Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Around the World: Agra

February 14, 1992

The rickshaw wallah was knocking on my hotel door before sunrise, prompt as promised. He takes me to the city's most popular tourist destination before the inevitable crowds arrive.

During the time of the Moghuls in the 16th and 17th centuries, Agra was the capitol of India. Emperor Shah Jahan built the Red Fort and Jami Masjid in Delhi, and many of the palace buildings inside the Agra Fort.  He is most famous for building India's most recognizable landmark, the Taj Mahal.

The white marble changes colour depending on the time of day.

Built as a tomb for the Emperor's wife, Mumtaz Mahal, the Taj Mahal has been described as the most extravagant monument built for love.  Construction began in 1631, two years after Mumtaz died in childbirth, having produced 14 children during their 17 years of marriage.  The project took 22 years to complete, requiring 20,000 workers recruited from around India and Southeast Asia. Austin of Bordeaux from France and Italian Veroneo of Venice are credited with the Taj's ornate decorations.  The main architect, Isa Khan came from Iran.

Inside the Taj Mahal

As the grounds of the Taj Mahal fill with tourists, my rickshaw driver shares some information about another famous Agra landmark.

The Agra Fort

Construction on the Agra Fort began in 1565 with the intent to be a military structure, but by Shah Jahan's time, the fort had become a partial palace.  Inside the 2½km stretch of 20m thick walls are several structures:  towers, mosques, palaces that once served as the private residence of the current Emperor, and two halls of "public audience" where the Emperor would meet foreign dignitaries or listen to the people.  As I explore the elaborate details of the Musamman Burj, I notice I am being watched by four large vultures perched atop one of the walls.  They appear to get a little restless when I'm not moving.

Staring:  The popular pastime of India

Shah Jahan intended to build a black Taj as his tomb, but before he could begin, the Emperor was imprisoned in the Agra Fort by his son, Aurangzeb, where he remained until his death in 1666.

Shah Jahan spent the last 7 years of his life
imprisoned in the Musamman Burj...

...overlooking the final resting place of his beloved wife.

After several hours of exploring Agra's main attractions, my rickshaw wallah suggests we take a break.  He stops at a small stand in the market and offers me a traditional Indian drink, a milky, spiced tea called chai.  Milk, water, ginger, cardamom, cinnamon, cloves are boiled into an aromatic blend and infused with loose black tea.  The mixture is poured through a fine strainer and served. 

Tea wallah straining chai ready to be served.  Yum!

The driver brings me to the market where I have a chance to browse the shops selling clothing, jewelry, household items, perfume and spices.  It's a colourful display, presented in an organized form of chaos that only seems to work in India.  Every shop displays their wares in a rainbow of enticing colours and exotic smells that beg to be purchased.

Spice vendor.
Photo by Tobias Leeger

The last stop of the day includes a carpet manufacturer that wants me to import his products into North America.  The manager's hospitality ends abruptly when I refuse to invest in his scam business opportunity.  Suddenly, it's time to go. Tomorrow includes a short train journey to Jaipur, also known as the "pink city".

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"When love is not madness, it is not love."
~Pedro Calderon de la Barca

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