In which shoes get exchanged and the Taj Mahal gets miniaturised
Starring Jack the multitasker who earns £1 a day and a kid in search of a ferry ticket
After several days in big noisy cities we headed to a little country retreat called Bharatpur to visit a wetland that provides sanctuary to hundred of thousands of migratory birds every winter. It wasn’t quite the rural idyll I had imagined – the park is set on a busy main road and in fact there’s a road going right through the middle of it that seems to have quite a lot of motorbike traffic on it.
We were in cycle rickshaws being ably pedalled around and instructed in the local fauna by our guide Jack. He had a BA in arts and had also done a further qualification paid for by the WWF to learn the various birds of the park which he was extraordinarily good at spotting. For an afternoon’s working cycling us fatties round and sharing his knowledge he earns the equivalent of £1 an hour.
Despite the proximity to civilisation and decades of extensive hunting in the area, there are a huge number and variety of birds. We spotted bee eaters, drongos and all manner of Russian and Chinese ducks. It was the end of the stork breeding season, the last of the large chicks were still squawking away in the nests in the tops of the trees. We were lucky enough to spot two enormous Sarus Cranes in the grass just before sunset – they have red heads and are really tall, often just under 2m.
The next day it was on to Agra with a morning’s stop at the incredible ‘ghost city’ of Fatehpur Sikri. It a complex of palace buildings and an enormous mosque built by Akbar The Great who was known for his liberal attitudes. He married three women of three different religions and built them each palaces and temples. Of course there were also over 300 concubines holed up in their own bit of the palace and we heard numerous stories of the very liberal games Akbar enjoyed with them. One of the most memorable features of the palace was the his enormous stone bed which apparently was a lot more comfortable than it looked when decked out with lavish fabrics. Liberal attitudes aside, Akbar was also famous for his elephant executions which were achieved by driving his favourite male wild with opium until he stampeded the accused into oblivion. When his elephant died he built a mausoleum to it in the garden and decorated it with fake tusks. The whole place was only inhabited for 40 years before the court moved back to Agra.
The nearby mosque was set behind the most astounding gate I’ve seen – enormous – I couldn’t get it into a single picture even with my wide angle. There’s a huge courtyard (big enough to hold between thirteen and fourteen thousand people during Ramadan) with pools for washing and a small white marble temple where the walls are all screens intricately carved out of single pieces of stone. There were a lot of children begging and following us around asking to have their photograph taken (so that we would be obliged to give them cash). I’m pretty sure one child asked me to give them a ferry ticket. To get into the complex we had had to take our shoes and hand them over to a shoe wallah who was also handed some cash to ensure their safety. “Do people really steal the shoes?” I asked Pancham. “Oh no, not steal,” he laughed, “exchange!” We exited through a different gate and there were our shoes, all lined up and waiting for us.
Then it was on to Agra for the Pièce de résistance of Rajasthan, the Taj Mahal. It would be fair to say that I was over excited. Due to pollution reducing restrictions you arrive by packed electrified bus which was a little foretaste of the way things will go for the rest of the afternoon.
There were huge queues – but we were able to skip most of them by buying the more expensive ticket that gives you access to a sort of priority lane. But even that made little difference as inside there were literally thousands and thousands of people, all walking in a heaving throng. It was pretty much impossible to pause and get a picture and I ended up having to hold my camera up above all the heads to try and get a shot through the main gate. Of course you quickly forget about all that though when you’re looking at the building. I spent quite a lot of time sitting on benches just staring (possibly still recovering from not having had anything to eat for a few days) and considerably more time walking around the outside of the main bit of the mausoleum staring at the carvings and inlaid patterns. I suspect I will be back again at some point. Probably at dawn when it is apparently at its quietest.
There’s tons of other stuff to see in Agra as well including he much overlooked Mini Taj – reputedly the inspiration for the inlaid decorations on the big Taj. The Agra Fort is also incredible particularly as it has wonderful views of the Taj (though you have to somewhat squint through the fog) and because Shah Jahan, the builder of the Taj Mahal, was held captive here by his son for eight years. It has an incredible defence system – two moats – the first one filled with water and crocodiles and the second filled with starved tigers. That and a couple of 70ft walls with neat crevices for the pouring of boiling oil have all contributed to it never having been overtaken. On the far side of the river we stopped at a garden with spectacular views of the Taj providing plenty of opportunity for irreverent photography.