Agra-vating

Agra is the home of the Taj Mahal, and for the tourist in India that’s about all it is. Besides textile manufacture and marble-carvers, there’s not much else to the small town that is Agra besides the Fort, and the beckoning influence of the Taj has made Agra the ultimate tourist pit, with all its accompanying comforts and horrors.

Most people come for a single day before leaving, but convinced Agra had something more to offer, I booked trains that gave me a 2.5 day stay. I was wrong. Yes, there’s the Red Fort a few kilometers from the center of town, but really its just the Taj.

Besides not being able to resist the pun in “Agra-vating”, I also titled this post that because of how frustrating it is to deal with the locals in Agra, especially near the Taj. You can’t walk ten steps without someone pestering you asking if you need a hotel, if you want a rickshaw or internet or hashish or bottled water or a tour or to visit their store.

Having traveled in India for more than two months, at this point I’ve developed some unofficial “rules” for dealing with street hawkers. Basically, I’ll acknowledge them and say “no” twice, each time leaving little doubt as to the seriousness of my “no”.  The third time I have to say “no” I say it harshly. There is no fourth time.

In Agra, the requests were so overwhelming that this methodology no longer worked, and I got by with the help of hand-gestures, head-shakes, and by totally ignoring requests. As a human being, I feel its important to acknowledge other humans when they ask for your attention, but there’s a limit to everything and Agra illustrated that quite clearly for me.

As usual, I spent about half my two-day stay camped out in a coffee shop a few kilometers from the center of town, but the restaurant next to my hotel had a nice view of the Taj and I made sure to be there in time for some sunset dining each night.

On the second day, I ponied up the 750 Rupees (~$15) to visit the Taj, and its here that my cynicism ends. Its hard to deny that the Taj Mahal is one of the most beautiful buildings in the world, and there’s certainly a reason that hundreds of thousands of tourists make their way here each year. It was created to mourn the loss of a 17th Century King’s wife, and the beautiful and magnificent symmetry of the building certainly makes it worthy of spending a half-hour sitting on a bench and beholding this architectural masterpiece.

One thing interesting about the Taj is that on each side of it there is a giant mosque, perfectly symmetrical with the mosque on the other side. Anywhere else,  and these mosques would be visit-worthy freestanding mosques of their own. Next to the Taj, they complement and magnify its glory.

The Taj Mahal is a mosque, and as such you can’t wear your shoes inside. Instead, they sell cotton shoe covers that you pull over your shoes. It felt like cheating actually, since I was still wearing my shoes, but I wasn’t going to argue with the Indians cutting a few corners to save me some trouble.

The inside of the Taj is underwhelming and plain in many respects, but in my simplistic and under-developed sense of aesthetic appreciation this is entirely appropriate.

After 2.5 days in Agra I was quite ready to leave. I hopped on the train for a 12 hour ride west, where I’d head to see the wonders of Jaipur.

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