13 April 2008

What a tribute to love...

27 Dec 2007The sun was slowly creeping up the horizon. I closed my eyes and sank into my seat. I tried but i couldnt sleep. So i laid my eyes on the road to Agra. We were dashing through paddy fields that are spread beyond my vision. A different world was flashing by my window, i tried to absorb as much as i can... an old man was sitting crossed leg beside his icecream trolley, he had a blanket over his shoulders and was sipping hot tea from a tincup. There was a barefooted boy wearing a jacket over his sarong tailing his mother, i presume, who's wrapped in an oversize tattered cloth. There were men taking a piss at brick walls. Of these, i was most intrigued by this boy sitting infront of me. He was quiet throughout the 2hr train ride, occasionally leaning in for a look outside our window. He had the most angelic face though i cant help but think it is partly filled with sorrow.

.He looks so engrossed in his thoughts. What is going through his mind?.

Outside the train station, we were mobbed by taxi drivers, each trying to undercut the other's price. We were worried, we wanted a decent driver who could understand, speak english and know his way around. In many ways, we were again lucky to find just that driver, Tahir. He showed us his guestbook that penned praises and thanks from his foreign passengers. With only a day scheduled in Agra, we were very eager to begin our journey but he persuaded us to have an early morning tea before beginning a hectic day. It was good.

.Beautiful morning in the backyard of a family restaurant.

Back home, when we did our research on Agra, we pictured palaces, forts, temples and the beautiful Taj Mahal. Our expectations were quite different from the reality that awaited us. We had no idea that visiting Agra, home to so many UNESCO World Heritage sites and the greatest monument of love, came at the price of witnessing so much sufferings. The streets were crowded with anything you could possibly imagine, donkeys, children, cows, rickshaws, trucks, horses, lorries, dogs, fragile old people. There were children digging through rancid trash alongside wildboars in search of food scraps. On the other side of the street, a butcher was hacking away at the remains of a cow. Mothers carrying their babies fast approaching our car to beg for money. I will never forget how i felt that day. It is the definition of the survival of the fittest. How do people adapt to this life? Or perhaps this is their life to begin with. Certainly along the way, there were beautiful sights too, but there was no joy in taking it in.

Our first stop - Fatehpur Sikri - a UNESCO World Heritage Site

The royal city built at the orders of Mughal Emperor Akbar houses many majestic red sandstone forts and buildings. He wanted a dreamcity for his wife and 300 concubines where they could live a glorious life. It is impossible to grasp the beautiful and sometimes ironic stories of places as such without a guide. We got one. As he spoke and we walked, we were amazed at what was unfolding before our eyes. Every single piece of architecture had a story to it.

Halfway through a photographer came by and offered to take our pictures. I dont know how he did it, but he made me do poses that I cringe at when looking back later. Gali. He snapped away and later asked for money in exchange for the pictures. WTF. Something to watch out for.

There's 3 sections to this fort. The most memorable ones to me are:

- the tomb of Sheikh Salim Chishtis. Many pilgrims still come to this tomb and ask for a wish, 3 wishes infact. We bought a package consisting of 3 red strings, a blanket and some flowers. When entering we were to change into sandals, wear a songkok, tie each string to window carvings and make our own silent wish, and finally lay the blanket and flowers over Salim's tomb.

- top right picture: a replica of the mosque in Mecca.

- bottom right picture: carvings of earrings then.

- the Palace Complex. At the courtyard laid the world's largest Parceesi Board, one of Akbar's favourite spots. Where human players are used as tokens, Akbar used slaves dressed in different colours to play this game.

And lastly the Diwan-I-Khas, a 2-storey building with a impressive throne pillar inside. It is intricately decorated with Muslim, Hindu, Christian and Buddhist motives that shows Akbar's tolerance to all religions.

.Tahir coerced us to visit more government shops which really pissed me off, because of his need to accumulate more points resulted in us arriving late at Taj Mahal. However, i must say i now know the great amount of skill and dedication put into weaving a carpet - a wall size hanging takes 2 person more than a year to complete, how insane it is to polish a small fragment of marble that adds up to a masterpiece. We got ourselves a 100 and 400USD worth of Taj Mahal replicas. Oh, the owner of this shop said his father worked on Brunei's Sultan Omar Ali Saiffudin mosque! Friggin' small world. +_+
.When visiting India, if you want quality goods and not risk being ripped off, be sure to visit shops that has the Govt's endorsement.

The Great Taj Mahal - One of the 7 wonders of the world and a UNESCO World Heritage Site
We did not expect such a long queue. We started queuing, inching our way towards the entrance. Men and women were separated in two different queues, make sense considering you'll practically sandwiched. People starting taking an interest at us, shaking our hands and asking where we're from. They beamed with pride to know that we have came all the way to learn more about their cities and their culture. Some of the best moments were the faces of children smiling and requesting shyly to look at my camera when I took shots of them. Then suddenly someone questioned why arent we holding tickets. ???? My buddy ran and came back with two tickets @ 750 rupees each (USD15) when the locals only pay 20 rupees. Grrrrrr.

.An hour and a half later.
Entering the Taj Mahal is like passing through an airport check-in inspection. They were very strict with the items allowed beyond these gates (no lighters, no food, no weapons obviously), and no shoes. How in the world am i supposed to find my shoes later =_=! That was the least of my concern at this point. Our first view of the Taj Mahal was through another gate. I froze and sputtered a combination of "OMG, WOW, SHIT, GAWD, IT IS SO BEAUTIFUL" The sheer size of it even through this arch is mind blowing. It is bigger than my imagination.

Stepping through the entrance into what feels like a dream makes this trip so so worthwhile. Nothing i have read, nor been told has prepared me for this moment. I was overwhelmed with emotions just staring at this beautiful piece of work, this beautiful tomb, one man's love wrought in living stones.
.Built by Emperor Shah Jahan in the memory of his beloved 2nd wife, Mumtaz Mahal, this building has inspired countless poets and musicians around the world. She died while accompanying him in Burhanpur in a campaign to crush a rebellion after giving birth to their 14th child. So crushed was the Emperor that all his hair and beard were said to have grown snow white in a few months. His symbol of eternal love for her took 22 years and 32 million rupees to materialise.

We walked down the reflecting pool and sat down on a platform directly infront of the Taj, watching ants of people circling the gigantic white marble terrace. We decided against walking in to see the caskets of the 2 lovers for being out here is somberly beautiful and heart-stirring enough. Sitting beside us was a pair of new lovers from New York, also deeply mesmerised by it. So great is this monument that it envelops you into an unspeakable state of love.

When nightfalls, i was quite disappointed that there were no spotlights, the Taj was hardly lit up by the faint moonlight. I was told the colours of the Taj change at different hours of the day and during different seasons. Like a jewel, it sparkles in moonlight when the semi-precious inlaid into the white marble on the main mausoleum catch the glow of the moon, pinkish in the morning, milky white in the evening and golden at night. These changes, they say, depict the different moods of women. OOooooh!

Its beauty is beyond any words men can conjure up. You have to see it and drown in it for yourself. I was truly happy that India has offered me the most beautiful tribute to love I had ever seen.

We woke up late again the next morning. We ran for our life. I have not felt so short of breath in so long. We ran and ran. I thought to myself ... if we cant make it, we'll just catch a cab ... and that was when the train starts moving ... my buddy jumps at the nearest door while i was still running. WTF!! I screeched and a million thoughts ran through my head. My phone, my wallet, my entire life is in his slingbag. I had nothing on me.

I'm gonna die.

I was about to well up when i heard his voice "Come in, come innnnnn quickkkk" I leapt in and shove this guy infront of me. While threatening i would have crushed his &#$*# if he left without me, we suddenly realised we're in the lowest class coach. It's look like a mobile jail. Rusty seats, barred windows, dodgy people. A piece of metal board serves as a shield from the cold icy wind outside. The train conductor checked our tickets and told us we're in the wrong coach. yeahhh. We were told that the train will make a 5 minute stop an hour later, and we planned to make a run for it.
So we ran.

Laughing like hyenas, laughing at our stupidity, cursing at the stupid schedule we've made, and again the train starts taking off and we made a jump for it. This coach looks better, in 5 minutes we still didnt make it to first class. We give up.

This is the end of our North India odyssey. What a way to finish the race.


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