Tuesday. “You know why people in India feed monkeys on Tuesdays?”, our local guide in Agra, Amit, asks. “Because they believe that they are blessed by God if they do”. There is a special feeding day for every day of the week. Overall, feeding animals in India seems to be a divine duty. Not only cows seem to have quite a good life. On the other hand, there is some cruelty when it comes to tourism. Jai tells us, that the men who seem to “conjure” snakes in the streets and take money for photos tame the snakes by ripping their teeth out to make them non-poisonous. And there are elephant rides to sights – for the “fun” of the tourists. Hideous!
We walk towards the “best palace” – in other words: the Taj Mahal. It is early morning, some minutes after eight, before the tourist crowds arrive. Amit tells us a lot about the world wonder. So, here comes the story, short version: The mogul Shah Jehan is heavily in love with his wife who is going to die. She asks him to show his love with the means of architecture after her death, so that he gets over the loss. The mogul decides to build a marble palace of love for her. It lasted 22 years. But time did not do the job for him. He never stopped loving her. Isn’t that romantic? This was ❤️️-story number one (the second one follows further down…).Some more sheer facts of Taj Mahal: There are four water channels in the garden, symbolizing paradise in islam. The cypress trees stand for sadness and death. The buildings are all symmetrical and the tomb is also right in the middle axis. The main architect of Taj Mahal is from Turkey. The building is about 300 years old and not one stone has been replaced. Around the Taj Mahal there is no industry allowed and the stones are regularly cleaned – to prevent deterioration. I sit down on a bench and let the white wonder work its magic. What does it prove? Love, desperation, grandeur? Does love need demonstration? One cannot deny, that the construction has something mighty on it and you feel humble in its presence. My sun bath and my thoughts are once in a while interrupted by Indian tourists who either “need the space” for taking pictures or want me IN their picture. The site starts to get busy with selfie-stick-holders and couples. We leave – perfect timing.
The Taj Mahal has a sister – the “Baby Taj”. The mausoleum is way smaller but it is a little treasure box – and to my mind much more impressive than its big counterpart once you are inside. The ornaments are just beautiful and it is a delight to walk – barefoot of course – across the flowery floor.
On our Iist is another monument in Agra: the big fort. It is made of red sandstone and marble which both seemed to be the state-of-the-art materials hundreds of years ago. The Agra Fort is another Unesco world heritage and it was the main home of the moguls in the 16th century. Only 20 percent of the whole fortress is open to the public because the Indian army is still using the premises. The gate and the ramp through which we enter are already impressive – back then elephants and horses came up here. After two palaces. The nicest tiny fact: There is fountain inside that splashed pure perfume. Not any more though. What a shame. I start having a “sandstone-marble-history-overload”- my hard drive and my RAM are fully occupied. So I switch to relaxation mode and let all the views and viewers just float past.
After a Samosa-lunch I decide not to take a nap and join a shopping group instead. They look for a rug – and I have never been to a carpet shop in my life. These are the shops you normally pass extremely quickly – like shops where you buy mattresses or cell phone covers. But not this time.
The shop owner has seen many tourists – he explains the whole production procedure without hesitation and without any stumble. Of course the rug is not “burnt” completely. They just remove surplus fiber and the carpet is washed. 2500 families around Agra are working for the rug shop in a kind of cooperative. If children are involved? Who knows. One might fear: yes. The shipment of a carpet to any country is subsidized by the Indian government – for the buyer it is free.
Late afternoon several Tuk tuks line up in front of the hotel. A Sundowner with a view of the Taj Mahal? Ok! Who would say „No“ to that? Jai leads us to a rooftop bar („only drinks! the food is crap! don’t eat it, you will be ill.“). The place is called “Maya” and has a remarkable service system. Many of us order beer – but there are only four left, because of “elections”. Elections? What do regional elections and beer have in common? In India: a lot! Jai explains that there is a shortage of alcohol during the campaigns because there should not be the suspicion that any of the candidates buys votes by making it easy for people to get alcohol. Maybe not too far fetched. “Free beer” might work as an election booster anywhere in the world. The waiter also serves severel sprites that nobody ordered. The remark “Well, I want a coke” is answered with: “Yeah, but this is sprite!” As if it was more precious. A funny logic! And the waiter might just think: “Strange people”.
The next day starts with ❤️️-story number two. Not only in Delhi, also on our drive between cities we have seen many weddings. Apart from the death ceremony it is one of the biggest ceremonies in Indian families – with lights, fireworks, music, flowers, neat and opulent dresses. All this starts with something something very unromantic: arranged marriages. That is common in India. Jai tells us that that are 90 percent of all marriages are arranged. It is still common (although forbidden by law) that the family of the groom demands a dowry. The sum depends on the „value“ of the groom. The dowdry can be like a million rupees (so approx. 100.000 Euro). Families start saving for this as soon as the daughter is born. Jais sister was 23 when her father looked around for a husband. At the age of 25 she was finishing her master and in the eyes of the parents: time is running out! So, the caste system is still a major factor in India though unjust, illogical and officially “abolished”. And there are so many things that show the character of India as a developing country. Many people have no access to a toilet. This is obvious since I have never seen so many men urinating in public (not even during carnival celebrations in Cologne) and there is so so so much garbage. Like: everywhere you look. Not in dark corners, not in dumping grounds: everywhere. People live with it and they live in it. And they do not seem to care. People do their laundry in dirty rivers.
“The government is doing a lot to improve the situation”, Jai says, “but often they is too less awareness. People just keep on doing what they always did. Like throwing garbage on the floor even if a dustbin is right beside them”. Cows, sheep, dogs, pigs, pigeons, rats, monkeys, squirrels – they all run and sniffle through garbage, searching for a bite to eat. And in the middle of all this? Tourists, like me. Asking for water bottles, cokes, tissues, adventure. Paying “foreigner prices” which means: a multiple of the local price but still cheap compared to Euro standard.
On Wednesday we head out of Agra to see Fatepuhr Sikri. Mugal ruler Jalal-ud-din Mohammad Akbar built bis own little kingdom there and one small palace for every wife he had – a Hindu one, a Muslim woman and a Christian woman. So much red again!
When we leave the area, Jai shows us a Tamrind tree and we can try a bite from the fruits. They look like sugar snap peas and taste like a very very sour apple.
Now we leave the state Uttar Pradesh and drive to Rajasthan, the driest state in India. We want to see one of the biggest step wells of the country: the Chand Baori in the village of Abhaneri. Built in the 9th (!) century it has been a water source centuries ago and now it is not only used for tourism (yes, there are a lot of vendors outside) but also for community events – like Holi or Diwali. Many broken parts with ornaments and figures are laid down around the well’s hole. One of them shows Shiva for example: a lord half male, half female. He is just one of 33 million gods the Hindus worship. The water 30 meters down in the well is all covered with a greenish blanket. Same quality as all the rivers and lakes. The stepwell has been in a movie (Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, says Wikipedia) as has the big fort in Agra (one edition of Sherlock Holmes).
Next “door” there is a temple – open air this time. An old man is sitting in front of a kind of chapel – guarding a statue of Lakshmi, the goddess of happiness. Happiness is female! The man offers a yellow powder as a “Bindi” – a dot in the middle of your forehead, where the “third eye” is supposed to be. I can always use a little bit of happiness, so surely I let him do his job. Happiness for only 20 rupees – a bargain.
Whenever we exit the tour bus vendors – many of them children – surround us. They offer the same things again and again, for only 100 rupees. Jai told us to rather not buy. One time, I cannot resist. I take sparkling pens and give some of them to other kids in Abhaneri who waited in front of our bus and who claimed to go to school – good! Whether I did any damage to the system – I do not know. It is not “helping” either. It just feels brutal to ignore them.