Agra-phobia

Juggling her bags and children, a woman slips on her pink silk sari and  falls out of a moving  train, her infant flying from her arms.   A stone-throwing mob gathers  in the street to watch policemen play judge, jury and executioner .   A wiry holy man in a loin cloth, filthy dreadlocks and face paint contorts his body in folding and twisting yoga moves on the bank of the Ganges as the sun appears on the horizon of the holiest of  rivers.     Fireworks and a full brass band of an elaborate midnight wedding procession wake me from my sleep  and  the wide-eyed girl next to me whispers of  the bride next door who was set on fire because her dowry wasn’t met.  Rats nibble on my ears.  One week in India and my eyes are full of pollution and dust, but they are most definitely  wide open.

Unending chaos interspersed with equally intense moments of moving beauty and brilliance.  There is no Ying without Yang, and nowhere is the light and dark of life and death put out for display as boldly and unashamed as it is in  India.  The first leg of my trip was  such a sensory overload that I  found it an overwhelming task to sit down and write about it.  But now that I’ve been settled for a few weeks in a quiet hill station, I finally have the time and space to try to share my experiences.

It seems that the longer foreigners live in India, the prouder they are to say  they have never been to the Taj Mahal.    The city of Agra is not only home to  India’s biggest tourist beacon, but also tends to attract the worst of India’s  scammers, schemers, and artful dodgers.  All the advice that came my way  was  “Go see the Taj, then get the hell out of Agra!”  But as a lover of art, architecture, and all things truly magnificent, I took my chances  and booked my train ticket for a three-day stay in  India’s most dreaded city.

My planned 5AM departure  was surprisingly  preempted  by a violent mass exodus of all body fluids heading for the nearest emergency exit.  (Damn you Delhi dhal!) And so it was that I arrived at the Agra train station  6 hours late, sick as a dog, and  surrounded by touts as aggravating and  persistent  as a swarm of Alaskan mosquitoes.     Luckily I had a secret weapon:  Couchsurfing!  I bypassed all the commission-driven drivers and made a bee-line straight to my host’s house in the center of town.

I stayed with a Catholic family who had a Muslim sarcophagus  in their courtyard  and whose neighbors were all Hindu. They were kind enough to give me my own room and nurse me back to health with dhal and chappatis made by the mother and older sister who cooked and cleaned round-the-clock.    My host had been hand selected by the president to tour around India educating villages about female infanticide that is still a huge problem in the country.   His younger sister was quiet and shy, until she got me alone in the garden one night, and a steady stream of questions spilled forth from her.  We discussed her frustrations on what it was like growing up as a teenage girl in India, while she listened in awe of my ability to travel around the world by myself.  I am so thankful for this family sharing not only their home, but an invaluable insight on family life in India.

I spent the next two days exploring the grandeur of Mughal forts, mosques, and monuments.  To my surprise and delight, the Taj Mahal at dawn was a picture of loveliness perfected and was one of the most moving pieces of architecture I have ever encountered.  Every inch of the grounds was a  display of calculated symmetry,  including  precious gems painstakingly inlaid into gleaming white marble, Koranic engravings soaring from floor to ceiling  and towering archways  and domes that made one feel rather insignificant.  But what really  set the Taj Mahal apart from all the architectural masterpieces that I have seen in my travels was that it wasn’t  built for God,  power or politics, but for LOVE.  What a novel concept!

In the true spirit of the dichotomy that is India, after visiting this extravagant monument to the heart, I returned to my host’s neighborhood to find that our meeting spot in the market was jammed with a crowd of people, with what seemed like hundreds  more  running towards the action in the street from every direction.  Upon arrival at the scene, my  rickshaw driver looked at me nervously, the only foreigner in this area of town. “Trouble,” he said simply.  The growing crowd that had been running towards the center of the action suddenly turned and ran screaming from the scene.  Hundreds of frightened or angry Indians were running straight for my rickshaw as the driver turned a 180, peddled me away quickly to safety, and gallantly stayed with me until my escort arrived.  I heard later that a taxi driver had hit and killed a pedestrian.  The police then arrived and beat the taxi driver to death, whereupon the crowd started throwing stones and another life was lost.  Just another day in Agra?

Homely hospitality, an extravagant past and a chaotic present.  Contradictory to all accounts, Agra was a surprisingly pleasant experience and an insightful window into Indian culture.  If this is the worst that India can throw at me, then bring it on!

The Taj Mahal dome echoed in the arch of the adjacent mosque.

I have finally arrived in India... yes!

The family that took care of me with Indian hospitality!

Marble Lace. Incredible stonework at Fatipur Sikri.

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