The Taj and Agra’s Mighty Sheroes – a Snapshot
The Taj and Agra’s Mighty Sheroes – A Snapshot
Dr. Jamil and Dr. Idries provide a snapshot of their “The Taj and Agra’s Mighty Sheroes” blog.
By Dr. Jamil Abdur-Rahman
The Twin Doctors Travel Bag
We began our third day in India with an early morning drive from our hotel in Delhi to Agra, India’s 19th largest city. Before setting out however, as we walked to our waiting car, we were treated to an impromptu street performance by a young Indian boy. He looked like he was about 6 years old, and both his clothes and his rich brown skin were dirt stained. He wore an amusing looking blue beanie cap that had a fuzzy yellow ball attached to it by a small red string. This little guy was a fleet footed little jester; a comedic virtuoso of the Delhi streets, who entertained us by dancing, gyrating and gesticulating; all while making funny facial expressions that demonstrated a comedic timing that was advance beyond his years. Once his performance was complete, we gave him a few Rupees and a high five to say “thanks” for getting our day off to an awesome start! After that, we jumped into our car and headed for Agra.
Agra is a city of 1.7 million people that lies three hours by car to the southeast of Delhi. Our driver for the day was a tall slender Kashmiri man. He wore a neatly pressed khaki uniform that resembled something that an old communist Chinese soldier might wear. He had a mustache that was thick and dark, and his prominent cheekbones were supported by his rugged square chin. During our drive to Agra, he shared with us that he had moved to India from Kashmir “many years ago”. He said that he made the move to India so that he could make a “better life” for himself, his wife and his children. He also shared however that the rest of his remaining family still lived in Kashmir, where they work as subsistence farmers. When telling us about them, his eyes seemed a bit empty and his mood a bit melancholy and sad.
Once in Agra, we were met by our local tour guide for the day. Driving the streets of Agra, we found that the city looked more or less like what Westerners might expect a typical Indian city to look like. There were lots of people in the streets. Some of them were walking while others were pulling or pushing carts. There were also lots of animals in the streets. Again, some of them were walking while others were pulling carts. Among these animals were dogs, goats, donkeys and cows, though the cows were the most abundant of the Agra street animals by far. It turns out that the burgeoning cow population of Agra results from the fact that the city of Agra, and the state of Utter Pradesh (which is where Agra is located) have a slightly higher percentage of Hindus than does the rest of India. Hindus, along with Jains and Sikhs are primarily vegetarians. And Hindus in particular not only do not eat cows, they revere, respect and actively protect them. So, where one finds lots of Hindus, one will also find lots of free ranging cows. To read more about our initial impressions of Agra, checkout the full version of our “The Taj and Agra’s Mighty Sheroes” blog.
Our first stop in Agra was the world famous Taj Mahal. As we approached the Taj Mahal we had to abandon our car in a remote parking lot. From that parking lot we took a horse-drawn cart to the grounds of the Taj Mahal complex. We were unable to drive our car to the complex itself because no CO2 emitting vehicles are allowed within 0.5 km (i.e. 1/3rd of a mile) of the Taj Mahal. This regulation was put in place by the local government in an effort to help prevent atmospheric pollution around the monument. Atmospheric pollution from CO2 emitting cars as well as from CO2 emitting farting cows was, and still is, feared to be compromising the landmark’s structural integrity. So, use of cars around the Taj Mahal has been strictly limited to electric cars. The free range farting cows on the other hand……well that’s another story. Once at the welcoming center for the Taj Mahal, we each paid our 750 Rupee (approximately $15) “foreign visitors” entry fee. This fee was in contrast to the 20 Rupee (approximately $.40) entry fee that Indian visitors to the Taj Mahal are required to pay. Never mind though, with our excitement building and with our tickets in hand, we entered the Taj Mahal complex. Once in the complex, we passed through the massive Darwaza. The Darwaza is a large covered Redstone Gateway that leads to the Taj Mahal complex’s large garden space. The Darwaza features arches, spires and octagonal towers; and once beyond it, we were able to behold the majestic Taj Mahal for the first time.
The Taj Mahal, one of the “new seven wonders of the world”, sits on the banks of the Yamuna River. It was commissioned by the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan in the year 1632. Shah Jahan had the Taj Mahal built to serve as the mausoleum for his second wife Mumtaz Mahal, after she died while giving birth to their 14th child. Shah Jahan, being crestfallen and largely inconsolable after the death of his beautiful wife Mumtaz, was only motivated to commission the construction of the Taj Mahal after he was coxed out of a year long self imposed seclusion by his eldest daughter. It is said that when the great Shah Jahan emerged from this seclusion, his physical appearance had greatly changed. He supposedly had lost a tremendous amount of weight, had become completely grey; and his posture is said to have gone from that of a spry young man to that of an elderly decrepit one.
Interestingly, some believe that the Taj Mahal was not originally intended to be the iconic one-of-a-kind monument that it is lauded for being today. Instead, some believe that the great Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan had planned to build a second structure that would have been identical in appearance to the Taj Mahal. This second structure would have been situated just behind the Taj Mahal, on the opposite side of the Yamuna River. This second Taj Mahal, which would have served as Shah Jahan’s own mausoleum after his death, is frequently referred to as the “Black Taj Mahal”. This is because legend has it that this second Taj Mahal was to have been built using black marble. The Black Taj Mahal and the White Taj Mahal would reportedly then have been connected to one and other by a bridge built to span the Yamuna River. Some scholars argue very passionately that the building of the Black Taj Mahal was indeed something that the great Emperor had planned; while others argue just as passionately that this is nothing more than a myth or an urban legend. What is not up for debate however is the fact that any future building plans that the Emperor may have had were unceremoniously cut short when his son, Aurangazeb, led a violent coup that toppled his mighty father. After leading the coup, Aurangazeb imprisoned his father at the Agra Fort; and it was at the Agra Fort that the once mighty emperor remained until his death. To read more about Mumtaz Mahal, Shah Jahan or about how Shah Jahan spent his final days imprisoned at the Agra Fort, checkout our extended version of “The Taj and Agra’s Mighty Sheroes” blog.
One benefit of paying the “foreign visitors” Taj Mahal complex entry fee was that it allowed us to use the line reserved for “foreign visitors” when we entered the actual Taj Mahal. This line moved really quickly, and it had us inside of the building in under a minute. By contrast, the line for “Indian Visitors” literally wrapped around the mausoleum. Once inside of the Taj Mahal, because of the buildings dim lighting and because of it’s thick marble walls, the central burial chamber was pleasantly cool. Additionally, the abundant white marble with it’s meticulous floral inlays was simply breath taking; while the sight of the centrally located Cenotaphs of Shah Jahan and Mumtaz Mahal resting side by side, together from now until eternity, was strangely uplifting and reaffirming. To read more about our time at the Taj Mahal and at the Taj Mahal complex, check out the extended version of our “The Taj and Agra’s Mighty Sheroes” blog.
After leaving the Taj Mahal, our next stop was Agra’s “Sheroes Hangout Café” . With help from the Delhi based not-for-profit organization “Stop Acid Attacks”, five female victims of severely disfiguring acid attacks banded together to open and staff the Sheroes Hangout Café. The goal of the café was to provide survivors of acid attacks with a platform from which they could both individually and collectively raise awareness about the issue of acid attacks in India. Additionally, the goal of the café was to provides acid attack survivors with an opportunity to reenter society in a triumphant, independent and productive manner. A manner that would make it easy for them to hold their heads up high for all of the world to see, without feelings of shame or embarrassment.
The five “Sheroes” of the Sheroes Hangout Café are Ritu, Neetu, Geeta, Rupa and Chanchal. Geeta and Neetu are Mother and Daughter; and they (along with Neetu’s younger sister) were attacked by Geeta’s Husband (Neetu’s Father) while they slept. Geeta and Neetu both suffered severe burns to the face and neck, burns that ultimately compromised their vision; Neetu’s younger sister however died as a result of the attack. Rupa is an outgoing Shero that is also a self-taught clothing designer. She was attacked at the age of 12 by her Stepmother who threw acid in her face in an effort to prevent her from getting married and leaving the home. Rupa’s Stepmother instead wanted Rupa to remain in the home, where she could continue to help out with the domestic chores and with caring for her younger siblings. Ritu, the Shero that we spent the most time with while at the café, is a former member of India’s national junior volleyball team. She was attacked by a cousin who threw acid in her face after his professed love for her went unrequited. See our interview with Ritu below; and to read more about changes to the laws in India to address the epidemic of acid attacks, more about the Sheroes, the Sheroes Hangout Café or our time at the café (including a very inspirational moment that we shared with Ritu), read the extended version of our “The Taj and Agra’s Mighty Sheroes” blog.
After leaving the Sheroes Hangout Café, our last stop of the day was the Agra Fort. While the design of the Agra Fort resembles that of the much larger Red Fort in old Delhi, the Agra Fort at 94 acres is only 1/3rd the size of the Red Fort. This smaller size helps to make leisurely exploration of the Agra Fort quite easy. Commissioned by the Mughal Emperor Akbar in the year 1565, the Agra Fort, like the nearby Taj Mahal, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Acropolis features a number of ornately designed buildings, lush garden spaces and finally maintained stone walkways. The most exquisite of these ornately designed buildings however would have to be the Glass Palace (aka the Sheesh Mahal), the Hall of Private Audiences (aka the Diwan-i-Khas), the White Marble Palace (aka the Khas Mahal) and the Gem House of Worship (aka the Nagina Masjid).
For us, the Sheesh Mahal was perhaps the most remarkable of the landmarks that we visited while at the Agra Fort. The building once functioned as both a summer retreat and as an Imperial bathhouse for the great Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan. It was constructed using extra thick cuts of white marble, a design feature that helped to prevent heat from permeating through the structure’s walls and into it’s central chambers. In addition to the use of this thick marble, the passageways leading from outside of the Sheesh Mahal into it’s central chambers were constructed to be both very narrow and very long. This design feature helped to largely prevented direct natural sunlight from entering the central chambers, another design element that helped to keep the monuments central chambers cool. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the Sheesh Mahal though are the mirror mosaic walls that line it’s central chambers. Because the central chambers are largely devoid of natural sunlight, artificial lighting was (and still is) frequently used to illuminate that spaces. This artificial lighting when employed dances beautifully off of the walls, creating a kaleidoscopic effect that is bordering on otherworldly. To read more about the Sheesh Mahal or about any of the other monuments found at the Agra Fort; or to read about our experiences while visiting these monuments, checkout the extended version of our “The Taj and Agra’s Mighty Sheroes” blog.
After leaving the Agra Fort we made the three-hour drive back north to Delhi. Arriving in the evening time, and feeling quite hungry; we decided to eat at one of the hotel’s two restaurants. This particular restaurant advertised an “all-you-can-eat” dinner buffet, which of course sounded fantastic to us. When you string the four words together “all” “you” “can” and “eat”, well lets just say that you get our attention. Unfortunately, the buffet experience turned out to be extraordinarily frustrating, profoundly disappointing and somewhat humorous. I you think about a good old-fashioned bait and switch, then you will begin to understand with this dinner “buffet” was all about. To read more about “The Extraordinarily Frustrating and Profoundly Disappointing Buffet”, check out the extended version of our “The Taj and Agra’s Mighty Sheroes” blog.