Saturday, December 04, 2004

Agra Revisited

I went to Agra with the in-laws, last Saturday. I was looking forward to a break (after only one week of office) and happily gave up catching up on precious sleep to re-visit Agra.

When one thinks of India, Taj comes to the forefront among all the other imagery associated with India, much as Eiffel Tower is to France and the Statue of Liberty is to New York or the Colosseum, to Rome. And yet, Agra itself is such a pathetic, crowded, squalid city and the traffic, Oh god. It has to be the worst in the world. The only traffic rule is that there is none. All sorts of vehicles, small, medium, big, driven or pulled by various animals, rickshaws, cycles go as they please, turn right or left, make a U-turn any where and at anytime as they please. Sort of like a reverse Caucus Race (Like in Alice in Wonderland where all the animals started running whenever the felt and stopped whenever they felt and some one, eventually, won). One would never know that within its chaos is some of the most beautiful monuments in the world.

Our guide, kindly lent to us by our host, knew all the routes to the scenic spots but he had never actually been inside any of them!! This would be his first time. The Taj in your backyard, it seems, is no big a deal!

First stop was the tomb of Itmad-Ud-Daulah, Nur Jehan's father, Jehangir's father in law and Shah Jehan's grandfather. Fore runner to the Taj, it is built in red stone with inlaid marble work. The gates, lawns, porticos, water tanks all were very stately and yet graceful in the inherent geometry in their architecture. Read in a plaque there, that ultimately, it reflected the poetic refined soul of the powerful iranian who lay entombed.

Sikandra, Akbar's mausoleum, was even more beautiful. Similar to Itmad-Ud-Daulah, it was grander in size, as indeed befits the mighty Akbar. Herds of deer were grazing nonchalantly among the trees, peacocks paraded disdainfully, their magnificent fan tail hidden from view.

The arched domes had vestiges of the splendour that it had once been. What vibrant shades of blue, green, with intricate gold patterns, no two alike. And half eaten away, corroded, defaced. What a pity. In sharp contrast was the hall in which lay Akbar's tomb - bare walls, a plain marble slab for a tomb of the mighty Akbar, who, centuries after Ashoka was the most powerful ruler, India ever had.

The sun was setting and there was hardly anyone around. As I was walking, a deer startled by something, ran across the portico, its hooves clattering noisily. It gave these graceful leaps and bounded away. It was so beautiful, it was as if I was transported back in time.

People can now, for some 600 odd rupees, view the 'Taj by moonlight' for five days in November and December, 2 days before full moon to 2 days after in each month. We were lucky to have reached just after purnima or full moon but we couldn't stay in Agra till 9pm since we'd have to drive back to Delhi. We did the next best thing. That is to have a 'dekho', anyway.

We reached around 6.30pm. The sun had set, there were no stars in the sky, the moon not yet fully risen and all lights switched off.

The Taj was a haunting, ghostly white, all its intricate jali work a play of shadows. It was ethereal.

And although it was still very crowded, no one was immediately visible in the darkness. An occasional flash of a camera would light it up and then it would subside into shadows. It was so poetic. I guess everyone felt it too, because for once, there was near pin drop silence from the usually noisy Indian.

It was as it was meant to be - an epic of sadness, a tomb in the memory of a beloved; viewed by a desolate, brooding Shah Jehan from his prison cell in the Agra Fort accross the Jamuna, pining for his Mumtaz Mahal.

Faced with so much beauty and the sheer brilliance of the artistry, one felt very humble. Felt very silly with our usual preoccupations of our mundane little lives to which we attach so much importance.

"Pichey murkey nahin dekhtey, Taj ko" (We don't turn to look back at the Taj), said our guide, citing a popular / local custom (?)...but I simply had to. Everything else I have seen, pales in comparison.

I couldn't help rue that little did they know - Itmad-Ud-Daulah, Akbar, that just a few decades later, a kindly invitation to an english trader to the court of Shah Jehan, would signal the begining of the end of this once mighty and glorious empire.

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