One of the biggest things I was looking forward to was the visit of the Taj Mahal in Agra – one of the great modern Wonders of the World. What I didn’t expect was that it brought with it a unique and contrasting experience to the visit of the Golden Temple of Amritsar, together with a stomach-crunching introduction to the complex connotations of poverty.
One thing that has always played with my mind is the way poverty is defined. Some aspects of society will link poverty to money which in turn links to happiness. But what does poverty actually mean? Poverty and money don’t necessarily have a direct link. You can be wealthy, but poorly enriched. You can be financially poor, but lead rich lives. Agra ended up being one of the first places on my travels that I came into conflict with what poverty really means.
As planned, Roberto, Jon, Hannah and I were picked up after breakfast at 8am by taxi for a 600km journey to the magnificent Taj Mahal in Agra. We were due to take another train to Agra from New Delhi, but traditional Friday prayers at the mausoleum meant that we had to jump in a cab instead.The drive down to Agra was another torrent affair. Jon was unfortunately initiated to the front passenger seat on our first car journey between New Delhi and Ludhiana when we arrived in India, and for some inexplicable reason, took up the baton again. With Roberto, Hannah and I sat in the back snoozing happily; Jon’s fingernails were etching ever more into the dashboard in front of him. The Indian Highway Code relied heavily on two things – brakes and horns. If there was any kind of Indian MOT (automobile road safety test), then there would only be two fat boxes to tick. This car was tested out fully. But, it failed on brakes.
Our peaceful sleep in the back of the car was stopped abruptly about half way to Agra when our cabbie, whom we named “Drives”, decided to put on his gloves for a “Destruction Derby” type mission.I was jolted out of my snooze to a terrified-looking Jon as we had evidently just swerved out of the way of a stationary cow in the middle of the road. Drives then proceeded to put his foot down to make up lost time in an apparent traffic jam whilst leaving New Delhi. All that was missing were some duelling banjos as we started to play chicken with anything that crossed our path. Drives was obviously capable of reading signs as we came bumper to bumper with huge trucks displaying, “Use Your Horn”, something he took up with ease. It was a shame it didn’t have a sign next to it saying, “Keep Your Distance”. At speeds of 120 kilometres per hour, he would duck in and out of the backs of trucks and cars in the hope that there was a gap to overtake. With complete lack of acceleration, Drives would take all necessary risks to get past any obstacle, often with ensuing cars coming head on at us. At points, the road would somehow fit 5 or 6 cars into a two-lane contraflow. We even had to tackle the puzzle combination of truck, car and cow; instead of braking in behind, Drives would choose to put his foot down and, at the last ditch, veer off the edge of the road, throwing dust and mud up behind us, the back-end swerving, jumping and trying to keep upright on the road. Even when we begged him to slow down (as we’d rather live than be an hour or so later on arrival), he would check to see if we had succumbed to our naps again before continuing on his death defying driving.
After five hours, we arrived in Agra a little bit more stressed out than planned. And what we pulled into was one of the worst places I have ever visited.One thing I learnt is that we aren’t appreciative enough about the luxuries we have back home, but at the same time, we’ve lost the importance of “being” that gets overloaded by material possessions we have. I have witnessed the importance of “being” in many areas of the world that simply choose to ignore the privileges of the industrial world – as I continue to write about my experiences, this will be plain to see. But for Agra, this place was a classifiable shit-hole. Ironically, it’s a place that completely contrasts the beauty of the Taj Mahal at its banks. The streets were grimy and dusty, with excrement everywhere. People were sheltered by half-completed breezeblock apartments and corrugated iron, lacking windows, doors, or any kind of hospitable necessities. Others would dwell in shacks. People in the streets were desperate; much so that they were extremely over bearing and unwelcoming in their attitudes. You really felt at unease around them as they tried to leech off you and trick you in every way. There was no humility about it, no manner of hiding it. And you could completely understand why. Here, amidst the crumbling of social deprivation, a striking famous landmark would attract hordes of tourists from around the world, the government cashing- in on its obvious attraction. On the outskirts, its people would rot away in the quagmires, scrapping for survival as the funds from the tomb are swallowed up, undistributed to the local community. The River Yamuna, an angry pitch-black border, would divide the Taj Mahal and the desolate city nearby. Even the hotel we stayed in was falling apart – it didn’t even cash-in on the possibility of tourist money. Roberto and Jon’s room was infested with cockroaches, and many others the same. Luckily for Hannah and I, we were checked into a recently sterilised room. But we realised later that the lack of investment in the town meant that tourists weren’t staying. They would come from New Delhi, and then leave immediately. And you could see why. Even if you tried to interact with the locals, you felt at disquiet doing so. They needed money from the outside, yet didn’t make outsiders feel welcome. No one seemed interested in investing funds into the city. Away from the austerity of Agra, we escaped to the conflicting solace of the Taj Mahal, a true modern Wonder of the World. Upon passing through the Darwaza, the majestic red sandstone main gateway, your eyes would then fixate upon the spectacular white marble walls of the huge mausoleum. Once you get your mind off the myriad of tourists surrounding it, you can’t help but transfix yourself on its sheer size, on first appearance dwarfing St Paul’s Cathedral in London. It sits tall, proud and elegant in amongst the beautiful surrounding Bageecha gardens. It almost appears floating in the sky.
Most of the day was spent just wandering the gardens whilst taking the site in, making full use of the camera, recording the ever-changing colours of the façade as daylight shifted.Incredibly enough, although the tomb is sprawling, the actual crypt itself is quite small, with a couple of mid-sized chambers by its side.
We felt it strange that although there are traditional prayers on Fridays which closes the site to tourists, it didn’t seem overly religious, probably owing to the overbearing amount of tourists. We didn’t see any locals praying at all, in complete dissimilarity to the experiences of the Golden Temple of Amritsar. The Golden Temple was a much more touching and important experience, one that leaves a mark on you, one that makes you think and self-assess. It has its own unique physical beauty, but the religious experience surrounding it completely outweighs what you take away from the Taj Mahal itself. Don’t get me wrong, the Taj Mahal is fascinating and an incredible work of art that should be visited. But its potency here is that upon leaving its astonishing grounds to confront Agra once more, it forces you to try and surmise how two worlds divided by apparent wealth can also both lack the richness of being…
Further Reading on Agra and The Taj Mahal
Taj Mahal Tourist Information
Agra and The Taj Mahal
UNESCO – The Taj Mahal
More Photography :
“The India Collection” by Antematters