India & Nepal

November 2005

Part 7:

Gwalior and Agra

<< Part 6: Madhya Pradesh    -   Back to Index   -    Part 8: Rajasthan >>

November 19th (day 22): Gwalior

Gwalior is a large city built around a rock which is roughly 2 by 1 km wide and rises up to 100m above the plain. This rock is completely fortified, forming a citadel that has seen many battles throughout the centuries. We'd seen pictures of the Man Mandir Palace on top of the citadel and that was the reason we came to Gwalior, but we were surprised to find several other fantastic monuments up there. That probably made this day the most enjoyable one we had in India, and we both consider Gwalior one of India's top 3 destinations, along with Agra and Delhi.

We started the day by walking up the citadel by the eastern access road which leads to the Man Mandir Palace. This palace was built between 1486 and 1517 by raja Man Singh.
The citadel is like a little city of its own with roads, a school, a museum, and several monuments scattered about. Unfortunately it turned out that to go inside the monuments we needed to go back to the palace gate to buy a ticket, which we didn't do.
There is also a large Sikh temple on the citadel. We were welcomed by an old Sikh who proceeded to show us around and tell us a lot about Sikhism. Like before in Delhi we were charmed by this religion and looking forward to visiting their holy city, Amritsar, at the end of this trip.
We left the citadel at the opposite end from where we started, where there is a second access road, and here dozens of tall sculptures were excavated in the rock in the 15th century. The statues mostly depict the Jain saints. Jainism is an offshoot of Hinduism that is just as old as Buddhism and still has millions of followers.

The tallest statue is 17m high, most are about 10m. They were hardly mentioned in the LP guide so we weren't expecting much, but we thought they were fantastic and spent a lot of time photographing them.
The statues above all belong to one group. We thought that was it but across the road we found another group.
We finished our day in Gwalior with a visit to the Jai Vilas Palace, a 19th century palace in Italian style. The current maharaja of Gwalior still lives there but part of it is now a museum that exhibits the often bizarre items collected by his predecessors.
In the evening we only had a little bit of traveling to do for once, to Agra which is only some 120km to the north.

November 20th-21st (days 23-24): Agra and Fatehpur Sikri

Agra is an ancient city on the bank of the Yamuna river. It was already mentioned as Agrabana in the Mahabharata. It became the capital of the Mughal empire between 1526 and 1658, and in that period got the monuments - the Taj Mahal chief among them - that now make it a major tourist destination.

For the first time since the beginning of our trek three weeks earlier, we spent two consecutive nights in the same place. Unfortunately we ended up in a boring hotel outside the main backpackers' area. Modern Agra is just yet another charmless concrete Indian city, so spending the evening there was hardly more enjoyable than sitting on a train or bus.

Taj Mahal

The Taj Mahal was built between 1631 and 1654 by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan as a mausoleum for his favourite wife, Mumtaz Mahal. It is the culmination of the impressive architectural style of the Mughal era, of which we saw older examples in Delhi. According to legend Shaj Jahan wanted to build a black copy of the Taj as his own mausoleum, but that is probably a fantasy. In any case, he was deposed by his son Aurangzeb and spent the last years of his life confined in the Agra Fort.

Naturally we headed straight to the Taj Mahal on our first morning in Agra. The white mausoleum is the centerpiece of a complex that measures 580x320m. The southern gateway to the complex is a monument by itself.
Now for the actual mausoleum. It is about 70m high and entirely made of white marble, whereas earlier Mughal mausoleums were made of red sandstone inlaid with white marble pieces inlaid. Do compare the Taj Mahal with Humayun's Tomb in part 1 to see the difference that makes.

Now let's get on that platform. The Taj is identical on all four sides, so I only made pictures of the sunny southern side.
The interior of the mausoleum is no match for the exterior, but still quite nice. Mumtaz Mahal's tomb lies in the exact center, and Shah Jahan's tomb was later added on its side. That is the single breach of symmetry in the entire Taj Mahal complex. We weren't allowed to take pictures inside, but there are pics here and here if you're curious.
The Taj Mahal is flanked on both sides by two smaller yet still monumental buildings. The whole complex is perfectly symmetrical and therefore these buildings are mirror images of each other. The one to the west is a mosque.
We spent a happy few hours admiring the Taj Mahal. It really is a marvel. I can say without any reservation that it is the most beautiful monument I have ever seen. Totally worth the very expensive entry ticket (about 20 euro I think), as I told an American girl who was doubting whether she should pay that much when we were collecting our stuff at the entrance after our visit.

Funny story btw: security at the entrance of the Taj complex is very intense; everyone gets their bags and pockets searched by soldiers. They did a very good job finding all the stuff I had with me that was on the long list of things you can't take inside: my food, my candy, my mobile phone, my mp3 player and my pocket knife. What they did not find was the stack of weed that we had bought from the hotel staff in Orchha and that I had foolishly left in my bag. Indian weed is quite good btw.

In the afternoon we decided to take some time off for the first time this trip. It was hot and sunny so we wanted to swim. In Egypt we once had a fantastic afternoon by a luxurious Club Med swimming pool after coming out of the desert, and that is exactly what we felt like doing again.

We didn't have any swimming shorts with us, so we first had a rikshaw cycle us around to find some. Indians apparently never swim because we went to several shops and the closest thing we found were paper-like shorts with funny patterns. Well, close enough.

Then we rikshawed to several hotels again looking for a pool. We only found a small one where we were all alone so it wasn't that much fun, but on the plus side the hotel had great food.
The evening of the day after we had dinner on the roof of a hotel which, according to the Lonely Planet, had a "decent" view on the Taj Mahal. A big sign on the hotel quoted this line, including the "decent". Imagine our surprise when it turned out to have the most fantastic view on the Taj you can imagine; you'd have to stand on top of the gateway building to get a better view than this. The header picture of this page was also made there, with my feet resting on the balcony :)

Fatehpur Sikri

Akbar, the greatest of the Mughal emperors, decided to build a new capital for his empire on a hill not so far from Agra. The new city came to be called Fatehpur Sikri and was the capital of the Mughal empire from 1571 to 1585. By then it was realised that there was no adequate water supply in the region, and the city was deserted after just 15 years. In short, it was a colossal blunder by the great emperor. However, the deserted city is a showpiece of Mughal architecture, and today it has been fully restored and is a Unesco World Heritage Site.

On the morning of our second day in Agra we took a bus to Fatehpur Sikri which dropped us at the foot of the hill. From there you can see the huge Buland Darwaza (Gate of Magnificence) towering above on the hill. It is over 50m high and dominates the landscape.
Through the gate you enter the courtyard of the Jama Masjid, the city's mosque.
On the mosque's courtyard stands the white marble tomb of the Sufi saint Salim Chisti. The childless Akbar prayed for an heir through this saint, and gave him all the credit when he got one. Some even think the idea to build a new capital came from him.
The architecture is sometimes very elegant in a surprisingly modern way - it reminds me somewhat of Frank Lloyd Wright's prairie houses, for example.
The latter building, the Diwan-i-Khas or Hall of Private Audience, is famous for its central pillar which supports a platform. The story has it that Akbar stood on the central platform while discussing with scholars of various religions, who stood at the ends of the four bridges that lead to the center.
The Diwan-i-Khas stands on a courtyard known as the Pachisi Courtyard, which has various interesting features.
Some more pictures from around Fatehpur Sikri

Agra Fort

From Fatehpur Sikri we headed back to Agra to visit the Red Fort, which is yet another World Heritage Site just like the Taj Mahal and Fatehpur Sikri. It was conquered from the Lodi dynasty by Akbar, and his grandson Shah Jahan added several marble buildings to it. Shah Jahan would spend the last 7 years of his life confined to this fort after he was deposed by his son Aurangzeb. From here he had great views on the Taj Mahal, which he had built further down the Yamuna river.

The fort is nice, but not quite up to par with the similar Fatehpur Sikri which we'd just visited.
After dinner we took a train to Jaipur in Rajasthan. Traveling was more relaxed from now on because we had reserved train tickets for the remaining 5 days of our trip through an agency. We were sick and tired of spending hours in train stations trying to get tickets, a process that involved queueing between masses of Indians who constantly push and try to get ahead, and that could end with the guy behind the counter deciding it was time for a break just when it was your turn after half an hour of queueing. Several times we just had to get on our train without a ticket because it was simply impossible to buy a ticket. One time we ended up bribing the conductor to avoid a fine.

We arrived in Jaipur after midnight. Danny was in such a hurry that he rushed out of the station alone, it took half an hour before we'd found each other again :) Wandering around a train station with a backpack and a searching look on my face of course attracted all the local hasslers who were trying to 'help' me to whatever hotel offers them the highest commission. I was so annoyed that I nearly broke into a fight with one. I still maintain that Luxor in Egypt has the worst tourist hasslers though.

Once we'd found each other we were picked up by someone from the hotel we'd reserved; after ending up in a remote hotel in Agra we'd wanted to avoid that happening again.

<< Part 6: Madhya Pradesh    -   Back to Index   -    Part 8: Rajasthan >>

Godsmurf Sun 04 Nov 2007 @ 14:52
Assuming you're talking about Everest BC trek: I didn't see any snakes and can't imagine there being any that high.

Carole Davt Fri 02 Nov 2007 @ 13:59
Wonderful pictures and story-----a real girly question--are there any snakes up there??? and how tough is it to complete??

Della Sat 25 Mar 2006 @ 23:55
Nice pictures and writing! Your photos really bring back to my mind the days i spent in Nepal!
Go ahead and share with us more your travel notes and experience in the future!

Godsmurf Tue 21 Mar 2006 @ 13:41
Hehe. Should be up within a few days!

eleni Tue 21 Mar 2006 @ 01:56
Great! i was anxious and still am for no. 7 :)
It's like you are reading a book and when it starts to get really interesting you realise that some pages are missing...


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