Traffic was so bad in Agra that it took us almost an hour to get out of the city. This is the problem we experienced all over India, the road system has not been developed enough to handle the sudden explosion of vehicles. It’s not even just a matter of streets being too narrow, even in the more open areas, there is such a mix of traffic, slow and non-so-slow, that progress is impeded. It makes it hard to plan visits to India’s great monuments, when you can’t easily judge how long it takes to get from one place to another. A good rule of thumb seems to be to double the time anyone tells you.
This was especially true that day because halfway to Fatehpur Sikri (City of Victory) one of our tires blew and we had to pull over to the side of the road to change it. When I looked up and across the road, I was surprised to see that we had stopped right opposite a Hanuman temple. I remember remarking that the Hindu monkey god was probably responsible for us stopping safely and not veering into oncoming traffic. Luckily for us, the spare was in good condition so we carried on. We knew we would have to get the old one repaired before driving on to Delhi, but felt that this was something the driver could do while we were touring the sight.
I try and get to Fatehpur Sikri every time I see the Taj Mahal, and especially if I am taking someone new to India. The complex consists of a series of monuments, palaces and temples, all with an underlying architectural style that combines both Muslim and Hindu elements. It was constructed in the middle of the 16th century by Mughul Emperor Akbar, and served as the capital of the Mughul Empire for only ten years. It took sixteen years to construct but was abandoned only four years after it was completed due to a chronic shortage of water. The complex is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site and contains one of the largest mosques in India, the Jama Masjid.
In the past, the guides we have used have always taken us to the palace first and shown us all the apartments where Akbar and each of his wives lived. He had a very open mind to religion and wished to respect and honour all faiths. For this reason, he had a Muslim wife, a Hindu wife and a Buddhist wife. Each was given separate apartments decorated with designs of the wife’s culture. The large meeting hall where Akbar conducted the business of the state contains a huge pillar with carvings of each of the religions.
In the center of the palace courtyard, Akbar had a large game board built and he would play games using colourfully dressed courtesans as game pieces. This game was the forerunner of what has come to be known as ‘Ludo’. After touring the palace, the guides would take us to the Jama Masjid and we would end our tour by leaving the mosque by the massive Buland Darwaza, a gate set high above the town of Sikri and the plains below.
Akbar consulted a Sufi saint about the possibility of having another son. The saint lived the life of a mystic in the small town of Sikri. When the saint’s prediction that a son would be born to one of his wives, Akbar built the palace and mosque to honour the saint. The small white marble building in the middle of the Jama Masjid’s courtyard contains the tomb of the Sufi saint. Many people believe that if you pay a visit to the tomb and tie a cord on the screen surrounding it, your wish will be granted.
When Anil and I visited during our honeymoon, I followed Akbar’s example and wished for a son. I was told that if my wish were granted, I should return and remove the string. Seven years later, on my second trip to India, I remembered the instructions I was given, and took my baby Raj into the tomb and removed a string. I was able to tell Raj about doing this in 1981, and then he and Vy along with Adia all tied strings on the screen as well. I have no idea what they wished for; I just hope it comes true as it has for some many before us.
With these great memories driving my return to Fatehpur Sikri, I looked forward to my family having as great a visit to the city as I had in the past. I was surprised to learn that vehicles are no longer allowed to drive up to the hilltop, but must park at the bottom and visitors can either walk up the steep hill or take an auto rickshaw. This seemed fair enough, there are more and more visitors coming to Indian monuments than ever before and they must be protected. In addition to other concerns, there is now a security risk.
When we arrived up the hill in an auto, the guide stopped near the Masjid and entered the courtyard through a side door. I mentioned to the guide that I wanted to start with the palace, he agreed so I thought he was taking us through the mosque and into the royal apartments. Instead he took us into the area where all the Muslim tombs are located and then we were hit up to buy some flowers for the tomb of the Sufi saint and some cloth that would be given to the poor. The guide reminded us that there had been no entrance fee to the mosque and this purchase would be like given a donation. This had never happened here before, and for some reason, I fell for his line. I remembered that we had paid an entrance fee in the past, so bought some flowers and a piece of folded fabric.
Next, we were led into the tomb of the saint where we enjoyed ourselves tying strings on the marble screen and admiring the carving on the inside. I presented my flowers and cloth to the man standing beside the grave, and he spread the cloth and placed in on top of the other offerings. I was surprised to see how small the cloth was and realized that it probably wasn’t given to the poor at all, but later in the day, was most likely refolded and placed for resale once again. I have to say, this was seriously spoiling my mood.
The guide then led us into the arcades along the sides of the courtyard to see the interior rooms of the mosque. There wasn’t really much to see but when I started taking photos, a man appeared out of the gloom and asked for money. Now I began to get more than a little cranky. We still hadn’t seen the best part of the complex and all people were doing was asking for baksheesh. I insisted that our young guide take us to the Royal Palace immediately and it was then that we left the Jama Masjid by the same side door and began to walk to the entrance to the palace.
When we arrived, we were directed to the ticket booth. This made sense, I do remember having to pay an entrance fee in the past. At last we were inside the domain of Emperor Akbar and we had the place almost to ourselves. Unfortunately, we had spent a great deal of time in the mosque and I think that Adia, Raj and Vy were already more than a little jaded and didn’t appreciate the beauty of the palace in the way that I had hoped they would. Our guide gave us information about the living quarters but much of it was different from what was stated on the signboards themselves. Raj blew him off entirely and I can’t say I blame him.
The afternoon was wearing on and we needed to get away to face the long drive back to Delhi. When we returned to our van we learned that the driver had not repaired the tire. He hadn’t wanted to leave the car park because he would have had to pay the Rs 60 admission again and wasn’t sure that we would have reimbursed him. Rats, for the sake of $1.50, we would now have to stop along the way and have the tire repaired. That was sure to slow us down yet again.
We settled into our seats, turned on the air conditioning and started back towards Agra. We hoped to take a bypass road and not have to face the horrendous city traffic once again. We stopped along the way to see about repairing the inner tube, but it turned out it was beyond repair and we would have to buy another one. The small hut by the road didn’t have any for sale. We drove on to the first sizeable town but it seemed to take some time before our driver found a new tube. Then we learned that he had been trying to get in touch with his boss to ensure that he had permission to buy and new inner tube. This was beginning to look like quite the adventure.
At last we were on our way once again and after asking several local people about the by pass road, we turned off the main highway and onto a narrow two-lane paved road. The oncoming truck traffic was steady so we knew we were on the correct route, the loaded trucks were no more interested in driving through Agra than we were. When we reached the city of Mathura, we turned east for a few kilometers and joined the main highway north to Delhi. This highway was wide, with four lanes and a grassy divider so we began to make good time once more.
It was dark before we stopped for dinner. Our poor driver hadn’t had a break for several hours, he had been seeing to the repair of the tire and then driving intently. He definitely needed a break. We ordered a full meal even though we knew that Neeta would have supper waiting for us once be reached home. We would have preferred her cooking for sure, but we couldn’t ask our driver to carry on without eating a proper meal. Back on the highway again, we missed to turnoff for Faridabad and lost even more time trying to find the approach from the opposite direction.
As we crawled along the narrow highway that runs through the industrial zone one again, I suddenly saw a little glowing red light appear out of the dark near the side window. When I looked closer, I realized that someone had placed a small kerosene lantern wrapped in red paper at the end of a long bamboo pole sticking out of a bullock cart. While it was frustrating to see such a slow moving vehicle on this busy feeder road into Delhi, I was pleased that the farmer had made the effort to warn other motorists that he had long poles sticking out the back of his cart. The thought of those coming through the windshield and piercing us was too horrible to contemplate.
It had been a very long two days, nothing like we had experienced on our past visits to Agra. I guess we shouldn’t have been surprised; the whole world is becoming more and more clogged with traffic and the people more and more concerned with earning a living from the tourists who visit from far away. At times it would be nice to turn the clock back and have things the way they used to be, but that isn’t possible and I will just have to learn to ‘manage my expectations’ better. That seems to be a recurring theme for me, when will I ever get the ‘hang’ of it?