Sawai Madhopur Junction at 11pm is a bustling place. In the castellated forecourt, the shapes of sleeping passengers merged with the shapes of not-quite sleeping cows, while on the platforms, groups slouched or wandered around awaiting their invariably delayed trains. The recorded lady announcing that ‘Any inconvenience is deeply regretted’ was being kept busy. Locomotives eeyore-d their way through while the night sky above was enlivened by the huge wedding that had turned large parts of the town into a fairground.
Among the prestigious expresses pausing for breath on their long journeys at this important junction, my train was at the bottom of the pecking order, the Haldighati Passenger, an all-station stopper with a handful of sleeper class coaches tacked on to the unreserved General class seating cars. It began its journey down the line at Ratlam Junction, which I had passed on the Golden Temple Mail yesterday about two hours before arriving at Sawai Madhopur. The Passenger, by contrast, left Ratlam at 9am and conspired to spend the entire day and half the night crawling around secondary lines in the Rajasthani backwoods to reach Sawai Madhopur at 23.15. It then proceeded to meander along slightly more major lines to Agra, being overtaken by all-and-sundry along the way. It had the advantage, however, of offering a time-efficient overnight hop to Agra, if not necessarily in the most comfortable conditions.
Two more important trains were put into platform 1 (it now had two cows) before the Haldighati Passenger, which didn’t pull in until well after midnight. The sleeper class carriage was pitch black and pretty much full, making the berth numbers impossible to find. Luckily, the genial TTE had been looking out with, I think, something approaching anticipation, for the rare beast of an Indrail Pass holder on his fifth-class train, so was already hanging around the relevant bit of carriage S2. Having turfed an interloper out of berth 17, the TTE wandered off to better examine the pass in a slightly lit part of the carriage, before returning it, suitably impressed. The reason for the interloper and, indeed, the man sleeping on the floor of my bay of six, turned out to be an entire family – at least four generations – either moving house or going for a weekend break. They were using up two of their allocated berths just with luggage. Once berth allocations were sorted out and we were underway, sleeper class was a pleasant enough experience, at least on a lower berth with the window open and a warm breeze blowing in. Sleep, however, was fitful thanks to the bellowing and roaring of expresses overtaking us as we stood looped in stations throughout the short night.
At 5am, the entire carriage woke up as one and started preparing for our 6am arrival in Agra. So much for my considerately wearing headphones so that my 5.30 alarm didn’t disturb people. Early impressions of Agra were no favourable – for ten minutes the train crossed one sewage-filled watercourse after another, the smell permeating the carriage. I pined, briefly, for the fresh air of Ranthambore.
Almost everyone got off a suburban Agra Igtah, leaving me in the emptiest train I’ve yet travelled in for the final fifteen minutes crawl to Agra Fort. As the name suggests, Fort station sits squeezed below the red walls of the city’s dominating citadel, glowing scarlet in the dawn light.
I have read complaints from travellers that the hassle in Agra begins the moment they got off the train, if not before. The answer to this is clearly to arrive at the secondary station on a tertiary train. I was left unhindered to find the luggage cloakroom, to wander outside and pick an auto-rickshaw at will. I picked badly, as it turned out, as while the driver immediately accepted my 50% knockdown of his suggested price to the Taj, once underway I had clearly hired the most under-powered auto in Agra. When a cycle rickshaw overtook us while travelling uphill, I glared hard at the back of the driver’s head and reckoned I should have knocked him down 70%. None of this distracted from the fleeting first glimpse of the Taj Mahal’s domes and minarets, rising from the river mist, silhouetted against a pink dawn sky.
It takes more than the thousand photos that come before for the traveller not to be bowled over by the Taj in real life as they walk through the Chow-i-Jila gateway for the first time. Even a traveller who has enjoyed about three hours partial sleep, using their rucksack as a pillow. It is simple, yet intricate, has an incredible architectural unity and yet somehow feels as though it could have been hewn from virgin rock. It is a cliché, but seeing the dome illuminated by the pink dawn felt like you were seeing it as its creator – mad, bankrupted and jailed as he ended up – intended it. A gigantic building in a vast formal space of lawns, water and accompanying mosques, yet it all felt strangely intimate and as though the hundreds of others who had also made an early start faded way. I was under instructions to pass on regards to the Taj from my late grandfather, who had visited while stationed in India during World War II and been bowled over by it. As someone who had not been easily won over by tourist destinations (sorry, Knaresborough, he just wasn’t that in to you), that was a compliment to the Taj. Well deserved, I decided.
There is probably not much to add to what has already been written about the Taj Mahal, but a few highlights include the overpowering simplicity of the main mausoleum chamber with its gentle calm, the intricate Arabic calligraphy around each towering entrance in the the Taj’s walls, the marble screens with their delicate floral carvings around the sarcophagi, the view of the bend in the Yamuna River with the walls of the Red Fort rising Kremlin-like from its banks, overlooked by the Taj’s pavilions, the bird-filled gardens, the fine tree providing unexpected framing of the dome and minarets.
By the time I left the Taj in mid-morning, the full sun had begun to give the marble a translucent, almost yellow hue. By now, the crowds had arrived en masse, yet somehow the complex held them without ever seeming over-full. From a little up the road, at Agra Forestry Department’s Taj Nature Walk – a large stretch of land, part cultivated, part wild – the Taj’s domes appeared as though standing alone among a thick forest, the only sound being the bellowing of bullfrogs in a pond and the occasional distant melancholy hooting of trains pulling onto the long bridge over the river. It was a remarkable sight, as though discovering a forgotten jungle-bound temple for the first time.
A fascinating walk through Agra’s backstreets, on the tails of an all-female BJP election procession and through a leafy park took me to the fort – still Agra’s renowned hassle seemed pretty low-key: simply saying ‘no, thanks’ to auto and cycle-rickshaw drivers every now and again did the trick, though I did part with a few rupees to a couple of kids in the park, who insisted I take a spin on their over-sized rusty bike in return. Somehow, Agra Fort didn’t quite work for me. It’s not that it is a lesser building than the Taj – it could survive that, being constructed of the most striking red brick and contains real architectural marvels. I think mainly the issue was that it handled the crowds less well than the Taj, channelling them through narrow passages and bringing out the worst in the ‘photograph your entire family one-by-one in front of every insignificant bit of stonework’ brigade, all coupled with the midday heat of the Great Indian Plain.
Nevertheless, there were still plenty of individual elements to enjoy, particularly the quiet marble courtyards of the little internal mosques, the scale and grace of the Moghuls’ public audience platform in the fort’s central square, with its throne platform alcove within a platform, and the astonishing views down the river to the Taj, from where its creator Shah Jahan, imprisoned in the fort for his rash exuberance with public funds supposedly caught his last sight of it from a suitably exuberant pavilion. And perhaps above all, the large trees in the grass central courtyard provided pleasant shade and quiet canine companions for a brief post-Haldighati Passenger snooze through some of the worst of the heat. A few hours on the true plains and already I was seeing the attractions of a hill station.
For me, perhaps the most striking part of the fort was the comparatively recent Jahangiri Mahal, much more influenced in its style by Hindu architecture than earlier parts, which I wandered around once the heat and crowds had died down a little.
Built ostensibly as a palace but in reality as a harem, it seemed the very epitome of a gilded cage – elaborately decorated red sandstone friezes around the façade and courtyard gave way to an unsettlingly dark and cramped series of rooms and courtyards behind. The rear courtyard gave views of the Taj and river, yet only through relatively small embrasures in a high wall, not the open platforms with sweeping views in other parts of the fort. For all its remarkable beauty, it did not feel like a beautiful place.