We’d been confined to barracks for a couple of days because of illness. I had a heavy cold (I’m keen to get rid of it before I get zapped into quarantine as a coronavirus suspect in Singapore or Sydney) while Michelle has had a tummy bug. We had to postpone our last lash at the sights until our final day – that we’d originally set aside for R&R before heading home.
Not that staying in the Shangri la Eros is irksome. (Incidentally, ‘Eros’ might indicate some exotic sexual services, but it is just the opposite. The management didn’t even want the male henna artist into our room to do Michelle’s hands because it may have been ‘improper’.) The hotel is set in ‘New’ Delhi among embassies, mansions, government buildings and big business. The streets are wide and tree lined. This part of town denies the poverty and squalor nearby and charges accordingly. For instance, Michelle was cautious about eating, and wanted a simple bowl of fried rice for dinner. I’d already eaten, so all I wanted was a drink. The Shang’s fried rice cost about $19 and my crème de cacao (which covered the bottom of the glass to a depth of 1mm, meaning that with one sip it was gone) cost $12. Total about $31. But by the time the add-ons had done their job the bill was $40. The government gobbles18% GST tax, there’s a 10% service charge, and to express its abhorrence of drunkenness, the government pops on a further 20% alcohol tax and calls it VAT. This does not reflect poorly upon the Shang but illustrates the actual cost of living it up in India.
India is not really a country that welcomes tourists, despite all the nice Taj Mahal images in travel agents’ windows. For a start, filling in a visa takes hours of research to find out where you grandfather went to school and the name of every country you have ever visited since you were born. Once that’s sorted, you might want to buy some rupees in Australia so you can at least tip helpers in India, but that is forbidden. If you are caught with rupees coming into India, they are seized and so are you. Then, if you are unfortunate enough to land in Delhi, the airport resembles a cattle saleyard and you are treated accordingly. After that, wherever you go somebody is imploring you to buy goods and services you don’t want, and demands you explain why you don’t want them, after which the price comes down and it all starts again.
In many ways is a wonderful place to visit, but you pay a price – and then a bit more.
Enough of my beefing. We had two more must-sees for our final day. The first was the Swaminarayan Hindu temple. Because it was opened as recently as 2005, visitors often dismiss it because it isn’t old and partially ruined. The fact is that visiting this temple is like visiting the Taj Mahal or the Red Fort just after they had been built. It has to be one of the most spectacular buildings in the world. It is made from sandstone and marble without using any steel or concrete. The huge stone blocks, all carved in intricate detail, are not held together with cement but limestone paste – that lasts much longer.
Security is over the top at the temple. No cameras, edibles, phones or electronics are allowed. Shoes off to go inside. In addition to the main temple there are vast gardens and other buildings – all in the name of Swaminarayan, 1781- 1830, whose followers believe he is God on earth, physically perpetuated by a succession of latter-day Swamis. The current one has millions of followers and millions of dollars from donations. Although all this is encompassed by the Hindu faith, it seems to stand alone, in that it worships one mystical man who professed to be Hindu.
The temple and its surrounds make up a thriving business as well, with catering and souvenirs. You can take a package ticket that includes a series of animated scenes of the Swami’s life as you move from theatre to theatre. The figures are quite lifelike as they blink and move their mouths, arms and hands. In the final scene the Swami delivers a message of peace, compassion and non-violence and then rises from his chair – like Abraham Lincoln does at Disneyland.
From there you take a theme park-like boat ride through caves that tell you what historically smart people the Indians are, claiming the discovery of most of the scientific, chemical and astronomical fundamentals that didn’t get ‘reinvented’ by the West for a further century or more. About he only invention not claimed was the wheel. I thought we may have gone down a steep slide and a splash to finish, but no, this was a gentle cultural experience and we clambered out of the boat while the next two thousand people waiting to board shuffled forward.
Or last stop was the Bahai temple. I had seen it previously and wanted to share it with Michelle, but when we saw a queue that would take an hour to reach security and then another hour to wait for a ten minute peep inside we decided to take a picture through the fence and leave it at that. It certainly is an impressive building that might have been called ‘The Sydney Lotus House.’
On the way back in the jerky, crawling Sunday traffic, our guide expounded the benefits of
cow shit. Apart from the blessing imparted from it, being holy, it is dried and burned as household fuel, emitting a fetching and purifying odour. Cow’s urine is even more highly regarded, since it can be refined for many medicinal uses, including some anti-cancer properties. The main problem is in collecting it. You have to follow the cow around with a bucket and then be nimble enough to place it in the catchment area when the cow gets that certain look on its face.
So that’s INJAR for this time. As I’ve said before, these are memories for Michelle (tour companion extraordinaire) and me, but we’re happy to share them.
If weddings were banned in India, the economy would collapse. They generate giant waves of work for caterers, musicians, animal keepers, astrologers, holy persons, tailors, drivers, turban fitters, planners, photographers, venue operators and transport services.
Most marriages are still arranged by parents. They used to be paid for by the bride’s family but now the crippling costs are shared with the groom’s family. Our first guide in Delhi, Gotam, barked out staccato information to us as we moved about because he was continually distracted by his mobile phone. The reason? He was trying to organise his wedding on the run. He told us he had to decide on a band (mostly comprising brass instruments and deafening drums) costing between A$600 for an outfit that was only roughly in tune, to the best band in Delhi that would set him back A$2000. The photographer was asking A$1800 for a combination of still and video shots. Gotam had to hire a dressed-up white horse for an outrageous sum even though it only had to carry him about 200 metres. He recalled his friend who put his young nephew on the horse and rode in a car beside it because he was frightened of falling off. Most of the official clobber is hired because of costs. It is only meant to be worn once and discarded anyway.
Gotam was only counting on a small wedding of about 500 people (they have to be invited in family groups) but a wealthy wedding can have thousands, with exotic animals like elephants and camels accompanying the horse-mounted groom on a noisy tour around the city. In addition to the wedding ceremony several lead-up parties have to be thrown too. It seems that nobody elopes or jumps the sexual gun before matrimony. It’s pay up or remain abstainately single.
While the Taj Mahal is a unique building it is not quite as unique as most people think. It follows a pattern of Mughal architecture that was established well before and after the Taj was built. Our Delhi tour yesterday revealed at least two other mausoleums that are in the same style as the Taj. One was Nawab Safdarjung’s tomb. Built in 1754 (The Taj Mahal was built in 1631) it looks like a smaller copy – but made from yellow Jaipur sandstone without the intricate inlays of the Taj. It too has a reflection pond, symmetrical gardens and four gates. Also like the Taj, one of its sides is all the same. Both this tomb and the other nearly-Taj are accessed by such high-rise steps that many unathletic people just take a look, shrug, and walk away.
The ‘other’ Taj was even more lookalike in structure. It is Humayun’s tomb. He was the second Mughal emperor and his final resting place was built 80 years before the Taj Mahal. The concept was a reverse of the Taj in that it was built by a wife to honour her husband who cashed in his chips at 48. If the government had painted it white (over the red local sandstone) they could have saved Donald Trump going to Agra. Humayun’s tomb is a UNESCO world heritage site, along with its symmetrical gardens and grand gates. Where the Taj gets is magic is probably in its marble whiteness and scale. Humayun is 50 metres high whereas the Taj is 80 metres. Humayun has no minarets against the Taj’s four balancing ‘bedposts’.
Indian guides all have their own interpretations of history and facts about the country. Language also plays a part in misleading the listener. An early guide told us there were 565 states in India with a corresponding number of families with royal blood. Yesterday Gotam got it right with 29 states and only about 25 royal families headed by revered maharajas (not allowed to be referred to as kings) who generally have money, cultured British accents, but no political clout. Another example: at the Gandhi memorial, Gotam told us that, following Hindu custom, Gandhi’s body was cremated at this site (he had been shot by a fellow Hindu in 1948, aged 78, for trying to settle differences between Hindus and Muslims) and the ashes taken away to be tipped into the Ganges. We overheard an opposing guide telling his group that Gandhi’s remains were still at the site in a box beneath an eternal flame. Incidentally, I had to ask Gotam about the Ganges becoming polluted with ashes and body parts that hadn’t burned too well. He said that the designated tipping places were strictly controlled, and the bits were sieved out and used to make electricity. Just how, he couldn’t say.
We visited the enormous Delhi Red Fort built by Shar Jahan in 1639. It took a nifty nine years to finish, including the obligatory moat with imported crocodiles. It was more a walled city, housing the royal family, grand meeting buildings, staff and military quarters. There was also a mosque to save the finnicky young prince from going outside to pray with the commoners. When the Brits colonised India the viceroy said: “now look here, we need a bit of jolly old British architecture inside the fort for our chaps to sit and tell these local fellows what for.” And so up went a long London-looking three storey building inside the fort grounds for the chaps.
Rather than walk the congested trading streets of old Delhi we were advised to take a rickshaw. We chose a battery powered one rather than make some poor bugger pedal us along. I thought that walking may have been more enjoyable until we got into the thick of it. Agra’s market streets had nothing on this. There was fruit, vegetables and flowers being sold on the roadway, people delivering, people buying, buffalos pulling carts, motorbikes, dogs, muddy puddles, overhead electric wires in a tangle like a kid’s fishing line, and everybody yelling.
Hotel Toaster Report
The Shangri-La Eros Hotel offers one of the grandest breakfasts I’ve ever seen, catering for European and Asian tastes. Yet when it comes to toasters, all it has is single Skinnymini Infuriator. This model gets its name from the dimensions which only takes in one slice of bread multiplied the length of time to toast – and even then, it needs two passes. This is a picture of the Sknnyminie Infuriator with a typical infuriatee.
I can’t remember why we decided to go from Agra to Delhi by car. It may have had something to do with flight availability. Anyway, our Toyota SUV came for us at about 11 a.m. after we’d had a spirited discussion with the hotel cashier at bill time about being gassed. Michelle’s overview of polyurethane’s effect on the human lung won us a dinner credit. Then it was into the impossible traffic along the road Trump’s motorcade will follow on 24 February.
Trump’s Indian visit will include Agra where the Taj Mahal will be closed for the day to all but his official party. All the streets on his route are being cleaned and planted with fresh mature trees. The existing dusty leaves will be hosed clean. Fences are being painted to hide rust. Spaghetti tangles of electric wires are being taken down and replaced with orderly bundles. A work force of thousands was making footpaths where there was only mud previously. New, fancy electric light poles were being erected. People will be under curfew when his motorcade comes through and kept right away from the streets he will see. The entrance roadway to the Taj Mahal was already being tarted up when we visited and there was a smell of fresh paint everywhere. In other words, Donald won’t see the real Agra.
The same type of farce was enacted when President Bill Clinton visited. He commented that Agra was a ghost town because there were obviously no people living there. However, when he returned for a private visit after his presidency, the place had miraculously become over-populated and surprisingly filthy. On that occasion the only concession made to him was a few accompanying cops while he strolled around beguiled by the saris, muttering “I did not have sex with those women, either.”
As we approached Delhi, the traffic made Agra look like a quiet country town. I must pay a tribute to our driver who had been outstandingly skilful in combining dodging with safety. Coming into downtown Delhi there was a sharp left turn with a traffic light perched up high among the trees, which you don’t notice until you’re virtually past it. 50 metres further on the cops had set up a well-manned trap. I suspect they work the traffic light and when they switch it to red the next cars to arrive are guilty of a ‘serious travel offence’. Our driver was summoned for a dressing down and a fine of 5000 Rupees (about A$115 – a huge sum to a local with an ordinary job like driving). We could see our man in earnest conversation with one of the cops – who dress like soldiers to make themselves look more menacing. Our driver came rushing back to the car to borrow 500 Rupees from us. He’d done a deal for an ‘on the spot fine’, pay now thank you, all forgotten. On your way sir!
All over India cricket is an obsession. As soon as you say you’re from Australia, Indian men start talking cricket. They all mention Shane Warne, Glen McGrath and Steve Smith, but above them all, like a major Hindu god, is Ricky Ponting.
My last visit here was 20 years ago when the most popular car was the Ambassador – in reality a Morris Oxford unchanged for about 50 years. Now they’ve all but disappeared, mostly replaced by the Suzuki Swifts, followed by small Toyotas. Aftermarket bumper bars are fitted to the rear of most cars for obvious reasons, with dents on them like notches on Don Giovanni’s bedpost. Serious motor accidents are relatively rare in the inner cities. There isn’t room for them.
Buying from Indian retailers follows a set pattern. The first announcement of the price is delivered quickly, with the shopkeeper averting eye contact. The buyer’s response, which is generally half the asking price, must be delivered with a scoff and one step towards leaving. The shopkeeper then puts on a face that looks as though he has a stomach complaint and mutters his best price. The response is to offer about 10 percent less than that and flash the money. The shop keeper grunts, nods, wraps up the purchase in a barely-there plastic bag and the deal is done. Both parties are happily dissatisfied.
Guides take tourists to government approved, clean, air conditioned, neatly and profusely stocked shops where the tourists are ripped to shreds and the guides get a commission. But if you persist, you can rough it in the peoples’ markets where you dodge honking vehicles, cows, buffeting crowds, shit, dust and yelling. But if you want Indian emersion, this is it. And it’s nothing short of wonderful.
On one such adventure in an Agra street market, Michelle was sharply told by a local woman to cover her bar arms and neck because it was obscene. Michelle promptly bought a scarf, took her advice and then noticed that all the women stopped scowling at her. Yet large Indian ladies in saris don’t mind showing stomachs and generously proportioned underarm saddlebags.
I must say my birthday was a day to remember – and not for all good reasons. After my wheelchair humiliation at the Agra Fort we returned to our hotel room which was filled with an acrid smell. It was coming from next door where an untrained lad was applying a polyurethane coating to some woodwork using a folded rag. In Australia, if you polyurethane your floors you have to stay out of the house for three days. Consequently, we stagger about gagging before going down to reception to threaten world war three. Nobody knows what we’re talking about, but they still put on puckered-face concern. We take the manager up to the room, where he bravely doesn’t flinch as he gets a toxic lungful. “It will clear in twenty minutes,” he feebly mumbles. Michelle has other ideas, like demolishing the hotel. The manager then hits on a solution. Send the rag lad away and place a small fan in the corridor outside our room – where the door remains closed and the fumes remain undisturbed inside. No, that won’t work, we say. We want you to place four air purifiers in our bedroom (the windows cannot be opened, incidentally) and we will return in two hours after our Taj II visit. Two hours later we find two modest fans in the room that have only succeeded in better distributing the stink. We pack up in a flurry and change rooms to a much-worn version of ours, one floor below. The manager and three staff try to help us but get in the way. We finally set up. The manager recites another stanza from the hotel apology guide and offers recompense of two free lunches. We don’t do lunch. What about dinners, I ask. “So sorry sir, but already charged and cannot be reversed. Electronic locking, you see.”
When the lunch compensation failed, the hotel presented us with a small, decorated marble plate which we will take home to give to somebody who has everything – except a small decorated marble plate.
Michelle is now sharpening her Trip Advisor dagger.
Although it felt like a recurring dream, we trekked back to the Taj Mahal for the second tranche of the viewing trilogy – this time to witness the sun going down over the mausoleum. While there was not the vanishing-point queue to get in as there had been for the dawn viewing, there was a massive crowd inside when we got through the grand gate and stood to again take in this remarkable building. In the hour before sunset the Taj firstly became luminously white, then pinkish and finally a failing grey as it gave up its splendour to darkness. The crowd comprised about 90 percent amateur photographers, which included us, all trying to get the definitive dusk shot which must include the reflection pond, of course. Many photos ended up accidentally being of people taking photos of people taking photos. But, in the end, we got what we wanted and trudged back along the tiled roadway being frantically prepared for Mister President.
Hotel Toaster Report
I’m pleased to advise that the Double Tree Hilton has a rare memorial model named after the famous hotel toaster designer Toastarius Maximillian, better known as Toast Max. He invented the sloping delivery tray. In one of his many compelling books on hotel toasters, Derek Breadchamber (hotel toaster critic for the New York Times, you may remember) says that Toast Max should have received a Nobel Prize for his advancement in delivery tray technology. Prior to that, the toast simply fell out of the toaster on to the floor where it was sometimes accidentally trodden on.
Our last day in Agra was, as usual, unusual. Being a fashion industry writer, I wanted to see where the average locals bought their clothing. We went into a big shop that I calculated was the equivalent of Lowes in Sydney. So definitely not upmarket. The offering did not move my needle, but the prices were rock bottom. I tried on one shirt in XXL that might have been a near miss, only to find that I could hardly do up the buttons. This was definitely a shop for skinny Indians, but where did the fat ones, who appear to be in the majority, shop?
I gave up in favour of visiting what had been recommended to Michelle as a must-see embroidery museum. Ho hum, I thought. This will be boring. It was anything but. The embroidery was simply astonishing, much of it by embroidery students and for sale. There was also an exhibition gallery showing the work of some of the great Indian embroidery artists. One huge work stopped me dead. It was a biblical scene of Jesus tending his flock of sheep and cradling a lamb in his arms. It was the final work of Padmarshri Shams who took 18 years to finish it and then went blind. He died in 1999. My picture does not do it justice. It takes on a three-dimensional quality as you stand before it. We got the embroidery bug and had just started looking seriously at wall hangings when we were told that upstairs was a display of jewellery and sculptures. This turned out to be even more tempting than the embroideries. It was all in exquisite taste. We could have gone mahulla buying everything we liked. In the end we settled for an elephant in a stone new to me, labradorite, that looks streaky dark grey but pops out flashes of blue when light strikes it. It is supposed to have mystical and magical powers. I could certainly use a bit of that. The only downside, apart from the price, is that we’ll have to schlep it home with great care. I’d hate to have to araldite its trunk back on.
Our last stop in Agra was, yes, you’ve guessed it, our third scheduled visit to the Taj Mahal, but this time from across the river in extensive gardens. Legend has it that there was a plan to build a replica of the Taj, but in black marble. An opposing story is that the plan was to build a big pond with a black floor so that the reflection of the Taj was black. In the end, only the gardens and some foundations were completed – leaving the real intention a mystery.
Michelle recommended we see the Taj Mahal in three different settings: dawn, dusk and from across the river. For the first tranche we were picked up from the Double Tree at 6.00 am for a quiet drive through the streets to the beginning of the Taj dawn experience. And so did about twenty thousand other people who lined up in a huge queue to witness a Taj dawn – which unfortunately broke in the street. The queue shuffled along, went through pointless but elaborate security and finally filed through the grand 22 dome tower gate to behold the Taj Mahal – now washed in a rising rose-gold light. The sight grabs the heart, like a dream that has become a reality. I forgot the trample and the selfish selfies. I was in the presence of wonder. The closer I got to the building the larger it seemed to grow, its white marble with intricate Islamic inspired inlays simply hard to believe.
The Taj’s Islamic architecture is typified by precision and symmetry, built around the number eight. It is 80 metres high and all the columns are eight sided. I was surprised to discover that the Taj Mahal has four identical sides, so that no matter where you stand, it looks the same: no front, no back. Either side of it are two identical buildings – almost as grand as the Taj itself – although made from reddish local sandstone to lessen the rivalry. One is a mosque and the other a guest house.
The Taj is not made from solid marble, but bricks and mortar covered with marble tiles. Because of pollution and zillions of clammy visitors it is continually being cleaned and covered with protective coatings. In case of earthquake it is built over a huge water pit to cushion a tremor and its four minarets are constructed so that they will fall outward and not into the building. In times past, visitors were allowed to climb the circular staircases right to the top inside the minarets until a woman fell out and killed herself – along with the public permission for the climb.
For the record, the Taj Mahal was commissioned in 1632 by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan to house the tomb of his favourite wife, Mumtaz Mahal; it also houses the tomb of Shah Jahan himself. It took 22 years and 22,000 people to build it. Reproduction coffins are on the ground public floor, but the real ones are below, and only rarely open to public gaze.
Wanting more Tarj, we went to what is nicknamed the Baby Taj, also finished in white marble, and the last resting place of Ghiyas Beg who became Emperor Akbar’s prime minister and was a highly regarded chap. His tomb was built before the Taj Mahal and it not as grand or magnificently domed. But is still has Islamic beauty and symmetry with four identical gates and four identical gardens.
Since this was a day of tombs, we pressed on to Emperor Akbar’s tomb. You may remember he lived rather nicely in Fatepur Skiri with his three wives and 600 concubines. I get the feeling that he had plenty of self-esteem because he grabbed 119 acres of prime Agra city land and began building a lavish mausoleum for himself in advance of falling of the perch. The massive project only took eight years to complete because Akbar died earlier than expected and therefore needed to move in. His son Jahangir pressed the fast forward button so the Emperor could be laid to rest promptly. But Akbar was destined not to stay there permanently because the whole building was ransacked during an attack by Raja Ram Jat, who took all the valuables including Akbar’s bones which were burned. Enter Lord Curzon, the British Viceroy again. He had a soft spot for Akbar and ordered the restoration of the tomb and the massive gardens where today there are deer, monkeys and squirrels among the livestock.
And speaking of livestock, I discovered some cow rules. There are heavy punishments for striking a cow unless in self-defence. Most cows wandering the streets are owned by non -farmers who send them out so that other people are obliged to feed them because they are holy. When a cow is too old to give milk is it goes into government funded cow care for a happy retirement. While you are not allowed to eat beef in India, you can hoe into buffalo, goat, sheep or chicken.
Agra is so much more than the Taj Mahal, wonderful though the Taj is. For instance, today we visited the Agra Fort, a massive construction over 97 acres built in 1565 by the very busy Emperor Akbar. It was home to successive royal families, their servants, religious advisors and 5000 soldiers to guard the premises. They had some help from a double moat, the larger one filled with hungry crocodiles. It was a remarkable engineering and architectural feat as well, with naturally powered heating and cooling systems, and beautifully decorated buildings with carpeted floors, luxurious cushions and exotic curtains.
My imagination was captured by an innocent looking doorway with steps that led down to an escape tunnel in case the fort was breached, and the royal family had to do a runner. The tunnel ran for 50 kilometres and was big enough to ride a horse through. There was also a branch down to the river in case the escapees needed a plan B. The long tunnel came out at Akbar’s Fatepur Skiri, the walled city we’d visited on the way to Agra. Along the way were ventilation and light shafts to enable travel.
The one outrage of this visit to the Agra Fort was right at the beginning while we were waiting to buy entry tickets. One of the team of freelance helpers offered me a wheelchair to convey me up the slope inside the drawbridge. How insulting! And on my birthday too. Then the penny dropped. Singapore Airlines had obviously sent out a general wheelchair alert to all tourist destinations in India to look out for Fraser the cripple and wheel him about. The cheek!