Agra is a stinking cesspit of a city that no human being should ever have to endure… and none ever would, if it hadn’t had the undeserved luck of containing the Taj Mahal.
It does have some other nice monuments too, which is why people say Agra’s beautiful, but if a dog ate a few gemstones and did a poo, you wouldn’t call the poo beautiful.
It’s not just the fact that as a tourist, you’re under assault 24/7 by touts and scammers and aggressively solicitous autorickshaw drivers. The overcrowding, the pollution and filth, the choking fumes, are all damaging the very things which make Agra (barely) worth visiting. The Taj Mahal is discolouring, cracking and dissolving in the acrid clouds and rain it suffers from its surroundings.
Christ, I hate Agra. I’ve made facetious comments about Rajasthani old cities needing to have their populations forcibly relocated to save them for posterity, but in Agra the argument’s even more acute. If it were up to me, I’d have the Taj moved stone by stone somewhere else, and let the city rot.
And yet, I went there again. Even worse, it was to contradict my first statement, since I didn’t even go for the Taj Mahal. When I was there in October, a bout of food poisoning ruined our plan of visiting Fatehpur Sikri, so after Gwalior I went back for a second try.
Fatehpur Sikri was founded in 1569 by the Mughal Emperor Akbar ‘the Great’, who was fed up with the crowds and noise in his then capital, Agra. I know how Akbar felt, I really do. But what he didn’t realise was that, by building a massive and magnificent set of palaces 20 miles down the road, he was making an open invitation for all of the grubby plebs he was trying to escape from to follow him there and set up camp around it. 450 years later, they’re still there.
The city was abandoned in 1585 when Akbar moved north to Lahore, then later back to Agra. Fatehpur Sikri is therefore described as a “deserted city” and its appeal is supposed to be its austere, barely-lived-in emptiness. But it’s not deserted: there’s a thriving town of visitor-botherers, and associated secondary economy, swarming around the base of the palaces.
Getting off the bus from Agra, I was immediately harassed by people wanting to guide me up to the site, and had to stride away in the opposite direction through the local market, then make my way back by dodging down side alleys, just to avoid them.
The first part of Fatehpur Sikri I came to was the Buland Darwaza (Great Gate), the entrance into the Jama Masjid. Even the normally-rose-tinted Rough Guide warned that it would be “rife with self-appointed ‘guides’ who will make it all but impossible to enjoy the place in peace”. I managed it, however. You just have to be firm with the buggers. One collared me at the entrance as I was taking off my shoes, and insisted that he wouldn’t ask for any money (yeah, right) but as a foreign visitor I must be led around the site by an employee of the mosque first, before I could have another look around on my own. I was equally persistent on the question of whether I was allowed in, unaccompanied, as a non-Muslim, something which he seemed to be implying but hadn’t stated explicitly (my obsession with advertising loopholes coming in useful). When I threatened to walk out again, saying “if I can’t go in alone, I’m not going in at all,” he relented and admitted that I was allowed. Once I was in, I was pretty much left alone, the other guides assuming that I must have had my tour already – the botherer-net at the entrance being regarded as unbreachable.
The large courtyard was filled with people paying homage to the tomb of the Sufi saint Salim Chishti. Next door, the larger tomb of Islam Khan was being ignored, except by someone who’d used it as a cloakroom and left his coat on a grave inside. Other graves were dotted around in the space between them and to the right of Islam Khan. On the floor around the whole complex were various etchings: some patterns (prototype designs, or idle copies of the exisiting features, I couldn’t tell), and weirdly, a Christian-style fish and many, many Stars of David. I looked for game boards, which are often on the floors of old Hindu and Jain temples, but didn’t see any.
I left the Jama Masjid for the palace complex and got in through the much less insistent crowd of guides. It’s all empty red sandstone shells of buildings, pavilions and courtyards. In the Diwan-i-Khas, or Hall of Private Audience, there’s a large pillar atop which Akbar had his throne, and raised walkways and galleries for his guests. It was here that he held long religious discussions and attempted to formulate a new faith, based on a fusion of the existing religions of India, for which he was later declared a heretic. The pillar decoration is supposed to include motifs representing each religion, but I couldn’t spot any. Perhaps if I hadn’t put so much effort into avoiding taking a guide, I could have asked him to point them out.
In the courtyard, I spotted a game board: an enormous one, built into the design of the pavement. Here, Akbar played games of pachisi, an ancient Indian version of Ludo, using his harem girls as pieces. A chronicler records that sometimes, these board game parties would have over two hundred guests and last for up to three months, with no-one allowed to go home until it was over.
I left through the opposite entrance and was harassed again by wannabe guides who didn’t seem to realise that if I was going out, I was the last person to need their services. I found a route through some ruins at the back, down a dusty track, past a stagnant weed-filled tank, under a bridge and through an area which seemed to be where the local goatherdesses congregated in the afternoon, until I came to what I was looking for: the Hiran Minar, or Deer Tower. This building isn’t mentioned anywhere in the guides, on the tours or even on the Wikipedia page, but I’d heard about it somewhere, and couldn’t remember why, so I wanted to see what the deal was. It turned out to be one of the weirdest things I’ve seen yet: a round sandstone tower, about the size and shape of a small lighthouse, but covered in what can only be described as hundreds of phallic rods.
That’s why it was worth avoiding the guides. They might have been able to tell me about the etchings on the ground in the Jama Masjid, or point out the religious motifs in the Diwan-i-Khas, but they wouldn’t have taken me on the crazy route through the ruins at the back of the complex and shown me a tower decorated with dildos.