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Agra, Fatehpur Sikri and Orchha

sunny 30 °C

Agra
Naturally, we were both eager to lay eyes upon, ‘a teardrop on the cheek of eternity’ and ‘the embodiment of all things pure’ but we were wary of tourist hordes and wondered whether the Taj Mahal would live up to its superlative descriptions.

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After arriving in the mid-afternoon, we decided to wait and see the Taj the following day at sunrise. Upon waking the next day, we noticed it was already 7.45am which meant we missed the sunrise and would most likely be engulfed with hordes of group tourists. Surprisingly, we strolled up to the ticket booth around 9am without having to wait and I flew through security whilst Scott was explaining why he had a packet of straws in his bag that were eventually confiscated as they were deemed lethal to the protection of the monument. An Irish couple we met later in the day said that they had their deck of cards confiscated. Very weird. Not deterred by that start, we strode off towards the main gate.

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Walking through the gate we suddenly stopped short and ‘yes’ the Taj Mahal is definitely a gasp worthy monument. It seemed to be floating and appeared as a painting due to a haze that gave it an ethereal effect. Pausing every few metres for photos, we started to notice the beautiful ornamental gardens and the water course way. We were blessed with missing the group rush and seemed to find ourselves in a relatively quiet window of time that made for some lovely photos.

It isn’t until you reach the base of the Taj that you begin to appreciate its true beauty. The central Taj structure is made of semi translucent white marble covered with flowers and inlaid with thousands of semi precious stones in beautiful patterns. The cenotaph of Mumtaz Mahal is an elaborate false tomb surrounded by exquisite perforated marble screens. Fortunately, for Mumtaz and Shah Jahan, their actual tombs are buried well below the hustle and bustle of the tourists so they can rest in peace side by side.

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The Taj Mahal is one of the seven wonders of the world and it is fabulous and totally worth a visit. With the Taj Mahal overshadowing Agra Fort, it is easy to forget that Agra has numerous other noteworthy sites. We were a little reluctant to spend more money on visiting another fort since we’d spent the better part of one month exploring Rajasthan’s forts but we thought we might as well. In fact, it turned out to be more of a palace than a fort and it had fabulous river views of the Taj to boot.

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Our third great find in Agra was Dasaprakash restaurant. We were lured in with the promise of spectacular thalis but ended up ordering the best macaroni cheese (au gratin) in Asia. To top it off, we experienced their ‘Super Strawberry Soda’ which was definitely a super duper soda. We went there twice in two days!

Fatehpur Sikri
The magnificent fortified ancient city of Fatehpur Sikri some 40 kms west of Agra includes stunning examples of Mughal architecture and we were really looking forward to spending a few hours there. Initially, what struck us as unique compared to other sites we have visited, were the ornamental gardens that surround the palace buildings. The buildings themselves may have lacked the intricate carvings and mosaics seen elsewhere but the site was expansive and well planned with multiple courtyards and multiple small palaces to accommodate each of the ruler’s three wives (one a Muslim, one a Hindu and one a Christian). Much of the relief work, whilst simplistic, contained motifs of all three religions.

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One of the more bizarre sights in the palace was the Hiran Minar tower that is decorated with hundreds of stone representations of elephant tusks. It is said to be the place where Minar Akbar’s favourite execution elephant died. In fact, one courtyard served as an immediate execution area whereby Akbar would pass judgment on a person’s fate that may result in instant crushing by an elephant’s foot. Ouch!

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Nearby the palace complex is one of the more interesting Jama Masjids / Mosques we’ve seen in India. The mosque is massive but the front entrance gate is 54 metres high and the mosaics on the inside are still relatively intact.

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Orchha
Initially Scott was reluctant to visit Orchha because of its isolation and it would mean a couple of train journeys packed into 3rd class; however, I convinced him of its worth and off we went by train. Orchha, which means ‘hidden’, is an historic village on the banks of the Betwa River that showcases fabulous medieval Indian architecture. Not only that but Orchha is the cleanest town in India. We did not see one pile of rubbish and it even seemed as if the livestock were making an effort to keep the town’s streets well maintained.

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Wheat fields, tall trees and country paths wove around the numerous buildings that took the better part of a day to explore. It was truly lovely to spend a day walking in such a pastoral area without touts, tour groups and the ever present honking of horns.

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You can see from the photos that the main palace building resembles Bundi’s goblin-esque architecture but it lacked Bundi’s exquisite paintings.
During our meandering, we literally stumbled over a small temple complex emanating ‘Moooo’ and ‘Gigagigagiga’ from a generator. Naturally, our interest was piqued and we walked around farm equipment, broken stones, goats and cattle in order to enter the temple courtyard, which happened to be used as a corral. Here, we truly understood the meaning of one sage traveller’s comments that you have to, ‘literally walk through shit to see the jewels’ in India. On the roof of a cupola standing off to the right and above a huge mound of cattle pooh arranged as blocks of fuel, we discovered Orchha’s best paintings.

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Orchha is a lovely wee town and is worth a visit despite its remoteness. Next stop is Khajuraho and I’m sure it’ll be one of the highlights of our trip to India.

Posted by Deb_Scott 04:43 Archived in India

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Great photos and dialogue

by john cozens

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