Saturday, January 3, 2015

India: Agra I

B. and I spent a highly-anticipated week in India around Christmas, drawn there to celebrate the marriage of two of my high school friends.  The wedding was a beautiful, joyous, and fascinating week-long affair across two cities (Kolkata and Indore).  With only a day to spare for touristy outings, we made a pilgrimage to India's ultimate tourist site: the Taj Mahal in Agra, Uttar Pradesh.

Note: I've split this trip into three posts.  While the Taj Mahal is the site that draws millions of tourists to Agra each year, it's not the only thing in town to see.

We set out from New Delhi early in the morning to make the 3-ish hour drive to Agra.  The Yamuna (aka Taj) Expressway, a 6-lane highway which opened in 2012, now connects the two cities and has made the formerly arduous trek to Agra into a convenient day trip.

Entrance to Agra Fort via the Amar Singh Gate, protected by double walls and a formerly crocodile-infested moat.  
The original and grandest entrance was through the Delhi Gate, which is unfortunately now closed to the public.

Having lived in China for two years, I don't really believe in fog anymore -- all reduced visibility is assumed to be air pollution until proven otherwise.  New Delhi has serious air pollution problems which rival (and often exceed) those of Beijing but, as the drive proved, it also has serious fog.  Visibility on the road dropped to mere meters (umm.... yards, for readers back home).  Aside from when we swerved to narrowly avoid hitting a plastic roadblock, though, our cab driver didn't even blink at the driving conditions.  According to him, it's standard for this time of year. 

The Jahangiri Mahal, the principal palace for women belonging to the royal household, seen through the fog.   
The palace was built by Emperor Akbar as a token of love for his son Jahangir.  Jahangir reportedly had a harem of 800 women.

Arriving in Agra in such heavy fog, we were afraid that we'd visit the Taj without being able to see it. Accordingly, we made Agra Fort, also known as the Red Fort of Agra, our first visit of the day.  Agra Fort is a UNESCO World Heritage site.  A fort has stood at that location since at least the 11th century; the present-day red sandstone fort, better called a walled imperial city, was built in 1565 by the Mughal emperor Akbar.

In case your Indian history is as fuzzy as mine, here's a quick cast of characters for this period.  Each emperor ruled over a fascinating period of favorite sons and wives, rebellions (sometimes by said favorite sons, occasionally successful), court intrigue, and empire-expanding wars, as well as patronage of culture and complicated religious relations.
  • Akbar the Great (1542 – 1605), the third and one of the greatest emperors of the Mughal Dynasty in India.
  • begat Jahangir (1569 – 1627).  Akbar's eldest surviving son and declared successor from an early age, Jahingir revolted against his father and was defeated in 1599.  He ultimately ascended the throne upon Akbar's death in 1605, due to strong support from the women of Akbar's harem.
  • begat Shah Jahan (1594 – 1666), chosen as successor to the throne after the death of his father.  Shah Jahan built the Taj Mahal as a tomb for his beloved wife Mumtaz Mahal
  • begat Aurangzeb (1618 – 1707), whose imperial name was Alamgir ("world-seizer or universe-seizer").  After deposing his father in a coup in 1658, he ruled over most of the Indian subcontinent for 49 years.  The Mughal empire came to a peak under Aurangzeb, and declined rapidly after his death.

Entranceway to the Jahangiri Mahal.  
Our tour guide told us that the dot in the middle means that those are not, in fact, Jewish stars.

Intricate carvings in the red sandstone walls.  These have been restored in many places.

The fort was well-defended by a crocodile-infested moat, double outer walls that stood over 20 meters in height and 2.5km in circumference, choke points and inclines to halt armies and elephants, among other defense mechanisms. 

Abul Fazl, a court historian for Akbar, recorded that some 5000 buildings were built in Agra Fort in Bengali and Gujarati style.  Few of these buildings stand today. Some were demolished by Shah Jahan (Jahangir's son and successor, who also built the Taj Mahal) and replaced with white marble buildings, inlaid with gold and semi-precious gems like the Taj.  He transformed the fort from a military garrison into a palace; it later became his gilded prison after his son Aurangzeb seized power in 1658.  Later, the British destroyed most of the buildings to build barracks.  Much of the fort is still in use by the military (Indian now) and, as such, is off limits to the general public.

The white marble is decorated with inlaid gold and semi-precious gems.  Each flower and swirl is hand-crafted and composed of multiple pieces.  Completing all of the decoration would have taken the work of many artisans over many years.

On the far side of a large courtyard, along the eastern wall of the fort, are the Diwan-i-Am (Hall of Public Audiences) and Diwan-i-Khas (Hall of Private Audiences).  The large open hall was used for receiving petitioners -- a communications ground between the public and aristocracy.  Shah Jahan’s legendary Peacock Throne, which was inset with precious stones including the famous Koh-i-noor diamond (now part of the British crown jewels), was once housed here.  The throne was seized as a war trophy in 1739 and has been lost ever since.

Keep reading for Agra, part II!

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