Sunday 13 November 2005

Well there was not much sleep last night! We both snoozed on and off but laying for so long (~14 hours) and all those loud snorers was not so great. We had actually gone to bed at 18:00 and got up at 06:00. We also successfully managed to avoid needing to go to the long drop toilet on the train (just didn’t fancy that). Although in general, the overnight train ride was actually better than we were expecting!

We arrived at Agra almost an hour late, our Indian Moments representative was waiting as we stepped off the train and took us to the car. We arrived at the hotel Howard Park Plaza about 08:00 but had to wait about half an hour for the room to be cleaned and ready. After a quick freshen up we went down for a ‘continental’ breakfast then returned to the room for a shower.

We met our guide and the driver at 11:00 and first went to see Agra Fort. Much of it is used for military so only 25% is open to the public. The whole place is built of red sandstone. We visited two palaces and the gardens within the fort walls (there is an inner wall and an outer wall). We then stopped for a light lunch on the way to the Taj Mahal.

The Taj Mahal was built by the Mughal Emperor Shahjahan in the memory of his beloved queen Mumtaz Mahal (his second of three wives whom he had married for love, he was 21, she was 19. She died aged 39 whilst giving birth to their 14th child). She had two dying wishes (1) to build something beautiful above her grave, and (2) to remarry. The Taj Mahal was his expression of love for her and it is immensely beautiful. The work that has gone into building it is amazing. The delicate engraving and the inlaying of the stones is incredible.

We went inside to see the tomb. In the centre lies the Empress, and by her side lays the Emperor. The tomb was not built for the Emperor, however, since he wanted to build an identical building across the river made of black marble for himself. The work was started but the Emperor’s son was not happy since there would be no fortune if this second building was completed and so he had his father imprisoned. The prison was a tower within the Agra Fort which we visited whilst there. The Emperor died during his eighth year in prison and so was laid to rest in the Taj Mahal. This was the doing of his son. To see a mirrored black marble replica across the river would have been an amazing sight but sadly was not achieved.

After our visit to the Taj Mahal, our guide took us to the factory where they traditionally make marble pieces with jewels inset – done the same way, and using the same tools that where used when the Taj Mahal was built. A design is drawn on marble, then the jewels after being shaped and polished are laid out (some jewels are combined stones glued together), the outline is traced then the marble is engraved. The jewels are then fitted and if the surface is not smooth the marble is altered. Then the jewels are removed and a layer of glue is put on the marble. The jewels are then re-laid and filled with a powdered substance. The piece is then sanded so it is completely smooth and no joins can be felt.

We were invited to have a look in the shop and were both immediately drawn towards a green marble with mother of pearl chessboard table. It was lovely and really stood out from the rest! There were many lovely pieces but the green marble was certainly the nicest. We had a look at some coasters and some marble boxes since we wanted to take away something as a souvenir and reminder of our visit. This chess table we’d seen as we walked through the door soon came back to our minds. It is truly beautiful but we came in not intending to spend any money at all yet this was screaming for us to buy it! It was a lot of money though and we also couldn’t imagine where we would put it in our flat!

We were so indecisive, wanting it and not, that they left us to talk about it amongst ourselves. In fact they actually left and went outside, they were not pushing us to buy at all; it was this table doing all the talking and wanting us to be it’s owner! When they came back in we soon agreed we would take it and they lowered the price quite significantly and threw in also a set of checkers (draughts).

As we were writing the delivery details (they send it via DHL within 10 days) I was asked which of several elephants I liked the best. Thinking he only wanted my opinion I selected one and he then gave it to me and said it was mine, a gift!

We were able to have an inscription on the back of the chessboard so I wrote our names, the place and the date, and one of the workers came to engrave it there and then! We were asked, once we were home, to send a photo to them showing where we have placed it in our home, and since we had told them we had visited the National Parks to photograph tigers they also requested we send a photo of a tiger too! If we want any other item, or wish to resell the chessboard table we are simply to email them. They can commission any design or locate an existing item (every item they make is unique) and will send a photo of the item by email and we can buy extra items in this way. They say they have a website so we’ll have to look when we get back home!

After this rather expensive visit, our guide took us to the rear side of Agra Fort to show us where the Emperor was imprisoned, then across the road we could see the back side of the Taj Mahal from the almost ‘dried up’ Yamuna River so took some more photos there. Our driver will take us tomorrow to a place directly behind the Taj Mahal to take photos by moonlight and then the sunrise. We leave the hotel at 05:30!

Back in the hotel we relaxed with some drinks from the mini-bar which only stocked soft drinks and water. I was going to go swimming since there is a pool here but I’m so exhausted that I snoozed instead. Later we went to look at the shops at the side of the hotel, then came back and ordered room service for our dinner. After flicking channels on the TV and watching the last half of the film Twister, it was quite late and definitely time for bed!