36 Hours in Agra

On early Friday morning, we caught a bus headed toward Agra, home of the Taj Mahal.  On our way, just outside of Delhi, we stopped at Akshardham, a modern-day temple constructed only in 2006.  The temple was specifically for Bhagwan Swaminarayan, who led a sect of Hinduism. The Taj Mahal took 22 years to complete, and every inch of which was hand carved.  For Akshardham, it took 10,000 workers and only only 6 years to construct, and was predominantly machine-crafted with some handwork. I had personally never toured a “new” temple-typically tours exhibit ancient places of worship or sacred constructs, which always seem to be ornately decorated and highly detailed, and I’d find myself wondering how these places looked at the time they were built.  Akshardham brought answers to my wonder: Bright marble laced with stones and gold covered the main center of this temple, which was filled with people who came to meditate. However I doubt that the IMAX-like theatre presentation and “it’s a small world”-esq boat ride of Swaminarayan’s life are representative of ancient temples!  Unfortunately cameras were not allowed in the temple, so my description will have to suffice—but it certainly managed to blur the lines between spiritual beauty and theme park.

While a little bumpy and very hot (over 110 degrees outside), I was particularly excited about the bus ride to Agra from Delhi.  Having only been in large cities, I was eager to explore India’s countryside—it’s an opportunity to peer into the lives of people that we can only try to understand. And with 70% of people living in rural areas, I thought it would be valuable to document some of what I witnessed on this 5-hour drive.

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One of the scenic views from the bus.

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Four people, one moto!

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A truck full of locals intrigued by a bus full of foreigners (and vice versa!)

As we made our way closer to Agra, the greater the sun’s decent cooled the air, and the more the people emerged into the outside. There is a kind of mutual curiosity that us “foreigners” and locals have shared for each other; we’ll catch our lingering glances for a moment too long, recognize how different we appear, and carry on with our lives.  My fellow CAP mates and I will often catch people taking pictures of us, or coming up to us and ask to take a picture of us, which we’ll typically allow for fun.  I’ve chastised a few men for taking pictures of me or the other women in our group, but then again I found myself taking pictures of people in situations I found unique, so I guess I can’t blame them for doing the same.  It’s kind of a fun exchange of capturing the exoticism in the world.

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Today, we left our Agra hotel at 6am to go to the Taj Mahal.  I’ve always found most monuments underwhelming, especially those that are talked about often and metaphorically “built up”.  The Taj, however, is a magnificent exception.  Completed in 1653, this breathtaking white-marble structure glows in the sunlight as if it had just been built.  It was started in 1632 by Shah Jahan to commemorate his life for his third wife Mumtaz Mahal who died after giving birth to their 14th child. It was constructed with such intention and care—even the four pillars that surround the Taj are angled outwards so if an earthquake were ever to hit, they would not fall onto the main structure where the tombs of Mumtaz Mahal and later Shah Jahan lie.

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Group shot in front of the Taj Mahal.

In and outside of the Taj are beautiful—if an inch of marble isn’t engraved, than it is inlayed with semi-precious and precious stones from all over Asia—cut and patterned into detailed flowers.  To this day, these stones are practically all still sealed into the marble.  Replicas of Shah Jahan’s and Mumtaz Mahal‘s tombs sit at the center of the Taj; the real tombs are in the basement, and since 10 years ago are no longer open to the public.

As the Moguls who built the Taj were sticklers for symmetry, since a mosque hugged the left-side of the Taj, they built a replica mosque on the right.  The only reason the replica isn’t a “real” mosque is because it cannot face Mecca from the right-hand side.

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Classmates infront of the Mosque next to the Taj.

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Taking advantage of some photo ops!

After the Taj, we visited the Agra Fort. Originally built to protect against the Moguls, the fort was later used by Auragzeb, Shah Jahan’s son, who held his father hostage in the fort until his death.  He was held in a cell with a view of the Taj.

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Classmates at the Agra Fort.

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Imitating Shiva at the Fort! We attracted a lot of spectators (and photo bombers)

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A couple looking at the Taj Mahal from the Agra Fort.

I’m writing this blog while on our bus ride back to Delhi, where we’ll immediately catch a plane back to Mumbai, getting in close to midnight.  Tomorrow morning, we have our final presentations to Mahindra executives: one 5-minute “pitch” presentation to executives and a VP of Mahindra who was able to join us, and a second 15-minute presentation to executives about the details of our recommendations.  Having hopped on a plane to India immediately after finals, passing computers and finalizing slides and reports one bus rides and after hours, we’re all sleep deprived, excited, and running on a lot of adrenaline to get this project finished and embrace as much of India as we can.

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