On Monday, February 17, the American Embassy School was a teacher planning day so we took advantage of the beautiful weather and the day off to finally visit the Taj Mahal in Agra. Let me just say that it is a truly beautiful monument. It was the perfect day to visit — not many people, blue skies and a great temperature.
We had arranged to meet a tour guide at the Taj Mahal that a friend had referred to us. He has lived in Agra his whole life and spent his childhood days riding bicycles around the grounds of the Taj Mahal as it has not been that many years since they have placed entrance gates, security, barriers to enter the grounds. I want to just share a few interesting facts that we learned from our experience:
- The Taj Mahal is dedicated to Mumtaz Mahal, one of three wives of Shah Jahan who built it. She died giving birth to their 14th child, although only 6 children survived to become adults. Of the three wives, she was the only one to bear children and he truly loved her the most. The other two wives are buried in small monuments outside the grounds of the Taj Mahal.
- It took 22 years to complete construction and was finished in 1653. 1,000 elephants were employed to help with transportation for construction materials and 20,000 workers were employed there. Some of the descendants of these workers still live and work there in Agra in the family homes near the Taj doing the same type of specialty work — marble carvings, precious stone work, etc.
- The Taj is constructed of white marble and has precious stones laid throughout the marble. No pictures are allowed inside the tomb, but it is truly inside the building that the greatest work is displayed. Our tour guide had a small flashlight that he held up against the stones, and one of the orange stones that they used glows in the light. Each flower petal in the designs inside the tomb have many stones cut to create just one petal. Outside, the stone work is not nearly as intricate. I hope I get a chance sometime to visit the Taj at moonlight to see how the marble glows and some of these stones in the light of the moon. I have heard it is impressive.
- The Taj is purely symmetrical. When you stand in the large gate you enter to get on the grounds surrounding the Taj, the open archway you walk through shows exactly how symmetrical everything was in the building. There is a mosque on the left of the Taj Mahal that is still functioning. Thus, the reason it is closed on Fridays, for their holy day of worship. But there is also another identical mosque built on the right side of the Taj but it is not used because it is not facing the correct way to Mecca for worship. Shah Jahan knew this but wanted it built anyways for the symmetry. It stands along the banks of the River Yamina.
- Across from the Taj, is a very large fort which is impressive. One of Shah Jahan’s sons wanted the power of the kingdom, therefore killed his brothers and imprisoned his father. It was in this fort that Shah Jahan was imprisoned for the remainder of his days. His one request to his son was to please imprison him somewhere that he could view the Taj Mahal.
So, now that you know some of the facts of one of the architectural wonders of the world, we can share the most humorous part of the day for sure — the journey to and from the Taj Mahal. Agra is a little over 200 kilometers from New Delhi. We decided to drive it instead of take the train. In the future, the train is definitely the way that we will travel there. We ended up taking both of our drivers with us in one car, as our more experienced driver felt it would be good for various reasons. We left around 7:20 a.m. and as we started our journey, and after going through several small towns, Tyler finally spoke up to Ashok and said, “aren’t we taking the expressway?” Ashok explained that no, that road is no good because there are too many accidents on it. Well, after many “cow jams” on the road and several pot holes, Thomas throwing up out the window (yes, Thomas again!) and very slow going, we explained to our driver that we were taking the expressway on the way back. When our tour guide heard that we had not taken the expressway, he was very surprised. It took us a little over 4 hours to get to Agra.
The expressway is the closest thing I have seen here that is like an American freeway. It has a toll of about $5. Our driver was nervous about taking it, saying that the tires have to be new otherwise with the speed there are a lot of blown tires causing accidents. As we passed through the toll booth there were signs indicating that high speeds cause tire blowouts on poor tires. Okay, so we have fairly new tires on our car, and we did not worry a bit about driving 100 kilometers an hour on this open, smooth expressway. But our driver was worried and did not even go the full speed he could have due to fear of tires exploding. The road was smooth, fast, and nearly empty. We loved it and it even cut our travel time by about an hour! We will laugh about this for years to come as all five of us were crammed in the back with our two drivers deciding that the slow drive through every little town to Agra was a safer route than getting on the new expressway.