Happy Birthday to me!

Trip Start Aug 26, 2012
Trip End Dec 22, 2013

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Flag of India  , Uttar Pradesh,
Thursday, December 20, 2012

My Birthday extravaganza in Agra, formally India's capital under the Mughals, started with a sunrise visit to the Taj Mahal. Security and rules abound; the first in the country since I arrived.  The women had to line up separately from the men to enter because we had to be patted down as we walked through the metal detectors.  The final step was to have our bags go through the x-ray machine.  As well we were not allowed to bring in food, knifes, cigarettes or lighters/matches; rules were enforced we noticed.

Once into the main courtyard and walking towards the gate there was no anticipation for what I was about to see, but when I walked through the gate and the Taj was laid out before me, it was really an "awe" moment.    Being there in the moment is really overwhelming and words and pictures really don’t do it justice.  We spent about two hours here and it was neat to see the marble surfaces change colours by the sun and shadows as the sun rose, from soft grey and yellow to pearly cream and dazzling white.

The layout of the Taj is Islamic themed representing paradise and is a monument to romantic love.  Shah Jahan the last Mughal king of Agra, built the Taj to enshrine the body of his favourite wife, Mumtaz Mahal (the third of three wives) who died shortly after giving birth to her fourteenth child in 1631. It was built from 1632 -1653 by some 20,000 men from all over Asia.   The Taj is all about architectural symmetry.  It’s essentially square in shape with pointed arches cut into the sides and topped with a huge central dome which rises over 55m with a 7m brass spire on top.  To the west of the tomb is a mosque and to the east a replica jawab was built to keep the symmetry but it can’t be used as a mosque as it faces away from mecca.  It was built with marble and semi-precious stones such as onyx, amethyst, lapis lazuli, turquoise, jade, crystal coral and mother of pearl from as far away as Persia, Russia, Afghanistan, Tibet, China and the Indian Ocean. The stones were used for the inlay decoration and script (Arabic verses praising the glory of paradise).  Some of the petals and leaves are made of up to sixty separate pieces of stone fragments.  I think from now on when someone says they love me, I’m going to ask “Love me enough to build me a Taj Mahal?”

Unfortunately Shah Jahan’s son seized power from his father and interned him in the Agra Fort where legend has it he gazed wistfully back at the Taj.  When he died in 1666, his body was carried across the river to lie alongside his beloved wife.  It is the addition of Shah Jahan’s tomb that has broken the symmetry of the Taj as they placed him to the west of Mumtaz tomb which as perfectly aligned in the centre of the tomb. 

After pulling ourselves away from the Taj we hopped back on the tuk tuks and went to Ali’s (owner of the tuk tuks we used for the day) home for a traditional Indian breakfast on his rooftop patio.  His wife did all the cooking and he and his brother served us.  It was a great meal and a nice change from eating in a restaurant or having samosa’s on the side of the road.

Next was a visit to a Marble Factory to see how they do the inlay work of semi-precious stones (called pietra dura) into the marble like we had seen at the Taj.  These skills are passed down through Muslim families and are a very sacred trade.  We watched both the artist who designs the pieces and the artists who patiently grind down the semi-precious stones to almost nothing using a wheel, water and their fingers.  I thought doing stained glass work was tedious and hard on the fingers; not anymore.  They may spend all day working and get maybe 8-12 petals completed. 

We then were taken to the show room where we saw 26 pieces of art that were one of a kinds and essentially museum pieces.  The detail was just incredible on each piece.  We also got lesson on how to determine semi-precious from synthetic materials and how to estimate prices of certain items based on detail and design.  Then it was time to shop. Most of us bought small pieces as that was what our budget or packs allowed but a couple of folks splurged on some really nice pieces.

Next stop was the Agra Fort which was built between 1565 and 1573 as the seat and stronghold of the Mughal Empire for successive generations.  The fort is in the shape of a half moon and is quite intricate with many different hallways and passages.  We wandered through the spacious courtyard that surrounds the Diwan-i-Am (Hall of Public Audience) which is open on three sides and looks like  pillared hall.  Inside the Royal Pavillions is the Diwan-i-Khas (Hall of private audience) erected in 1653 where the emperor would have received kings, dignitaries and ambassadors and would have been the most finely decorated buildings in the fort.

In the afternoon after a small break for lunch we went to a Jewellery shop that sells silver and the star of India stones (sapphires).  Since it was my birthday I was on the hunt to buy myself a little birthday present.  I played the “It’s my birthday card” with the shop owner hoping I’d get a better discount then the standard 10% but instead I got a chocolate bar.  Fair enough, can’t have a birthday without chocolate.  I found myself a nice pendent with a black star of India and splurged on a chain so I could wear it staight.  Then as all good Indian business men are,  I got convince by two lads working in the shop to buy a matching ring no matter how much I said no.  In the end I’m glad I got both pieces and it was cheaper than going out for dinner and drinks in Toronto.

Leaving the jewellery behind we went to visit Itmad-ud-Daula's Tomb, often referred to as the Baby Taj, as it is regarded as a draft of the Taj Mahal.  The tomb, built between 1622 and 1628 represents a transition between the first phase of monumental Mughal architecture which was primarily built from red sandstone with marble decorations to its second phase, based on white marble and the pietra dura inlay, seen in the Tāj Mahal.

The final stop of the day was to go to a popular spot on the river across from the Taj Mahal and watch the sunset.  What a memorable birthday to see the Taj at sunrise and sunset.  But my celebration didn’t end there.   After a quick freshen up at the hotel, we all went for dinner at a well-known Lonely Planet recommended restaurant called Indiana restaurant; lots of westerns were there.  Leaving the hotel in the tuk-tuk’s,  my driver (Ali’s brother) for the day was insistent that I ride in his tuk –tuk.  This is because when we arrived at the restaurant he presented me with a beautiful rose, marigold and carnation garland for my birthday.  After a lovely dinner of lamb biryani, I was surprised when the group started singing “Happy Birthday” and a huge chocolate cake was being carried towards me.  I was hoping for maybe a serving of gulab jamun with a candle, but a whole cake with my name on it was over the top.  Amanda had worked with Ali during the day to source out a bakery and ordered the cake.  I was really touched.   After blowing out the candles, I was asked to make the first cut and then the waiter took the cake away to be served.  But instead of slices of cake we seemed to be getting chunks; they did not know how to cut the cake in slices and were literally just cutting pieces in any random way.  We all nodded our heads at each other thinking, only in India.

Spending the day in Agra is now my most memorable birthday and one not easily to be topped for at least a year!
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Mathias on

Happy Belated Birthday Molly!

Looks like you had a blast!

JoJo on

Whow!!! Looks lik eyou had a blast on Your Birthday!

Love the "Jumping over the Taj" picture... Nice dress MoMo!!

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