I try to maintain a healthy attitude to guidebooks. I certainly don’t go for the hardcore traveller’s “I never use them” approach. They have many uses, and do tell you which places are specifically interesting and which aren’t. By ignoring them you end up wasting a lot of time in the less interesting places when there’s something unique and incredible around the corner. On the other hand, I don’t want to be a slave to them, as some of the best experiences are off-piste on crazy, unpredictable journeys.
The other reason I stopped in Agra, as well as visiting Fatehpur Sikri, was for another day trip, to nearby Mathura. I’d heard from several sources, including Peter Hopkirk‘s book Quest for Kim, that it had a hidden gem of a museum, rarely visited but containing a wealth of ancient sculpture. It’s also mythologically the birthplace of Krishna, eighth incarnation of Vishnu, and has a major temple marking the site.
I wasn’t put off by the fact that Mathura wasn’t mentioned at all in the Rough Guide. Perhaps I should have been.
In Jaipur, we visited the Albert Hall, an ostentatious Indo-Saracenic pile built by the British and now housing the state museum of Rajasthan. While we were there, I noticed a phenomenon occurring which I’ve often wondered about before. A young man was walking around the museum exhibits, scanning each cabinet and shelf with a digital video recorder. He wasn’t taking any time to look at the exhibits himself, just watching the swivel screen as he quickly passed from case to case, to make sure he captured every object in his sweep.
Now, let’s establish some basic truths. This video would be completely unwatchable. Not just because of the sickening motion of the camera (have you ever noticed how in television and film, almost all filming is done with static camera shots? And ‘tracking shots’, where the camera moves, are used only very sparingly, by expert directors? There’s a reason for this) but also because of the awful tediousness of the subject. I’m willing to bet that no-one in the entire history of humanity has ever sat down and watched one of these videos after their holiday. After all, if you don’t find the exhibits interesting enough to actually look at them while you’re there, you’re hardly going to want to watch them on a shaky, blurry video afterwards.