Agra to Fatehpur Sikri: "Rush Hour Traffic"



Uttar Pradesh


February 16, 2007

Dear Family and Friends,

Agra is not just The Taj. The Taj, as magnificent as it is, is not Agra.

Agra is also Agra -- and there's more to see.

"The Agra Fort was built by Emperor Akbar between 1565 and 1573. (Remember Akbar's Tomb?) Its imposing red sandstone ramparts form a crescent along the river bank encompassing an enormous complex of courtly buildings ranging in style from the early eclecticism of Akbar to the sublime elegance of Shah Jahan."


Akbar and Jahan are becoming familiar names and fast friends. I try to imagine the great Shahs as they grant public audience in the Duwaan-I-Aam, an impressive and yet welcoming grand hall of white marble arcades and double pillared archways and inlaid semi-precious stone decoration, a "sumptuous setting for the fabled Peacock Throne."

I tread in Jahan's footsteps inside the Burj Musamman, a double-stored octagonal tower with a clear view across the river to The Taj. (Remember the sad story?)

West of Agra is Fatehpur Sikri. Fatehpur Sikri is not a fort or a city within a city. It is a city.

"Built by Emperor Akbar between 1571 and 1585, Fatehpur Sikri was the Mughal capital for 14 years. A fine example of a Mughal walled city, with defined private and public areas and imposing gateways, its architecture, a blend of Hindu and Islamic styles, reflects Akbar's secular vision as well as his style of governance."

One unique architectural feature is the pillar in the Diwan-I-Khas, Akbar's court. The pillar is the central axis and it is supported by carved brackets.

Jami Masjid, "a grand open mosque, towers over the city. Flanked by arched cloisters, its vast congregational area has monumental gateways to the east and south. The spiritual focus of the complex is the tomb and hermitage of the Sufi mystic, Salim Chisti, as popular today as it was during he time of Akbar." Childless women make a wish and tie a small cotton thread on the screen around the tomb.

The "screens" are fascinating. Typically a screen is one thin piece of red sandstone that has been carved into an intricate geometric design. They are often used as windows in the women's quarters. The wives and servants can observe the courtyards and markets, but passersby cannot see in. Other sandstone slabs are carved to resemble wood paneling and still others are carved to resemble tile roofing.

"Imposing" and "monumental" and "grand" are quite accurate descriptions for this imperial city. For a few hours I wander and wonder. Yes, it is wonder-full.

Many visitors find the city of Agra quite intimidating. True, it is crowded, very crowded, very noisy and, shall we say, unappetizing in the "downtown" and market areas. Me? I dive in. I hire a rickshaw for the deafening drive through the evening "rush hour" traffic.

"Rush hour traffic?" The BQE, the LIE, I-95, the Interstate, the Expressway, the Freeway, the Tollway, the Motorway, the Autoroute, Autobahn, Autostrada, Autopista are nothing, nothing, a piece of cake, a joy ride, a walk in the park compared to a cross-town passage in Agra.

Hundreds, hundreds of jostling motorbikes, squirming bicycles and rickshaws, two-legged and four-legged pedestrians all press close together as they elbow through underpasses and narrow streets lined with little shops and food stalls where the merchants are serene and oblivious to the smoky noisy congestion. And me? I am sitting in my little one-seater rickshaw as my driver pedals his way through this mess. I am sporting my usual big smile. Intimidating? Ney, I love it! Am I mad?

Just before dark I arrive at the Jami Masjid. "A magnificently proportioned building with distinctive zigzag chevron design, the 'Friday Mosque' was sponsored by Shah Jahan's favorite daughter Jahanara Begum." A welcome relief from the crush below.

And now after my visit to the mosque it's another rush hour return trip to my hotel!

Agra. What a city! From that magical morning at the Taj, to the imperial afternoons at the fort and ancient capital, to the reflective moment at the mosque, to my raucous evening commute. What colors! What contrasts!! What chaos!!!

My new friends here must be thinking: "Jan, welcome to India."


Mad Jan

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