2009 World Cruise – When we looked at the shore excursion brochure to plan our tours before taking this cruise around the world I was very excited to see a tour out of Kochi to Agra, where the Taj Mahal is located. Like China and Southeast Asia, I have never had a desire to go to India – except to see the Taj Mahal. But, when I read the description of the tour it was an overland where you left the ship in Kochi and rode for two days on the train up to Agra before taking a train to Mumbai to re-board the ship the second day it would be in port. Well….there was no way I was going to ride a train in India for two days! I don’t care if it was first class. I set aside the dream of visiting the Taj.
Then, after we chose our Alleppey Backwater tour in Kochi I began to read the tours available for the two days we would be in Mumbai. Lo and behold, there was an excursion available the first day called Taj Mahal in a Day. Yeah! Turns out it was ALL DAY and half the night as well, but we would be able to see this iconic monument. Don’t look at the price, just book the tour!
The day began very early. We had to be up at 5:15 to pass through a 6 am face-to-face passort check before we left the ship at 6:45 for the one hour drive to the airport. Due to the heightened security measures after the terrorist attacks in November 2008 the port access nearest the ship was closed and our bus needed to drive the full length of the port to a secured exit. This meant that we drove through many more of the streets of Mumbai than we otherwise would have done. It was unbelievable the number of people we saw sleeping on the street. But we also saw them brushing their teeth and washing and sweeping the litter away from their little space. Albeit they just swept it into the street but it all spoke to a sense of pride of place that I found touching.
We also drove past the most amazing piecemeal shanties; some of them two and three stories high. They were made out of a total hodge-podge of materials scraped together and held together with ropes and nails and wires. As we crossed one of the big overpasses on the highway to the airport we could see shanty roofs extending for blocks and blocks – if there had been actual blocks. You cannot just go to Agra by air. There are no regular flights, only military and charters. We had a one hour wait at the airport and a two hour flight to Agra. There were 97 people from the ship on the tour. We landed at the Agra Military Airport – there is no public airport. We boarded our buses and then when we got near the Taj we had to change to electric buses as no gas or diesel burning vehicles are allowed. The group gathered outside the North Gate of the complex and then we walked through to see one of the most, if not the most, beautiful building in the world. It literally took my breath away. I couldn’t believe I was really there. Many things about this trip made us look at each other and say, “Are we really here? Are we really doing this?” The Taj was one of those incredible moments. My friend Lynn actually pinched my arm and said, “Yes, you are really here.” She was feeling as overwhelmed as I. The best way to truly appreciate the Taj Mahal is to arrive before sunrise and stay until sunset because the white marble is translucent and changes colour with the light. We were not able to do that obviously but we spent over three hours on the grounds and were able to roam wherever we wanted. I think I took a hundred photos of that mausoleum from every angle I could think of. It took 20,000 workers and artisans 22 years to completely finish it (1632-1653) although the main buildings were built by 1643. Designed by a noted Persian architect the 72 hectare (42 acre) site also contains a mosque and a guest house. It is estimated the cost at the time of construction would have been about 32 million rupees which translates to US $827 million today. All of the Arabic lettering and floral designs in the building are semi-precious stone inlay. Not painted! It is some of the most intricate and detailed inlay know to man.
One of the most fascinating aspects of the Taj Mahal that we were told was that the minaret columns at the four corners of the Taj are not vertical. Each one is off-kilter by two degrees outward. They were constructed that way so that in the event of an earthquake they would topple independantly and away from the building, creating the least possible amount of damage. After our time at the Taj Mahal we boarded the buses and were taken to a lovely resort for lunch. A young lady spread rose petals on the carpet for us to walk upon and a group of musicians played music at the door. A nice welcome for our lunch break. After lunch we went to the Agra Fort (1565), a UNESCO World Heritage Site. There is only about 10% of the original fort remaining – and it is still huge – because the British demolished much of it to make barracks during their 150 year of colonial rule. The Emperor Shah Jahan, who had the Taj Mahal built, was betrayed and deposed by his third son. His son killed his two older brothers and imprisoned his father at Agra Fort where he was under house arrest for eight years and rarely left the corner apartments from which he could see the Taj Mahal. After his father died, the son had him entombed beside his wife in the Tah Mahal. They say that was the only nice thing his son ever did for him. Although Shah Jahan had never planned to be buried with her at the Taj (plans were underway for a black marble mausoleum to be built on the other side of the river for his final resting place).
The Taj Mahal was a perfecty symmetrical building and complex – broken now by the tomb of the former Emperor, which sits just to the side of the centrally placed tomb of his wife.
When our tour of the Agra Fort was completed we made a short stop at a shop where saw a demonstration of how the inlay is done. Then we got back on the buses, back to the airport, back to Mumbai. Even though it was late at night the traffic was horrendous. We sat at a traffic light – a functioning one – that changed from red to green to red to green for 45 minutes and the traffic never stopped to let us go. Amazing.
We boarded the ship at 12:10 am. What a long day. What a fabulous day! Off to bed immediately because we had a 8 am tour the next day.