Saturday, June 24, 2017

The One And Only.


I don't know that any of the three of us slept well last night.  I know I was too excited for today because I was up before the alarm went off and it went off early....like 3:30a early.  Saeed and Dinesh would be picking us up at 4:14a.  I had told the girls we wanted to be the first in line to get into the Taj Mahal and there was no objection.  So we hustled and by the time we closed the front door of the Aman Homestay behind us,  Saeed was there waiting.  Dinesh was parked nearby.

The ticketed entrance to the Taj is via the West Gate.  Dinesh dropped us of nearby and we walked the short distance to the gate itself.  Though  my ankle is still a bit tender from spraining it in Delhi, having it in the brace has really helped it heal.  So, I am still hobbling but with barely any pain.  I still lag behind the other two but that's fine.  I eventually catch up.

At 4:30a, the world of Agra is still shrouded in darkness.


When we arrived at the entry gate, there was literally no one else around.  You cannot imagine how happy that made me!  We would indeed be the first ones in!






While we stood in line, Saeed took his spot at the ticket counter, which also had yet to open.


There are two lines to enter.  One for women and the other for me.  That's because once you enter, you have to go through security and here, the lines are separate for men and women.  As you can see, we are the first women through.  I told Chantale to make sure to position herself such that when the gate opens, she can rush in ahead of everyone else.  I had already told the girls to leave everything behind at the hotel except for their cameras as this would make it easier to get through security.


I don't know what the exact hours are for the Taj but around 5:15 or so, men started opening up the massive gate doors.



They then set up additonal barriers to continue the divide between the line of men and the line of women.


Chantale was the first person through and she ran.  I had told her it would be very obvious where she had to go.  For a few seconds, she did stop to take a photo but I shouted to her to continue - she could take photos of the buildings, outside the Taj, later on.   As she ran, on her injured foot, I shouted to be careful.....didn't want her to stumble and fall.  After coming all this way and making all this effort to see the Taj Mahal, it would be disappointing to be held back by an injury. 


As you can see from the photo below, Chantale made it first with Ayşe just a step behind her.



By the time I made it through the entrance arch, both gals were taking their photos.  They will have shots of this incredible monument without a single person in it.  Sadly, one of the minarets is under repair and so it's covered in scaffolding.  On the plus side, there's not a single cloud in the sky - it's a picture perfect time for taking photos. 




We slowly made our way towards the Taj.  By the time we got to the middle platform, people were already, quickly, making their way in as well.  Sadly for them, their photos will have us in them.   See...it pays to be first in line!



We posed for photos on the bench that Princess Diana made famous.  We each gave our cameras to Saeed.  He took two shots on mine.  This is the better of the two.  I should've shown him how to focus the lens as well as use the zoom lens but we were in a rush to beat the crowd so this is what I got.  That's me on the left, Chantale in the middle and Ayşe on the right. 





Zooming in on the dome of the Taj Mahal.

That's the mosque.


Standing with the Taj behind us, looking back at the entrance gate.

The entrance gate.

We started on the west side of the Taj Mahal, where the mosque is situated.  We had to put on shoe covers before we could step foot on the platform.





In the photo below, you'll notice that the left side of the Taj is whiter in color than the right side.  Apparently, the structure is in the process of being cleaned.  The yellow color is dirt from smog.  It's low tourist season so good time to do some house cleaning, so to speak.


Must have been a rough night for Saeed! 


Entrance to the mosque.

So, all this time, I have been referring to as inlaid stone actually has a proper name.  The art form is called pietra dura or parchin kari in India.  The work at the Taj, which utilizes semi precious stones,  is considered to be among the finest in India.










In keeping with Mughal architecture design principles, both the mosque and guesthouse are symmetric in design.  The only obvious difference is the fact that the mosque has a mihrab and a mimbar inside.










From the mosque, we made our way around to the back of the Taj, admiring the building and taking in views of the Yamuna River in the early morning.


As beautiful as the inlay work is so is the exquisite marble carvings.  It is said that Mumtaz Mahal loved flowers, especially tulips and that Shah Jahan had the border of flowers carved all around the outside of the building so symbolically this beloved wife would be buried in a field of them.  What a tender sentiment.  Oh melt my heart!







Ayşe and I paused for a photo op for her.  She told me that she had deliberately put on a nice outfit for photos so when I asked her to pose for me, she did not object. I told her the photos would be for her mother.  I always tell people that so they do nicer poses for me.  The morning light was perfect more so because we were on the east side of the building.  We ran through quite a few shots and she might disagree with me on my choices but I think the four that I have posted below are the best of the lot.  Mind you, I am not a professional photographer let alone a portrait photographer but as long as the subject aka Ayşe is happy with the photos that I took, then that's all that matters!





From here, we met back up with Saeed who was already waiting for us at the entrance to the cenotaph room.  We followed him in.  Photography was prohibited and I can understand why.  The room is so incredibly beautiful - every inch is covered with inlay work.  Guides love to show off the carnelian flowers - the petals appear transparent when the light of flashlight passes through them.  That just goes to show you that only the highest quality of semi-precious stems were used in the creation of the inlay.

The cenotaph room itself is not all large.  Mumtaz's cenotaph rests in the center and next to it is Shah Jahan's.  After he passed away at Agra Fort, his daughter had him reburied here, next to his beloved wife.  Both cenotaphs are protected by a large, very intricately carved marble enclosure so you can't get up close to the cenotaph.  I don't know if the enclosure was original to the construction of the building or added later to keep tourists at bay.


We exited through one of the side wings of the building.  The setting was perfect for another photo so again I asked Ayşe to pose for me. I took the typical tourist photo of her looking straight at the camera but much prefer this one of her looking up at the ceiling.  Doesn't it make you wonder what she's looking at? 


Inspiration comes from a similar photo that my guide took of me in 2007.  In those days, you could walk up to the flower border that rings the outside of the building.  These days, it's cordoned off.






Back outside, it was Chantale's turn.  She's very photogenic.  Of course, I had to take the photo of her including her cameras!  Would somehow seem very odd to not include them as they are pretty much stuck to her body at all times except when she's sleeping or in the shower.  Only kidding of course!




Even though it was barely 6:30a when I took the close up photo of Chantale below, it was already incredibly hot and humid.  I swear she only sweats on the tip of her nose.

There will be reprieve from the uncomfortable heat and humdity, day after tomorrow, when we finally arrive into Ladakh!  I cannot wait!


After exiting the Taj itself, it was time to check out the guesthouse, which is situated on the east side of the complex.












After the guesthouse, we slowly meandered our way back to the entrance gate.


Along one side of the gate is a covered corridor.  I remember standing there in 2007 and taking a photo of the Taj from a slightly different vantage point.  I suggested Chantale check it out so while she did that, I took a few more photos myself.




My last shot of the Taj, taken from inside the gate was taken near that covered corridor.  It was shaping up to be another hot, hazy, humid day in Agra.



Then, it was time to say goodbye.  There are actually 3 sections to the Taj complex.  The main one is the one containing the Taj, the mosque and the guesthouse.  The second section is the one that you pass through on the way to the Taj.  This is section is called Chawk-i Jilau Khana (Forecourt) and is where several additional mausoleums, including those of Shah Jahan's other wives, and a larger tomb for Mumtaz's favourite servant, are located.  Surprisingly, despite having been here twice, I've never explored the Forecourt.  I even wonder if there is anything to see? 

Beyond Forecourt is one called Taj Ganj which was once a large teeming bazaar with stalls containing gems and other luxuries.  As best I can tell, looking at Google Maps, the area is basically now everyday Agra....nothing special.  I took a few photos of the Forecourt area as I made my way back out to the entrance.




My last view of the Taj.  Maybe I will be lucky and get to come back for a third visit.  One never knows.


For now, it's time to say goodbye to not just the magnificent Taj Mahal but to Agra itself.  After our visit, we headed back to the hotel for breakfast and to pack up our suitcases.  At the hotel, we also said our thank you's and goodbye's to Saeed.  He had taken good care of us so we tipped him well. We're not done with Dinesh yet!  He's taking us back to Delhi!