Well, the Taj Mahal was pretty darn amazing. We woke up before 6:00 AM so that we could get there as the sun rose, which is the time that has the best light. We were staying only 2 KM away from the Taj, but our bus couldn't get close. We drove to a drop off point, then switched to an electric shuttle, which drove us to the gate. All the while, we could see the top of the giant dome above the skyline. As we waited in line to go through security (almost airport level!), we waited with other groups of tourists. There was a group of orange-robed Buddhist monks waiting with us, and they were so amused by us. They asked to take our photos, then asked if they could come pose with us. And then some Japanese tourists asked to pose with us, and some Indians, and it was really a turn-around to be the cultural spectacle of the moment. Part of the fun might have been the fact that a large number of the female students were wearing beautiful saris and salwar kameezes, so we didn't look like the typical Western tourists. It was an experience...!
The Taj Mahal itself is, of course, very impressive. It turns out that the Taj is a giant octagon, which we certainly found interesting (!). It is made of glowing white marble, with inlaid precious and semi-precious stones. Most of the design was floral, including some very beautiful irises (!). Just as with the Hindu temples we have been visiting, we had to remove our shoes in order to start up to the raised platform that houses the Taj. Since it was early morning, the marble wasn't yet too hot for our feet, thank goodness. Inside the Taj, the actual tombs of the king and queen were not on display (they are being cleaned and restored). But we did see replicas carved of marble that sure seemed pretty true to what the originals must be. Inside the giant dome it echoes, so even whispers carried around. It had a peaceful and contemplative effect. Outside, as we wandered around, several people pointed out that the light seemed brighter around the Taj, and we speculated that the white of all the marble actually brightened the reflected light.
Our guide showed us the original foundation, across the river, for what would have been the matching tomb, made in black marble. Apparently, the king who built the Taj, Shah Jahan, also planned to build himself a matching tomb across from the Taj so that he and his favorite wife would be linked for eternity. But his son, afraid of bankruptcy, had his own father locked up in jail so that the building couldn't continue past the foundation. When we went to the Agra fort, we saw the jail "cell" that Shah Jahan lived in until he died. It was rather swanky, I must say. Upon his death, his daughter had her father entombed in the Taj next to his wife, so I think in a way he got his wish to be linked for eternity.
After visiting the Taj, we went to Pizza Hut. Not only has it been fun to go to some of our American chain restaurants here to compare them, but this particular experience was very--shall we say-- memorable. It ended up being like something out of a Bollywood movie or something! All the waiters were rather good looking young men, and I think they were having a fun time waiting on us (I mean, we do have a number of very pretty young women with us, come on!). When we were finished eating, they said they had a surprise for us. And was it ever a surprise! They turned up the music (some kind of Indian pop dance music), and 4 of them (including the manager) actually danced for us! I mean, like dancing in a video, choreographed dancing! They could move! It was so much fun, and I suspect there may be footage showing up on YouTube sometime soon! Personally, I have an unexpected and new-found love for Pizza Hut...
Some of us went shopping in Agra, in the Sadar Bazaar, which is an area about 2 blocks long with indoor clothing and shoe stores. This was definitely not a tourist area, but it was (for Indian standards) quite a middle class shopping area. We were the only Westerners there, and some of us bought clothes and shoes. It's really interesting shopping in Indian stores; if the clothes don't fit, they immediately offer to tailor them on the spot, for free. I bought a fun skirt, but I didn't like the length, so they cut off about 8 inches and hemmed it right there. It's so very different from the American shopping experience.
At the Bazaar, we stopped in a pretty nice American style coffee house for cold drinks. Inside with the glass and chrome, we were sitting and cooling off, surrounded by Starbucks-level luxury. And then a goat walked past the windows. India.
Today we are in Orchha, after a train ride of a few hours this morning. The experience of the station and boarding the train was pretty interesting. It was a mad crush of people, moving in different directions, hawkers, children begging for money, Indian travelers, freight, loose animals, and what amounted to some fairly modern trains that were quite comfortable. Of course, we were not in coach class, so we had some air conditioning, so we can't really say we had the full experience of Indian trains, but it was still interesting.
Orchha is an ancient town, very quaint, with more trees than we have seen before. There is a river, a number of charming temples, and an old fortress on the hill. We are going exploring later in the day. Our hotel is moorish style, again around a large courtyard, and we are currently spending some time relaxing, unwinding, recovering from various stomach events, and some of us are even swimming as I type. Orchha, I suspect, is going to be a lovely experience.
Martha and Andrea