While chatting with Hans on WhatsApp, we shortlisted 3 places for a gate-away from Delhi…Varanasi, Amritsar and Agra, all being drivable from Delhi, the first one was a bit far taking almost 10 hours followed by 8 hours and 3 hours respectively. However, because of Didi’s reservations about sitting through such long hours, we decided on the Agra-Fatehpur Sikri circuit and accordingly bought the tickets to the Tajmahal and Fatehpur Sikri from the online portal.
We have taken a conscious decision of not leaving Rolf alone overnight because of his advanced age and resultant rheumatism and other age related issues, he needs care that the housekeeper or Guddu can’t provide. So, one of us is always with/around him, therefore for the Agra trip it was decided that Deepika will stay back while Didi, Hans, Ayush & I will drive down for the 1.5 day trip.
We had planned to start around 5:30 AM but managed to leave home 20 minutes late. We decided to go to Fatehpur Sikri first and Google Map suggested we take the NH-19 via Faridabad, Vrindavan, Mathura and take the Agra bypass to reach our destination… 206 km in approx. 4 hours.
NH-19 has been completely revamped and now offers a smooth ride which became apparent as Didi commented that she can’t recognize the route that she had taken to go to Mathura. Even Hans was pleasantly surprised not just of the road but seamless crossing of the Toll Plaza courtesy the FasTag.
We stopped for breakfast at newly opened restaurant near Mathura (Akbarpur) called NH-19 Dhaba and had tasty n filling stuffed parantha and masala tea without milk & sugar. Nice clean place with courteous staff. We were the first customers of the day so were given special attention.
Till now, I was driving but post breakfast Ayush decided to drive. His confidence level has gone up tremendously having driven through NH-44 only a few months ago. I was glad because, I needed to take a power nap to add up to my 4 hours only REM sleep. Ayush drove very smoothly allowing me to doze off most of the distance. He woke me up as we were approaching Dholpur and Google Map was suggesting multiple alternate routes from thereon. I told him to keep to the original route as that seemed less complicated using the Agra-Jaipur highway.
As we entered the road towards Fatehpur Sikri, 2 guys on a motorcycle approached us with offer to get our vehicle parked free of cost and take us to the shrine on a local registered car (no other vehicles are allowed to the complex) and also provide guided tour at a nominal charge of INR 700 only. We agreed and they guided us to a hotel where we parked our jeep. We walked about 100 meters and got into a Bolero which took us the gate of the Fatehpur Sikri Complex.
We were asked to deposit our shoes and provided with a pair of cotton shoes @10 INR per pair. The Guide Shoaib Ali narrated the history in a mix of English-Hindi-Urdu which Ayush and I could understand but had to translate for Hans in English and Bengali for Didi. This was the mosque, Jama Masjid, used by Akbar for praying and the Buland Darwaza is supposed to be the tallest gate as per the guide. I have no reason to argue with him so accepted it on face value. The place like most other has become too commercialized, we were told that if we visit the shrine of Salim Chisti, we need to offer a “Chadar” on the grave and took us to a place where a dozen such sellers had displayed their chadars. These were quite steeply priced starting at INR 2100 onwards going upto INR 7500. The guide very skillfully took Ayush & Hans to a different guy while Didi & I were stationed with another. The con became clear when the seller said we have to buy chadars individually i.e. one chadar per person. Understandably, Didi wanted to offer a chadar, so I bought one for her and politely refused to buy for myself saying that for me the god in whatever name you call, resides within me and I don’t have to do any ritual. The seller and the guide, both were disappointed for loss of revenue. But they managed to con Ayush and Hans by selling them a higher priced chadar each.
I followed them to the shrine but kept my distance from the theatrics and refused to put money on the chadar. There was no way to confirm their claim that the chadars are used to make wedding dresses for young girls of poor family and the money goes to some orphanage. I would rather give the money to charitable organization that has proven records for doing good work for the underprivileged.
We finished the tour in about 1.5 hours and headed for Agra; decided to check-in at the hotel Double Tree by Hilton… rest a while and proceed to Taj Mahal around 4-ish so that we could capture the sunset at the background.
Double Tree by Hilton is a 5 star hotel very close (1.2 km) to the Taj Mahal… having very courteous staff. The rooms are quite spacious (unlike the Hyatt) and we settled into our rooms within 20 minutes of reporting to the front desk. While checking in, we were told that there will be a buffet dinner at the coffee shop priced at INR 1500 but if we book before 6:30 pm, it will be INR 1000 plus taxes… we booked for 4 persons. We were all feeling hungry so ordered sandwiches through room service hoping that will be served fastest. We were quite disappointed both on account service which took close to 45 minutes as well as the food quality… especially the non-veg Club Sandwich… the bread wasn’t fresh and there was hardly any meat in it… just a paste of chicken and a thin fried egg with lots of veggies.
We had booked a cab and guide service from the hotel travel desk for 4 pm. The guide introduced himself and we set forth for the Taj Mahal. We purposely decided to skip other monuments of Agra to concentrate on Taj Mahal, a place where we have been many times but knew very little about which the guide narrated. The crowd management has improved in leaps and bound…last time in 2011 when we visited, we could not enter the monument because of unprecedented unruly rush. Now, one has to buy tickets online clearly indicating their nationality. There are only 2 gates to enter – East and West… completely barricaded allowing only pedestrian traffic on tiled road followed by security check with body scanner… only medicine and water bottle is allowed inside.
The hotel Toyota Innova dropped us at the parking area from where we got into a golf-cart that took us close to the monument (within 1.5 km) from where we had to walk. A few guys with wheelchairs approached us looking at Didi’s age but she’s made of different mettle and decided to walk the distance… later we realized that the wheelchair thing is a sham as it goes only up to the main gate and not till the actual monument. Hans with the help of the guide had roped in a photographer to take pictures of us as we moved and provide both soft and hard copies (selected images) when we come out at a negotiated fee of INR 5600. Before I could intervene, the deal was struck, a foreigner was conned a second time on the same day.
The photographer took his job very seriously and started taking pictures immediately right from the entrance gate while the Guide narrated the story of Taj Mahal, most of which we already knew. The popular story that makes round that the all the workers, architects and others involved in the construction of the monument were maimed or killed by Shahjahan is nothing but myth. The guide told us that they were all made to sign an oath that they will not replicate the monument anywhere else and offered alternate occupation. Many of the descendents of such workers are still living in and around Agra and making decorative art pieces of marble including miniature replicas of Taj Mahal.
The Emperor Consort Mumtaz Mahal was initially buried at Burhanpur where she died and was exhumed and brought to Agra for burial at her final resting place at Taj Mahal. The tomb is exactly at the centre of the monument which is quite astonishing as in the absence of modern instruments how they figured out the exact centre point!! When Shahjahan died, he was buried next to her. The British looted all the jewels that adorned the monument but the beauty still persists. The guide told us that the Britishers actually wanted to take the entire Taj Mahal to their native land not because they were enamored by its beauty but to use the marbles for their homes… only the logistics prevented such criminal act.
The on-line ticketing has the advantage of limiting the number of persons that can enter the monument. It ensured that at any point of the day, only a limited manageable crowd is present inside the compound. Further on, there is an extra payment for those who desired to visit the main structure of the monument which effectively reduced the crowd influx that used to be the bane earlier.
Meanwhile, Hans had been busy getting himself framed in Bollywood style… as he said earlier to me that he wanted collect as many memories as he can… and what better than to get the best moments captured in photographs. Halfway to the mausoleum, the guide said the professional photographers are not allowed beyond that point… another first and for better…also the fact that photography is not permitted as soon as you enter the mausoleum. Using a powerful torch, the guide showed us how the Taj Mahal looks under the full moon. The real stones, rubies and emeralds shine in the moonlight giving a surreal effect to the monument. Incidentally, the visitors are allowed in batches of 50 pax per half hour inside the complex near the main gate till about midnight but are prohibited to venture into the lawns or any further than the porch of the main gate. Another thing that we never realized in our previous visits is the fact that the corner pillars of the hexagonal points are flat if you touch and feel but viewed from a distance of six feet gives a visual effect of curved surface… amazing architecture.
When we came out of the mausoleum, the sun was setting and provided some awesome images. Collectively we, including Didi in her iPhone, took over fifty pictures till the daylight started fading completely. We walked back to the point where the golf-carts were waiting for passengers heading to the parking. The photographer came with an album as well as images in a memory stick which he transferred to Hans’s phone. He also gave a 8”x10” print of Hans with his mother which I am sure will be nicely framed and adorn the walls of their home in Russelsheim, Germany.
On our way back to the hotel, we stopped at leather store from where Ayush picked up a nice leather laptop bag at 1/3 the price of regular retail shops and Hans picked up a pair of dress shoes at a reasonable price. On hindsight, we should have picked up the leather suitcase which was on offer at a very reasonable price… it could be a reason to visit again in the near future!!
Ayush & I went to the market across the hotel and picked up a bottle of Dewar’s 12 years along with some soft drinks and soda water besides some chakhna. He had a call with his counterparts in USA till 10 PM, so we told Didi and Hans to go ahead for the dinner if they feel hungry and we will join them momentarily.
We should have booked the dinner after having the room service order… the buffet service was subpar considering the hotel is a 5 star property. Didi & Hans had finished their dinner when we reached the restaurant and waiting for us. As we approached them, she got up excitedly and introduced me and Ayush to the occupants of the table just behind ours… they were the same people whom she and Hans had met the Safdarjung Tomb and at the Isha Foundation at their invitation. It was a sheer coincidence that they not just had come to Agra too but staying in the same hotel as well.
The following morning after breakfast which happened to be the best meal we had in the hotel, left for Delhi aiming to reach by 12:30-1:00 pm as Ayush had to log-in by 1:30 PM for his meetings. The return journey was very smooth with one toilet stopover at the Toll Plaza of Mathura Exit. Good thing that both Taj Expressway(Agra Ring Road) as well as Yamuna Expressway have installed FasTag so one doesn’t have to dig into the purse for cash at the Toll Plazas. The change of driver happened at the Jewar Toll Plaza because Ayush was averse to driving on empty stretch of the road as that would make him sleepy… I did not tell him that with how much will power I had stayed awake while driving on the near empty roads… Anyways, we reached home well before the targeted time to allow Ayush to log-in for his meetings.
DIWALI & BHAIDUJ
Diwali is not complete without a visit to the Blind School Diwali Mela especially because their candles are far superior to the ones that are available in the market and burns for the whole night. The other attractions being the handicrafts and paintings by the differently abled students, Hans picked up few of them. On our way back we decided to stop at an Italian Restaurant called EVO, very close to our home but unfortunately that evening they had waiting period of more than an hour, so we came home and ordered PIZZA from another restaurant . We went to Evo on another day with prior reservations and thoroughly enjoyed the Pepperoni Pizza which turned out be juicy and flavorful compared to the other joint.
The following Sunday, we went out for lunch at a CP restaurant and then first to famous Hanuman Mandir where Didi used frequent when living in Delhi and desired to visit the place along with Hans. We then went Central Cottage Industries Emporium on Janpath. Many years ago, before marriage, she used to work there and in her previous visits made it a point to visit to meet up with friends. Now, almost all her friends have retired and moved to other parts of the country, some had taken abode with Madhav. The place has changed significantly, the main attractions are on the ground floor having brass, papier-mâché and ceramic art pieces besides giftables. We noticed some nice furniture as well and made a mental note to visit again when we plan to change ours. Hans picked up few brass figurines of which the Saraswati was quite attractive. I added one more Ganesha to my collection. When I reached the cash counter, I found my childhood friend Alok aka Gutloo with his wife Arpita paying for his purchases. Arpita has an enviable collection of Ganesha(s) which she had proudly displayed in a glass showcase.
In an around Diwali, playing Teen Patti (3 card flash) had become a ritual but for last 4 years or so, it had taken a back seat due to pandemic related restrictions. Then the passing away of the biggest organizer my Chhordi (sister) due to covid related complication in early 2021 has been a big dampener to the spirits of Diwali. This year we did not organize any card party nor were invited to any such party. On the Diwali evening, after the usual puja, Deepika, Ayush, Hans and I sat down to play the Flash but without involving money. We first had to explain Hans the rules of the game, he being a quick learner, picked up the nuances of the game and soon was on winning way.
My insisting and persuading Didi and Hans to visit us during the time of festivities had an ulterior motive as well… there was some kind of undercurrent in the relations between my elder siblings due to variety of reasons and misunderstandings. No amount of counseling from my end had had any positive effect as being the youngest (but wisest), I could not influence them. So, I thought, Didi being the eldest, almost a mother figure, can perhaps put some sense in warring individuals.
It took some cajoling, admonishing and pushing by her but at the end, I am very happy to say that all the misunderstandings were set aside and we had an enjoyable sibling’s get-together on Bhaiduj. And needless to say, my culinary skills won the day with Hing Diye Aloor Dom and Kosha Maangsho. Deepika completed the menu with her famous Punjabi Chhole and Tomato Paneer. And of course there were an array of sweets for dessert.
Bhaiduj happens on the second day after Diwali but this year because of the Solar Eclipse, Bhaiduj (officially) happened on the third day after Diwali. However, we are in the age of convenience, so Deepika’s brothers came over on the second day to celebrate as both had preoccupation the following day. In a way, it was better; they got full attention as was my siblings the following day.
All times, good or bad, comes to an end… Didi & Hans flew back to Germany on 1 November early morning and Ayush to Bengaluru the following evening… Deepika & I are back to daily grinding… hoping for an eventful, happy beginning to the New Year about a month ahead from now…