We got up understandably hungry and decided that before the roadtrip, we could have a nice breakfast at a place near the Taj’s southern gate called Joney’s Place, as we read in our guide that it was a really nice breakfast joint. Shortly thereafter, the day hit a first snag when the cabbie we hired for the day refused to take us there, arguing that cars were not allowed this close to the Taj and it wouldn’t be possible. We said we could walk there if he dropped us off at the neighborhood’s entrance, but he wasn’t keen on doing that either, so we settled on leaving right away and stopping for breakfast on the way to Fatehpur Sikri.
We got underway and soon were out of Agra, on the highway to the old Mughal capital of Akbar the Great, who was the grandfather of Shah Jahan, of Taj Mahal’s fame.
After a toll booth, our driver unexpectedly went on the opposite lane, driving against traffic, which alarmed me somewhat until I realized he was taking us about 100 meters down towards an establishment that looked like the promised restaurant. Said establishment proved to be somewhat overpriced and underwhelming compared to others we’d been. The rest of the trip was uneventful, we got to see the countryside, animals and workers in the fields, etc.
When we arrived at Fatehpur Sikri, the driver introduced us to an acquaintance of his who proposed his services as a guide… for double the official price. I wasn’t aware of this double-the-amount detail as I started bargaining, but Cris and Alex were, and decided to do without his services. At this point, we could have taken the tourist bus to the gates of Fatehpur Sikri, but it was a nice day and we decided we could just as well walk there instead, which made for a nice 20-minute stroll.
Once at the gates, we found a proper guide with official accreditation, and promptly started the tour.
The Fatehpur Sikri complex is composed of two major areas, one being the actual imperial palace complex, and the other being the Jama Masjid mosque where the tomb of Sufi saint Salim Chishti is located.
The imperial palace is a mix of several architectural influences, Muslim, Hindu, Jain and even Christian. Akbar the Great, third ruler of the Mughal dynasty, developed a new religion called Sulh-e-kul (universal peace), that encompassed all other existing religions under one single God, and proclaimed that they were all of equal importance and should co-exist in peace, he himself keeping his native Muslim faith. This policy also extended to architecture and the buildings show a remarkable variety of different styles.
Akbar had three wives, one Muslim, one Christian (from Goa), and one Hindu. As the story goes, none of them was giving him an heir, so he went to Chishti’s camp and asked him to bless his wife for a male child. Chishti blessed Akbar’s Hindu wife and she gave him his much desired male heir, and this is how Akbar decided to repay the Sufi by building his palace and set his new capital there.
It didn’t really work out as there were both trouble in the neighboring regions and a notable shortage of water, so after a few years, the place was abandoned and the capital relocated to Agra.
The palace is now empty of anything but tourists, but the mosque still welcomes a steady flow of pilgrims paying homage to the Sufi and his followers. An anecdote tells the story of Emperor Akbar going to visit the holy man and humbly mixing with the other followers and staying at the back of the crowd, explaining when asked that he may be the almighty ruler of the land outside the mosque, but once inside, he was just a man subject to God’s judgment, just like everyone else.
Outside the complex, there’s a tower in the distance. This is Hira Minar, the tomb of an elephant that was used to carry out executions (guess how). It was the Emperor’s favourite elephant, and was never used in battle as a war elephant.
Inside the mosque, there is a constant flow of pilgrims coming to pray to the Sufi and attaching little bits of string of various colors to the grids and walls. Each one of these pieces of strings represents a wish. You can also get a piece of cloth to place on the tomb, and the proceeds of the sale go to the city’s homeless and widows.
Once outside and in possession of our shoes again (as always, you have to take them off to enter the mosque), we went back to our car, another good 20 minutes’ walk in the sun. Hot but nice. We took a few street picture, tuk-tuks and camels, and then we arrived at the parking lot and we headed back to Agra.
Our driver kept silent as before, but was noticeably sullen compared to the way in. This time, we managed to convince him to drop us off as close as he could to the Taj’s southern gate as we were looking for a place to have lunch there. At the entrance of Agra, we got stopped at an intersection, as there was a lot of traffic and we couldn’t move much. The block amplified and we were soon surrounded by a honking chaos as everything came to a standstill. This situation lasted for a good ten minutes and in the midday sun, spirits became visibly heated and angry. This is the closest we’d seen to actual anger and fights in the streets up to that point, as for all the honking and crazy driving they do, Indians as far as we’ve seen remain remarkably cool under any circumstances on the road.
This however was threatening to turn into a shit storm of epic proportions as more and more people came and became glued into the mess. I personally started feeling uncomfortable when people started actually trying to move our car on their own, bumping into it and even climbing on it to pass.
Eventually we saw a couple of soldiers run our way (as in towards the block, not us specifically), followed by another three or four. With tough talk, baton wielding and probably some not-so-veiled threats of trouble for people who didn’t comply, they quickly resolved the situation and we were soon rolling again towards our destination. Pretty intense.
As it turned out, the driver this time didn’t encounter any difficulty whatsoever taking us exactly where we wanted to go, which as we discovered was right across Joney’s Place, conclusively proving that his morning excuse of not being able to drive there had been rather economical with the truth.
We did enjoy a very welcome break at that restaurant, the name of which escapes me, as we sat and ate on the rooftop terrace, taking in the view of Agra rooftops and the Taj in the distance. We also were lucky to see a colourful wedding procession go down our street.
After lunch we got back to the cab and proceeded to the Agra Fort, our last big stop of the day.
Although it was relatively late already, we did time it perfectly for photos again as we arrived smack in the middle of the golden hour and saw the very red indeed Fort in all its colorful glory. The majestic entrance, exterior walls and moats reminded me of the fortified city of Carcassonne in France, which has the same no non-sense, tough-built feel to it.
The present Red Fort was built on top of an existing fort by Akbar, of Fatehpur Sikri fame, but it is also famous for Akbar’s grandson Shah Jahan. After building the Taj Mahal, Shah Jahan had plans to build its perfect counterpoint, a replica made of black stone on the opposite side of the river. Unfortunately for him, it was never to be. His son Aurangzeb seized power after arranging to have his three brothers executed, and had his ailing father confined to the Fort. Only some foundations were laid out and the Black Taj was never built.
He stayed under house arrest there until his death in 1666 in the care of his daughter Jahanara, who immediately arranged for his funeral in the Taj Mahal next to his love Mumtaz Mahal. Incidentally, this unscheduled addition makes it the only part of the Taj Mahal complex that is not symmetrical.
We skipped the guides this time, opting instead for an audio-guide device, but the formal visit was cut short by sunset. We rushed to give the thing back, then played a little hide-and-seek with the guards who were shuffling people out, trying to steal a few extra minutes and see as much of the palace as we could. We eventually walked back and left just as the night fell for good.
Once back at the hotel, we briefly met with Sunil one last time to arrange the pickup-time for tomorrow, to take us to the bus station to Jaipur.