Agra: The Taj Mahal, Mehtab Bagh and Avoiding Hawker Tricks

Good morning everyone,

We’re here!  The Taj Mahal!  Super crowded.  First you have to wait in a line to buy a ticket and then another line through security.  As in many places in India, there was a separate line for foreigners which was shorter and faster and a lot more expensive. I still spent as much time in lines though as I did visiting the famous tomb.  The fee for Taj Mahal is Rs. 750, which is a lot when you consider that the entry fee for most sites is Rs. 100 for foreigners.

Parking for the Taj Mahal is about 1 to 1.5 km away from the entry gate.  I walked it but you can also take a camel or horse ride there.  We hadn’t even parked yet when the hawkers beset us.  Seriously, we were looking for a spot when we were stopped by men wanting to sell us tours, trinkets, water, and food (forbidden inside the Taj Mahal by the way).  I decided to take a tour guide with me just because I did not want to navigate the crowds alone and someone had to operate the camera to take the pics that would prove I was actually there.  Also, this would give Jagdeep some space so that he could find a parking spot.  Seriously beset.
During the walk to the Taj Mahal, the “tour guide” mentioned that the colony next to the Taj Mahal consisted of the descendants of the original craftsmen who worked on the monument.  They still do that same work.  I said (knowing where that was going), I don’t have any time for markets today, sorry.  To be fair, I gave him a chance to leave and pick up another tourist right there.  He chose to give me the tour anyway (likely thinking he could still talk me into the market if he was nice enough).

The main gate is pretty impressive all by itself.  Made of sandstone and marble, it has inscriptions in Arabic from the Holy Quran and intricate carvings.  Here the guide points to how close the craftsmen’s colony is, just outside the gate onto this entry.  Yeah, sorry buddy but no.

It was so hazy that you couldn’t really see the Taj Mahal from the main gate but just beyond that, stepping down into the Mughal designed symmetrical gardens… there it was.  Along with the throngs of people, as you can see from the pictures.  I am told it gleams a milky white in the setting sun.  I have no doubt about that but that day it was barely discernible, from a distance through the mist and fog that surrounded Agra.

I finally found a spot on the platform of the main gate to get a few pictures without the masses of people in them.  Yay.  I was actually able to find a few of those.  They’ve built platforms for the purpose of allowing people to take this sort of picture.  And the mystery of how people do it… solved.

We reached Diana’s bench and there was a long line up of people who wanted to sit there and take a picture of the themselves in front of the Taj Mahal sitting on the same bench where Princess Diana sat looking deep in thought just after (or maybe it was right before?) her divorce was announced.  I’ll maybe never understand the appeal of having a picture of myself duplicating that moment but it was a real production with people trying to look just as she did in that famous picture.  The tour guide asked if I wanted to have my picture taken in this way and I gave him an emphatic no.  He might have learned at that point that “no” was going to be a theme with me.  No market.  No artist colony.  No craft shops.  No.  No.  No and No again.  Thanks though.

The Taj Mahal (pronounced by local people as Taj Mall) is symmetrical in the same fashion as other Mughal tombs.  This structure though may just be the grandest example of that form of architecture available.  It really is quite beautiful.

The four minarets on each point of the plaza that the Taj Mahal sits upon look straight from a distance but they are actually angled 2 degrees away from the tomb itself.  This is apparently in case of a natural disaster like an earthquake.  If the minarets are to fall, this would cause their fall to be more likely away from the tomb itself, sparing it additional damage.

As you get closer to the tomb, you begin to see more of the intricate marble inlay work and more Quranic inscriptions on the walls of the monument.  It obviously took a great deal of work, a great deal of money and a massive work force to create this building let alone the marble that was brought to the site from 150 km away in Rajasthan, by ox cart and elephant.

Unlike most monuments in India, the pools here are maintained full all year around.  This monument as well was being prepared for the visit the following day by Barack Obama and his entourage.  There were dozens of gardeners taking care of the plants in the gardens and there were workers on scaffolding cleaning (I assume) some of the marble on the minarets).

There are a number of optical illusions on the Taj Mahal which I found fascinating.  4 sided columns appear to be octagonal because of the pattern inscribed on them, for example.

To the right and left of the platform are two sandstone buildings.  The left one is the mosque and the right is a duplicate of the mosque which is unused but was built to ensure the symmetry of the site is maintained.  There were a number of people who were visiting the mosque.  I wanted to go but out of respect for those praying there, given the crowds that might otherwise overrun the place, I did not.  On Fridays, the entire site is shut down for a few hours so that local Muslims can pray at the mosque without the long lines, the entry fees and crowds of people to get through.  So if you’re coming to Agra, try not to visit on a Friday or prepare to wait quite some time to enter the site.  I think it’s wonderful that despite the fact that the Taj Mahal is such a tourist draw and an obvious money-maker, that it is still shut down for time for observers to use the mosque for the purpose it was built – for prayer.

In the pictures of the mosque and its duplicate, you can actually tell that the minarets are not straight but are angled away from the Taj Mahal itself.

As you approach the tomb, there are two paths for entry.  The “high value” path and the path for Indian people.  That’s right.  There is a separate path for entering the tomb for people who paid the foreigner fee of Rs. 750 for entry.  Why?  I don’t know, I think that’s just ridiculous.  I pay more and I know I’m subsidizing others but I’m totally fine with that.  Local people wouldn’t visit very often if the fees were that high for them – the currency discrepancy is just that high.  But then why should they be treated differently once inside?  It makes little sense to me and if someone has the explanation, please share it with me.  And don’t even get me started with the “High Value” label.  I had no idea what it meant until my tour guide told me and then I was just a little appalled.

Anyhow… let’s not go on a rant here.  Focus.  And go.

As you approach the entrance you really get feel for the talent the marble carvers had.  The entry way is built of large marble slabs and the carvings are made without any joints on those.  So each slab was carved either before it was installed or in situ after installation.  The same goes for the delicate inlay work.  The petals on the tiny flowers are made to look more real for example with not one piece of semi-precious stone per petal but up to 18 slivers of semi-precious stone set seamlessly together into one petal.  (Again the guide points out that the descendants of these very craftsman are in a market colony not far away… no dude, not buying anything today, you don’t know it but I just gave a corrupt police officer 4000 rupees).

Inside the tomb is a tiny octagonal chamber duplicating the chamber below which houses the remains of Mumtaz and her husband Shah Jahan.  No one is permitted entry into the actual tomb, just the duplicate (as is the case in all of the other Mughal tombs as well).  It is the only asymmetry in the place, that Mumtaz in a smaller tomb and her husband, Shah Jahan, in a slightly larger one are laid side by side.

Given the large crowd we were herded through here pretty quickly.  Also, you’re not supposed to stop too long any more because even though it’s not allowed, plenty of people bring a lighter so they can watch one of the semi-precious stones (cerulian, I think) become striped as the light is brought close to it.  There are also guards in there to dissuade people from heating up these beautiful old inlays.  But that didn’t stop some.  So the whistles blared and the shouts of “Hey, hey” filled the room.  I was glad to be out of there.

I went across to the duplicate of the mosque and took some pictures from there.  Beautiful all by itself!  So stunning.

To my tour guide’s disappointment however, I didn’t go to the market colony or the souvenir shop or the craft shop or any of the other places he wanted to take me.  I went straight back to the parking lot once the tour was over.  I gave him a Rs. 500 tip though but that just seemed to hurt him.  He asked me if I was happy with the tour and I assured him I was but that I am simply uninterested in being to dragged to markets for high-pressure sales tactics.  I know that these markets pay the guides a good sum to get tourists through the door but he would have to find another tourist.  Sorry.  On another day I might have caved and went but not this day.

Our next stop was Mehtab Bagh.  I read my first Hindi word that day too, sort of.  I recognized the word Mehtab Bagh in Hindi on a street sign.  Using a little deductive reasoning that is, and not actual reading, I guessed that the combination of letters must say Mehtab Bagh.  Doesn’t matter how I did it, I was just glad to have recognized the words.  Yeap, did a little happy dance right there in the car.  Jagdeep didn’t look impressed by my dance but I know that deep inside, he was dancing too.

In front of us was an Indian man wearing a black sweatshirt.  It took me a minute to realize that the pattern printed on the back of his sweatshirt was from the aboriginal tribes on the west coast of Canada.  I was looking at a Kaska Crow.  In Agra, on a side street, a Kaska Crow.  Amazing.

Luckily traffic had slowed us all enough that I was able to snap a picture.

Then it was off to Mehtab Bagh.  This is a park directly across the river from the Taj Mahal.

After the Taj Mahal was constructed Shah Jahan had plans to build a black marble duplicate of the tomb in Mehtab Bagh.  It was to be an exact duplicate of the Taj Mahal, on the other side of the Yamuna where he would rest.  Construction had begun on the site and you can still see the ruins of that construction today in the park.  However, Shah Jahan was imprisoned by his evil son, Emperor Aurangzeb in the Agra Fort and never lived to build the tomb.  Instead he is interred with his wife in the Taj Mahal.  Imagine how spectacular (and costly) that sight would have been to have two Taj’s – one black, one white facing one another across the expanse of the Yamuna.

The park is nice and it was practically empty when I was there.  I got some truly people free pictures of the Taj Mahal from there, for just the entry fee of Rs. 100.  I also saw more evidence of the betel and pan chewing and a few more roadkill dogs on the way.

There was a couple in the park who seemed to prefer not to be disturbed so I walked around them, giving them plenty of space.  I didn’t stay long, there’s just not much to see there at this time of year (but it must be spectacular come spring) but the views of the monument across the river are spectacular from here.  If it was a clearer day, the pictures would have been amazing.  It’s worth a visit if you get to Agra for sure.

On to the secondary topic for today’s post.  Avoiding hawker tricks.  These people are so annoying.  I know they are just trying to make a living in their way but I wish the government would do something about the fact that tour guides hawk for markets.  If I wanted to go to a market, I would just do it.  I don’t need to pay for a tour just to be sucked into/dragged into/pleaded into going to these shops which mostly sell cheap merchandise that no one needs to tourists.  It’s such a waste of my day and, as you can probably tell, puts me in a bad mood.  I’m not in India to be in a bad mood or to feel guilty became some tour guide is not going to make a commission off of me.  I tip the guides well so I expect them to just leave me alone with the markets already.

There are ways to avoid them though:

– Tell them no.  Repeatedly.  Over and over and over again.  You will NOT go anywhere but the site you are paying them to show you.  No other place.  No.  No.  No.  Repetition is important here.  Repeat after me.  No.  No.  No.

– If you really don’t want to be harassed, don’t hire the tour guide.  There is a ton of information about these sites on the internet, most of the time that information even includes site maps and tips on avoiding the hawker hangouts.  The guide won’t have any better information than you can get by checking out good sites on the internet.

– Park further away and walk to your destination, assuming that is possible.  Leave the purses, jewelry, that nice watch that your company gave you for retiring and the extra fancy camera at home and carry enough to get into and out of your site.  Those things just attract hawkers.  Also, if you didn’t bring extra money to spend, it’s a waste of their time to try to suck you into a market or shop.  Tell them (again repeatedly) that you have no money.

– Keep walking.  If you stop, you’ll get the sales pitch.  Just keep walking and saying no.

– If you’re on a tour bus with a bunch of other tourists on an organized tour, your hawker is probably already with you and since you kind of have to stick with the crowd… good luck to you.  Happy market hopping.

– I try to look like the wife of a local rather than a tourist.  That actually helps more than I initially thought it would.  I leave my kirpan on the outside of my clothes, wear my head covering like the local ladies do, carry my cheaper camera and every once in awhile look up to see “just where did my husband get to?”.  It usually works very well.  Though not always, so have several backup strategies.

– Avoid eye contact.  Seriously just don’t look at them.  Once you make eye contact they are on you with the sales pitch.  I know it’s unnatural for Canadians but DO NOT LOOK THEM IN THE EYE.

– Dude… did you just bring a map up in here?  You’re toast man.  Toast.  T-O-A-S-T, toast.  The hawkers will be all up on you like glue.  Map that stuff on your phone friend.

– Who are you smiling at?  Did you seriously make eye contact AND smile at that young man you don’t know?  I hope you have lots of room in your place for those carpets you’re about to buy.  

– The ticket window and the information window.  That’s where you ask for directions.  No-one else, nowhere else.  You heard me.  The information window or the ticket window and don’t smile at the young men hanging out there this time, unless you want some semi-precious stones to match that carpet you had shipped home.

– Say it with me now.  No.  Nope.  Nada.  Nyet.  No way.  Keep practising.

– You have a booked hotel room.  Doesn’t matter if you don’t have a room yet, you have a booked hotel room.  You don’t need to rely on the friendly hawker to get you a room.  It WILL be right next to a market and before long all the hawkers in town will know where you’re at.  AND if your friendly hawker is truly sleazy, you will be robbed in that room.  You HAVE a booked hotel room.  Now go on over to any hotel concierge and actually book yourself a room at their place or at some nearby place they recommend.  Can’t believe you showed up in a tourist spot with no room.  Ballsy.

– Can you look like your hitchhiking your way through India?  You can?  Do it.  Even the hawkers know that hitchhikers don’t have any money to spend.  So what if you’re 50.  50 year olds can be bumming around Asia as well as any 20 year old.

– The answer to “What do you do in Canada?” is I married a man/woman and moved here.  Not doctor.  Not lawyer.  Not auto mechanic.  Not bus driver.  Not retired.  “I married a man/woman and moved here.”  Travelling with the spouse?  The answer becomes “Unemployed right now.”  Unemployed.  That’s your hawker-occupation.  It’s just small talk to you but it’s a “how I get into the tourist’s head” trick to them.  Seriously, if you tell them you’re a lawyer, your hawker is going to bond with you by having three brothers and an uncle who are lawyers.

– Never, ever, ever walk into any shop labelled “Tourist Information” or with signs that say “Maps sold here” or “Tickets sold here” because that, my friend, is hawker central.  It’s actually just a front for a tour company who will try to sell you every kind of service you can think of and stick you with a hawker… I mean guide… no, I mean hawker.  If that’s really what you want, go on in, it’s open…

Seriously though, you have to be smart about not standing out like a sore thumb and persistent about saying no.  It doesn’t matter how many little babies they got at home to feed with those commissions.  If you’re going to hire the guide, tip him nicely but be prepared to tell him no a lot.  Face it, if these tactics weren’t effective much of the time, the hawkers would stop.  The fact that they haven’t stopped means there is lots of business and they can just move on to the next tourist and you need not feel guilty about it.

Hawkers come with the territory at most of these sights and they come disguised as tour guides, tour operators, taxi drivers, rickshaw drivers, auto drivers, and even waiters and local “tourist information” shops (that are not on the site of the actual tourist attractions).

That’s it.  That’s what I’ve got today.  And I still have a lot of writing to catch up on before I go wandering about Kashmir [strangely enough this post should publish while I’m on the road to Srinagar] so… until next time (still in Agra, there’s lots more to see)…

Peace and love all,
Himmatpreet

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