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Phil's 1998 India Travelogue

Agra and the Taj Mahal, Nov 13

Took off at 7:00AM to Agra, the site of the world famous Taj Mahal. Even the most experienced and jaded India travellers told me it is worth seeing, so taking a day for a visit was always in my plans.

An Indian "Highway"

The road to Agra from Delhi is for the most part a 4 lane "highway", and I use the term loosely. While Agra is only 120 miles from Delhi, it still takes 4 hours by car, and I found out why.

The highway almost works like the concept of the highway here in the west, but the chaos consciousness that rules driving behavior in the city is also extant on the highway. Imagine driving down the highway and there's a tractor, or a motorscooter, or an ox-drawn cart going in the wrong direction in your lane. Happens all the time, now only at 50-70mph, the near-miss game that Indians can do so well. Let's face it, it would be wasting paint to put down lane markers, there is no concept of a lane in India. What's more, the road is in repair for about 25 percent of the mileage, so it end's up two lane roads with utter chaos, because you add the lorry/truck factor in, belching out diesel smoke right into your open window.

So getting to Agra was rough, and I was feeling a bit raw, since I couldn't sleep much the night before (having slept so much previously).

The Taj Mahal

The town of Agra is just another filth and pollution laden pit like so many other towns, and offers nothing attractive. ...Until you drive up the road and see the white marble towers of the Taj Mahal in the distance, an island of paramount architectural beauty in the midst of a foul city. Agra was once the capital of the Moghul empire, so that is why it and other monuments exist there.

Before you approach the Taj, you enter through a structure that it itself is pretty damn magnificent, a red sandstone structure that has some similar architectural features as teh Taj.

And security is tight, body frisking, and I had to check in my knife. But once you enter through the gate monunment, there it is, like you've seen on so many postcards and travel postures, but nothing can match the utter magnificence of viewing this "feat" of beauty firsthand. And it is huge, much much taller than you would imagine, dwarfing the visitors who enter inside. Having gone to architecture/design school, the Taj is the ultimate example of the architectural theme of "form before function".

It was built in memory of the Shah Jahan's wife, who died delivering their 14th child, and her tomb lies at the center of the Taj. And here's one interesting feature that I bet you didn't know: Once the Taj was finished, the Shah had the architect blinded and his hand cut off so that he could not design another similar monument. Yow! Years later, Shah Jahan's son, the famous butcher/emperor Aurangzeb, seized power from Shah Jahan, and locked him in a cell, but one where he could see the Taj Mahal for the rest of his life.

After taking a helluva lot of world class photos, my intenstines started to hurt again, and I got real depressed thinking that I might be having some relapse. It started to hurt to walk around, but I walked around the Taj and its two sister structure of red sandstone and white marble, and viewed the views of the Yamuna river, which they border.

Then the kids showed up. There were tons of uniformed school kids doing the field trip thing to the Taj Mahal. One kid comes up to me and does the "Hellow, what is yo name?" thing which I really enjoy, and he asks me to write my name in his English workbook. So I do, and all of a sudden I am accosted by at least 50 kids all whom want my autograph, even the usually reticent young girls were aggressive. Gave me an idea how a celebrity feels. But the incident really picked up my spirits.

Then on the other side of the Taj, I am sitting on the white marble floor changing film, and several young school boys try to communicate with me, fascinated by my camera, and soon enough want me to take their picture. In a matter of seconds, I am surrounded by 150 school kids, to the point of blocking out the sun. So I gather up the boys, then the girls and give 'em a thrill by taking their picture. These are just wonderful moments, the interaction with such innocent and delightful children that will be long time positive memories for me.

On the way out of the Taj, I am accosted by touts again, no problem, but I notice one guy, a beggar whose body is so twisted and warped that he walks on all fours like a dog and uses 4 flip-flops sandals. Man, the karmic destiny of some people! India has no welfare system, and this guy has to fend for himself, though it doesn't please me that he targets just the white tourists. But again, it is remarkable just how many cripples there are in India, there's gotta be 25-50 million of them out there. The warped ankle type seems to be the most common. It's beyond heartbreaking, it's just overwhelming. This is also an image that will be long term.

On the way out of Agra, there were several other magnificent architectural monuments that would be the highlight of any town except that the Taj reigns supreme here. In one of them, it is filled with those white haired, black faced "langul" monkeys, who are so tame you can feed them, and I finally get my langul photo!

The way back to Delhi was really bad - my large intestine felt like it was on fire, totally inflamed. Couldn't figure out what it was, but all I ate was bananas for dinner. But the worst of the trip back to Delhi is saved for the last hour.

You see, the pollution is awful in Delhi, some of the worst in the world. But that pollution is nothing compared to the industrial towns of Faridabad, Ballabgarh and Palwal just south of Delhi. These places are truly the second, third and fourth rings of hell, pollution so bad that the sun rises and sets as if the towns were rings by mountains - it cannot penetrate the pollution when it approaches the horizon. You cannot conceive the density of the pollution. Believe me, you do NOT know what pollution is - I am at a loss for words at the absolute nightmare of industrial smokestack belching, convoys of diesel smoke belching lorries intermixed with the usual rickshaw and taxi puke. And of course some of these factories are American companies like Goodyear, whom I bet are not meeting US standards here. I have never experienced the level of defamation of our planet's air supply as I experienced in Faridibad. I had the good fortune of hitting Faridabad right at evening rush hour, and the experience can only be metaphored to the proverbial psychotic bad acid trip. People live in this every day, how they survive I don't know. I'll be coughing up the memories of Faridabad for god know's how long. And I should know about industrial pollution - I lived 10 years of my life in Buffalo, NY.

Traveller's Note: Never, ever, go by car from Delhi to Agra unless you have a deep hatred for your own respiratory system. Take the train - it's faster, and you can rickshaw to the Taj.


Next, Udaipur

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