We arrived in Agra two days ago after a very long and hot train ride. Heat rashes have returned with avengence since we left our wonderful air conditioned hotel in Kanpur.
We have spent the last couple of days exploring the historical Mughal empire that Agra represents. Along with the Taj Mahal, the city is also home to an enormous and extravagant royal fort, and so many tombs, mosques and mausoleums that our heads are spinning with images of precious stones forming intricate patterns on white marble.
We had planned to see the Taj at sunrise on our second day, but of course that happened to be a Friday, the only day of the week that it is closed to tourists. So, we had to settle for a cloudy afternoon. But the Taj is always breathtaking, clouds or no. It is a remarkable building, built as a tomb in the mid-17th century by Emperor Shah Jahan for his favourite wife, Mumtaz Mahal, when she died in childbirth. It is said to be the world's greatest monument to love, but we're not sure how the 20,000 men and 1,000 elephants who laboured on it felt about that. It is incredibly beautiful and its domes and minarets can be seen from across the city.
While we were at Agra Fort, which has inhabited by Mughal emperors and their court during the 16th and 17th centuries, the monsoon finally hit. It has been very late coming and droughts and electricity shortages related to the high temperatures have been big problems for India, especially the rural and urban poor. So we knew that it was a good thing when we explored the fort in water rushing past our ankles. The sprawling fort was very regal, and we got to see the private rooms of kings and queens, all delicate marble carvings and once inlaid with gold diamonds, but since then looted by the British. Shah Jahan was imprisoned here after his son usurped him, and he spent his remaining days looking out over the amazing vistas onto the Taj that he built for Mumtaz.
Yesterday we hired a cycle-rickshaw driver to take us to the Itimad-Ud-Daulah and Chini-Ka-Rauza - two other beautifual Mughal tombs - as well as Mehtab Bagh, a park with a spectacular view of the Taj from across the Yamuna river. The Itimad-Ud-Daulah is nicknamed baby Taj since it was the first building to use the style of marble and stone found in the Taj.
We had a great day, but having our rickshaw driver take us back to our hotel instead of numerous shops was a challenge. For those of you who aren't aware, going to a shop recommended by a rickshaw driver in India is not a pleasant experience. The pressure is really on to buy something that you don't actually want, and you are not able to walk out of the store empty-handed without an argument. Agra is much worse for touts even than Varanasi, and unfortunately our driver was not an exception. We knew when hiring him that we had to set a price for the whole trip, explicitly say that we wanted to go to no shops, and make him promise to keep his word. Even after doing all this, and making friends with him over the course of the day, he stopped short in the middle of the highway on our way back after we had to tell him again that we wanted to visit no shops. He refused to keep pedalling, and we refused to go to shops, so we had a long conversation in the middle of the traffic. We had planned on giving him a tip as well, but even after he told him this, he was unsatisfied. Finally we convinced him that we weren't going to give in and we made it back. But we ended the day on an unpleasant note. It's frustrating to believe that you're making friends, only to have them accuse you of being a bad person if you don't pay them more than you had agreed upon.
Agra is beautiful but we're looking forward to heading north, hopefully out of range of the hoards of touts and tourists that we have experienced this week.