Published Jan 27 2015, by

The Reveal


I am still trying to understand Agra. On Sunday when we arrived all I saw was the Taj Mahal: a bright glowing pearl welcoming me on this journey. The trash-ridden streets, the placid, sickly cows, the purposeful people walking too close to our bus, the little fires along the road keeping two or three warm: all of this was overshadowed by the powerful beacon just a street or two over. But yesterday, with the Taj shrouded by fog, I almost forgot her.
We started off early for the Sheesh Mahal, Agra’s Red Fort: a massive complex of sandstone and marble: a fortress for centuries protecting the Mughal kings. Monkeys and peddlers greeted us at the gate. After just having seen the new Planet of the Apes (and for other reasons) I kept my distance. This little tribe of monkeys held court as Agra’s second most important heritage site—once run by Kings they sit and wait with cunning eye for an empathetic tourist to toss a cookie or a treat. It is the weirdest thing.

I think of what might have happened had Obama actually come to Agra today—we heard reports the stray animals were being swept up in anticipation of his arrival. Seems all animals in India are stray, though, and I just can’t imagine how Agra was ever to be “president-ready”. Banners line most of the streets with huge images of President and Mrs. Obama—banners they will never see. This little village has been waiting for the president for years –and now they’ll just seem him on the news in Delhi. Impermanence.

This place is so massive words can’t capture. It’s larger than any castle I have visited—but it’s size is compounded by thick walls, majestic, large and heavy carving. This place was built for the centuries. Imagine the labor—the challenges of moving stone from quarries and refining it into this “great wall” like structure! After growing up with the mighty but by comparison hardly fortified forts of Texas, this girl just stood, mouth open, world spinning in total awe.

Our guide walks us though the evolution of construction: from the eleventh century forward. We see the iconic Hindu architecture supporting later Islamic forms. We see massive amounts of sandstone. Two moats protected the inner core of the fort: the outer wet moat was filled with water and crocodiles, the inner was a dry moat filled with hungry wild and exotic animals. These Mughals had women and wealth to protect. Water and heating systems were very advanced technologically: by the standards of the day this was very plush living. In the 17th century ceilings and walls were lined with gold and semi-precious stones. Rugs were lavish—the marble and sandstone were merely a sculpted canvas for the finest textiles and ornament. Today, in the Republic Day Crowds—with all of the embellishment gone, it’s very hard to imagine.

We stand looking out of the Ladies’ (make that very plural) residence through a reticulated marble screen scanning for the Taj. Ever so alluringly she sits in the distance. We wait, hoping a promising sun might burn off the fog, but no, The Queen will not be dining at lunch today.

We move on to the quarters for the kings in the 17th and 18th centuries—marble draped in inlay of semi-precious stones. We see the place where Shah Jahan was held under house arrest (by his son’s command)—stunning views across the Yamuna River and to the Taj Mahal—the mausoleum he built for his late beloved wife Mumtaz Jahan. He died there after 9 years.

Back on the bus we head to a marble workshop for a tutorial in inlay. Again—mesmerizing, painstaking work to cut semi-precious stones for marble inlay—the intricacy is unimaginable. I hold new appreciation for the marble chatri in our museum (to the left of the Mughal façade) knowing now the work to create its beautifully ornamented skin. We purchase several examples of this remarkable craft for The Lotus Shop (for my readers who love to shop) and move on to our next fortification: lunch.

Spoiler alert: the next section of my chronicle may stray to the negative. I’m still pondering this but parts of our tour have ebbed on the touristy side. Is it possible to visit India and not be a tourist? It’s hard to say. Our guide has taken us to two or three “government-certified” official tourism businesses and I really do have mixed feelings about it. We are shuttled to the “Only” Restaurant—legend has it this was the only restaurant in Agra. A duo of musician and dancer (young boys) greet us at the door—they’ll have a hand out when we leave. The dim interior has two other tour groups dining –Westerners like us. The waiters are swift and Western-savvy. They bring straws, Diet Coke and Chinese food and other non-Agra items to our table. I keep it real with traditional Indian dishes but this by far is our lowest point meal-wise. We chin up. No one asks to use the facilities and quickly we are back on the bus—but not until after stuffing the hands of these child laborers and buying a small toy camel from them.

But here’s the flip side. It’s not traditional for Indian families to eat in restaurants. In this small village town without modern streets or sidewalks (think mud) a “nice authentic clean restaurant for groups of 17 or more, please” may only exist in hotels. Perhaps the only way to be here is to try on this India: this Only Restaurant offering jobs and daily moments of national pride to tourists from across the globe. And, as far as I know the food did not make us sick. So, I say a win.

The afternoon is spent in a “textile museum slash jewelry store” likely also on the convention and visitor bureau certified list of tourist-ready businesses. For Agra, this is an icon of the inescapable contrast of India: our bus crosses the threshold from trash-lined lots next to the street to a perfectly designed (almost Mexico City style) four-story building. Inside we are greeted by the owner in a room lined with high-end dimensional embroideries (huge) in cases. Skeptical me quickly calls him out and ask if his jewelry-industry family commissioned these works. He then explains that we are not in the museum (uh huh) and he will take us back. Well, good, then.

What happened next will amaze you because it certainly amazed us. We wait while Mr. Jeweler disarms some complicated system. Then a large glass door opens and we are told to walk into a dark room. I can see large (8’x8’) cases—maybe 10 of them lining the perimeter of the walls. They are veiled by white inset screens. You can taste the anticipation. We are given no context or instruction. This is all about the element of reveal.

He holds a large remote control—a flat screen with multiple interfaces. Suddenly the only freestanding case lights up and a gem-encrusted velvet gown (of course owned by Mumtaz Shah) are presented. Despite a strange fog like film on the case and noticeable adhesive connecting the edges of the Plexiglas, this masterpiece marvels. We learn that it, along with a second embroidery was loaned to an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in the 80s. Next we are shepherded to the first of seven wall cases. Our host punches too many buttons for the command needed and the white screen slowly goes up. Once it’s disappeared into the ceiling, a multimedia program begins with light, music and an audio component. For a country without a practice of visiting museums, this is nothing less than fascinating. For almost an hour, we walk from screen to screen. We wait for the reveal and Mr. Host pushes too many buttons and “Voila!” Inside each case was a truly astonishing work of embroidery—hundreds of karats of precious and semiprecious stones, three-dimensional stitching—images of flora and fauna in works that took 8, 10 even 30 years to make. We learn that this was the collaboration between an embroidery artist and an entrepreneurial jeweler. It is amazing—and now we can understand the taste and capacity of the Mughal courts—this was the kind of work—textiles embedded with thousands of precious stones—that graced the walls of the King’s residence.

After we left the “museum” we walk up to what I thought was a broken escalator. Nope. It starts as I approach. How progressive! There’s a man dying on the road outside and this is an escalator with a motion detector. I am so confused. Upstairs, we experience the jewelry store—persuasive and skilled sales men allow us to try on garnets and rubies and sapphires. But not before Mr. Host shows us his most precious collection of jewelry from—yes, you got it, the jewelry box of Mumtaz Jahan. He allows one of our merry travelers to try on her ring, bracelet and necklace. I remain confused…it can’t be real! I wish I was with a jewelry expert who could debunk this roadshow, but of course, we believe. We gasp and groan. We’ve never seen anything like this. We try on this India. And it’s so fun.

We dress for dinner and board the bus affectionately dubbed the bar. On National holidays in India the country is dry. Yes, that’s right, dry. So our sweet tour guide, rightly thinking we are all lushes who will complain on blogs about the lack of alcohol on our five-star India experience, brings a few beers and a bottle of wine along with little bags of Lays potato chips. She even sings for us. I love this India.

We travel on streets too small (but ever India’s miracle that it all fits and no one dies) to a hotel recommended by several friends for dinner: The Oberoi Amarvilas. This hotel has perfect views of the Taj Mahal. It was also where President Obama and the First Lady were to stay. The State Department had booked the entire hotel, so much to our delight, after their cancellation; there were plenty of tables for dinner. This hotel is a contemporary and exquisitely perfect example of the style of the Mughal courts. We loved it. Best interior design I’ve seen in India. I am inspired right and left and took the photographs to prove it—you can find those on my Facebook page. Glowing uses of teal, gold, silvers, black, white and orange. It’s all there. Candles and oil lamps, perfectly symmetrical fountains rippling over lapis lazuli tiles. We are enveloped by Mughal arches, lavish texiles and a delicious meal. The service in India: par-excellence. A sitar player plays for two hours without stopping, the lyrical melodies of the Mughal courts. We talk to the waiters about their disappointment that the White House changed course. You can tell, while they remain elegant and professional, that they were all thinking this week was going to be very different. Impermanence. Resilient India moves on—treats us as if we are the First Family through three richly prepared courses of culinary delights.

After dinner we step out onto the upstairs balcony and take in the gardens and pool on the “Taj” side of the compound. She sits, hidden, but a beautiful crescent moon hangs heavy over this tableau as if to watch over her. Only the birds and this moon can see her. The sound of water and laughter fills the night. Our dinner with the veiled Taj in the near-distance is a hit.

On the bus, we lumber home past three huge and impressive carnival-like wedding parties (some consider crashing) and night falls on a very long and confusing day. I drift off—considering the extremes of these contrasts: from a hungry monkey, to the meekest of the meek, to the jewels of Kings. My eyes are tired—perhaps my brain more so, but all I want to do is to keep seeing, to keep watching as this white screen in the dark room of India slowly rises before me.