We arrived in Agra, Uttar Pradesh mid-day after an unmemorable first class train ride. Agra is hot, dusty and busy. Our guest hotel was a large modern house decorated in that newly affluent style with lots of gold, velvet and led lights.
Our first stop was the Taj Mahal, a mausoleum built in the mid 1600’s by the Mughal emperor, Shah Jahan (reigned from 1628 to 1658), to house the tomb of his favourite wife, Mumtaz Mahal. We approached the Taj Mahal gradually on foot. First we passed the mini taj, then passed through a gate leading to a huge compound with geometric gardens and fountains almost 1 km long. As you approach you are able to see more detail and texture. Like other sites in India it was a bit of a free for all with kids running around, women sitting and scowling while Eliot does Yoga poses, tourists taking photos all under the indifferent eyes of the attendants.
After the taj, the Inn keeper’s wife made us dinner in an Indian Food cooking lesson. I was a bit too hyper with the knives so she sent me away. The dishes were familiar in name (allu gobi, fried dahl, etc) but had a unique local taste.
The next day we went to Agra Fort a large Mughal style fort which is the other attraction in Agra. Amidst the impressive architecture and gardens I came across a plague from 1880 commemorating the work of a British Viceroy in preserving the Taj Mahal and other monuments. I do not know the history of the Viceroy but found it interesting that in this age of removing monuments from different times, the Indians had decided to let this one remain.
After the fort we went to the Sheroes Hangout a cafe staffed by women who suffered acid attacks. The cafe is part of a movement to bring stop acid attacks by raising awareness, and providing these women with a place to work and get support. We watched a video in which acid attack survivors told of how they have gone on to find work and have families. After Sheroes we headed to the train station to catch a train for the last stop on our tour- Delhi.
The Agra station was crowded and chaotic with the usual assortment of travellers, chai wallahs and soldiers. There were also a few feral monkeys picking up food from the tracks. We paid for the “VIP lounge” hoping from a respite from the craziness and got wifi, less flys and cold drinks.
We were unable to get first class tickets so we were booked on a second class carriage- one of the blue carriages with bars instead of windows that was identical to the trains featured in the film Lion.
The seating configuration consists of bench seats facing each other on the first level and a baggage shelf/sleeping loft in the three feet between the ceiling and the chair tops.
Thomas, Christine, Eliot and Suraj took the lower seats and I got the loft. While waiting to depart we were visited by a white haired guru and a Hijra (a term given to eunuchs, intersex people, and transgender people in South Asia ) They were doing the rounds asking for donations in exchange for good karma and we obliged. I later found out that in 2014 an Indian Court ruled that transgender is a third gender in Indian Law in a ruling that showed sensitivity to the challenges that transgender people must face in India:
Seldom, our society realises or cares to realise the trauma, agony and pain which the members of Transgender community undergo, nor appreciates the innate feelings of the members of the Transgender community, especially of those whose mind and body disown their biological sex. Our society often ridicules and abuses the Transgender community and in public places like railway stations, bus stands, schools, workplaces, malls, theatres, hospitals, they are sidelined and treated as untouchables, forgetting the fact that the moral failure lies in the society’s unwillingness to contain or embrace different gender identities and expressions, a mindset which we have to change.
It was very hot on the train, and only got somewhat comfortable after we left the station and got fresh warm air in through the bars on the windows. Sizing up the situation, Christine lit up a cigarette and Eliot passed around the Japanese Scotch. Smoking and drinking were forbidden but it did not look like the rules would be enforced. Whereas the others stayed put, I was too excited to stay in my loft and I was getting a sore neck. I wanted to see the action and did not want to miss a second of the experience. So off I went passing between cars. I saw a family that had not paid its fare hiding from the conductor in the bathroom. There were hindu gurus and pilgrims in saffron robes, sikh boys with their hair wrapped in small buns and girls in braids, imposing men in turbans with twirly moustaches. Saree clad women sleeping on benches with their bangled wrists and ring covered toes sticking out. In between cars I could look out on the country side and see small tent encampments, and villages. As the hazy yellow -orange sun set the train cooled off a bit.
For me this 6 hour train ride was one of the best experiences that I had in India.
We arrived in Delhi around 10 pm and sped through the wide british inspired boulevards to our hotel in motor rickshaws. The next day we toured Delhis. We saw the British Inspired parliament, the Bahai temple and did a slum tour. Delhi was very hot and the british influence in parts of the city was interesting. At the “India Gate” war memorial it was amazing to see that the names inscribed were english and not Indian. That evening we went out for our last dinner of the tour. The next day Eliot and I were heading by airplane to Varanasi.