The backside of the Taj Mahal

It’s probably best to draw a veil over the personal habits of the chap sitting next to me on the Taj Express to Agra but, suffice it to say, however hungry I may have been I couldn’t bring myself to consume more than a cup of tea. On my arrival I was cheated by the rickshaw driver and, of course, at my hotel the contents of my reviving bath ran out onto the floor to flood my room but it was the attitude of the staff at the Fawty Mahal that really lived down to expectations.

Now, if the Internet doesn’t work, it doesn’t work and I’ve learned to find plenty of ways around the difficulty in this country, but having a skinny youth tell me that the problem must lie with my laptop and then attempt to wrest it from my hands to fiddle with the settings…………..”NO!” Sitting in the foyer while my room was cleaned out (no offer of a new one, you understand) I witnessed a procession of “guests” come to the desk with as entertaining a variety of complaints as the list of their countries of origin. Out of gratitude to my helpful travel organisers back in Delhi, I have substituted a pseudonym for the hotel; I didn’t pay that much for it and this is the most visited tourist venue in India. No wonder so many people go back with a negative impression.

My reason for being here was not to re-visit the Taj but to return to Fatepur Sikri, the great City founded by the Mughul Emperor Akbar in 1569. On my previous visit in 2006 we had been delayed by a political demonstration and arrived only just before nightfall, so time was short and the photographs nigh on unusable. There was also a personal reason for coming back but, first, I had to overcome a full-on camera crisis of expensive dimensions. Mr Singh, my driver managed to get a camera shop opened up at 9am by making a couple of calls (otherwise we would have waited until 11am for the youngsters in the “Street of the Techies” to emerge into the light of day). The intermittent power problem was first pronounced to be the batteries, then the charger and then the camera itself. I suspect that it may be no more than gunk on the terminals, exacerbated by the Indian habit of applying a little spit to facilitate connectivity but its unreliability posed a serious problem. There was nothing to do but purchase a back-up camera and keep my better one to be looked at when I return to Mumbai and can ask my friends to recommend a reliable repairer.

The location of Fatepur (City of Victory) was chosen by Akbar on the recommendation of a holy man when he sought advice over his inability to father a child. Much as he is said to have loved and respected his three wives perhaps someone should have advised him of the “diluting” effect of all those hundreds of concubines. Nowadays, pilgrims tie little cords around the jali of the marble mausoleum of Salim Chishti as an offering in order to be blessed with offspring and since my first grandchild was “on the way” back in 2006, I followed suit. Four grandchildren in just over four years proves that the blessing worked in my case and so this time I intended to repeat the process for the benefit of certain friends and relatives. I made the stupid mistake of enquiring from a group of boys after the loan of a pocket knife, intending to cut a few of the colourful tassels from my scarf to tie on the screen as recommended, and was rewarded with a procession of some of the most persistent vendors in India, all intent on selling me a brass handled knife.

Well, at least I completed my visit in one piece and, on the journey back to Agra, Mr Singh and I chatted about family. He is an extremely uxorious man (don’t you just love that word for devoted husband) and it turns out that, some time after the sad loss of his first wife, a friend of a friend happened to mention that the teenage sweetheart who he had not seen for nearly twenty years was also now a widow. Love was rekindled and, four children later, they remain as devoted as ever. Hearing my not dissimilar tale, he extended a sincere invitation to visit the family when I’m next in India. Who knows? Whatever I do, I won’t lose that particular business card.

Back in Agra there was just time to take an auto to see the “backside of the Taj Mahal” (as the view from across the river Yamuna is referred to locally) and grab a couple of shots of the outside of the Red Fort. This is the same fort from which poor old Shah Jahan is said to have looked across at his wife’s mausoleum from his prison cell, after being deposed by his son. Families! Then it was off to the station for the Shatabdi Express back to Jaipur.


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