to make things look better.

The four minarets are tilted slightly outward, so that if an earthquake or whatever else caused them to fall they would fall away from the central structure.

We took advantage of the safety our guide offered to take a ride in one of the dreaded auto rickshaws back from the Taj Mahal.

Next our guides took us to a workshop place where they make inlaid stuff similar to what's displayed on the Taj Mahal.

It was nice see the process but then came the inevitable hard sell. I was happy to tell them no a few times then leave.

The last place we visited was Agra Fort.

So after the Taj Mahal was completed Shah Jahan fell ill. His son seized this opportunity to imprison the emperor at Fort Agra and take control. Shah Jahan recovered but his son declared him incompetent to rule. He and the other sons then battled for control of the empire. The emperor's prison at least had a view of his wife's tomb.

The Mughal emperors owned a large diamond called the Koh-i-Noor, which is Persian for "Mountain of Light". When the British ate India the diamond was "gifted" to them and is now part of the Crown Jewels.

Here you can see a bit of the light interacting with the marble that also takes place back at the Taj.

We had a little lunch.

These were candy coated fennel seeds that are often served at the end of meals.

We said goodbye to Faizan and our driver took us back to New Delhi.

I was napping in the car and awoke to that bumpy sound that happens when you are driving on the edge of the road. Our driver was not his fast driving, aggressive self either. I checked his reflection in the rear view and the dude was just about sleeping and kept closing his eyes. Cars would honk as they passed us. I smacked the guys shoulder, and asked him if he would like me to drive. I thought that would be enough shame but it was not. I suggested we stop at the next rest stop and that he should get a coffee. Back on the road he's back to wanting to go to dreamland. Not going to happen. I kept on him, asking him asinine questions about his family which he may never see again if he didn't concentrate on the road. He was the worst. Earlier our guide told us "you don't need a drivers license in India, just a good horn and good luck". That joke was becoming steadily less funny.

Steam boiled American flavored sweetcorn in a cup! MMMM!

I got an authentic local snack at the rest stop to fuel my annoyance.

You know you're making good choices when you see the World Health Organization's cars on the road.

Trucks in India have a lot of things painted on them. The "horn please" phrase has its own Wikipedia page, and is supposed to mean please honk when you are passing them. Apparently the Indian state of Maharashtra banned this sign on cars because honking has gotten so bad.

Back in our neighborhood we had some dinner and some masala chai, which is my new favorite. I guess the word "chai" in India just means tea so masala chai is what you have to order if you want the awesome spicy concoction you are expecting.

Ta da!

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