A little bit of background—about the trip...
For anybody who’s spent their childhood in northern (read me and my sister, Swapna), at least one trip to Agra—and, of course, the Taj Mahal—is almost inevitable. And when you’re part of a family that travels a lot, that one trip can get repeated, again and again and again.
So here we are, back in Agra. This time, it’s for a variety of reasons. I need to do research on 17th century Agra for a book I’ll be writing, and unless I visit Agra now, the summer will arrive, it’ll get boiling hot, and Agra will be hellish. My husband, Tarun, has just been told by his office that because of the recession, they’re not hiring any more people, so everybody has to work a six-day week from now onwards for the next four months. There’s not going to be much scope for weekend trips. Swapna has just been told by her doctor that she needs minor surgery within the next two weeks. Her husband, Gourab, who’s a lawyer, has just realised that with the upcoming general elections and the possibility of a change in government, he’ll need to be in town all through May, which means their annual summer vacation is likely to be cut short. Swapna and Gourab’s children, Neeti (13) and Deb (12) have a few days of holidays because of a string of festivals one after the other.
All of us need a break, a weekend trip somewhere close—and Agra is perfect for that. So here we are, armed with two very informative books, Agra: The Architectural Heritage (by Lucy Peck) and A Teardrop on the Cheek of Time (by Michael and Diana Preston). And we have our own guide: Swapna, who’s a historian.
...and about the city.
Agra lies just about 200 km from Delhi, along the famous Grand Trunk Road. Although the oldest historical records mentioning Agra date back to the 11th century, excavations have revealed that the city goes back at least to the era of the Mauryan dynasty (approximately 4th century BC). In medieval times, Agra was already acquiring the status of an important centre of trade; but it was the Mughals who brought the city to the prominence it later came to command. During the reigns of the third Mughal emperor Akbar and his son Jahangir, especially, Agra came to be a major focus of economic and political power. It was an important centre for the production of leather, medicines, and luxury goods like gold and silver embroidery and inlaid stonework. The Yamuna was an artery for riverine trade, and Agra also had direct land connections linking it to the Silk Route.
Agra lost some of its political status when Jahangir’s son, Shahjahan, having built the Taj Mahal, decided to shift the imperial capital to Delhi. The city, despite its loss of status, remained a major economic centre, in fact even more so than Delhi. A little over 150 years later, in 1803, the British defeated the Marathas—who by then held sway over much of the area known as the Doab (literally, the `land of the two rivers’—the rivers in question being the Ganga and the Yamuna). Following this, the British took over in Agra (much to the detriment of many of the city’s monuments; the Agra Fort, especially, was unashamedly vandalised by British residents who moved in). In 1856, Agra became part of the United Provinces of Agra and Awadh. After independence in 1947, Agra remained part of UP (now Uttar Pradesh, or `northern state’ instead of United Provinces). It’s still a busy town, well known for its leather, its sweetmeats—and its plethora of historic monuments.
And some stories:
I couldn’t resist this. Everybody talks of how old Agra is, a town of the past, with its resident ghosts. And just about everybody has their own story to tell. Here are two.
My father studied in Agra’s St John’s College way back in the late 1950’s. At that time, one of the college’s many spooky legends concerned a young man who’d studied at St John’s some years prior, and lived in the college hostel. They say that this student was busy preparing for his upcoming exams, and as too many Indians are wont to do, was at his books till late at night. He finally decided he’d had enough of studies and needed a break, so went into town to watch a film. It was very late by the time the film got over, and the streets were deserted. Our hero managed to get an ikka (a horse-drawn cart, also called a tonga), and headed back to St John’s. On the way, crossing a bridge, he noticed an old woman sitting by herself selling cigarettes and sweets on the pavement. The student got the ikkawallah to stop, then got off and went to buy a pack of cigarettes. He picked up the pack he wanted, and took out the money to hand it to the old woman, who stretched out her hand for the money—and the student then saw that instead of a hand, she had a—hoof!
The student, terrified, ran back to the ikka, got in and urged the ikkawallah to race away. The ikkawallah complied, but after a while, as they were nearing the college, asked his passenger what was wrong. The young man told him the story, and the ikkawallah laughed. "Like this?" he said, holding up his own hands—no, hooves.
The young man, by now on the verge of a breakdown, leapt off the ikka and ran for the welcoming gates of the college, which were being patrolled by a watchman. He blabbed out the tale to the man, who listened sympathetically, then lifted his lantern—to reveal that his own hands were not hands, but hooves. It’s said that the student was found the next morning, lying unconscious at the college gate.
Okay, that’s a little blown out of all proportion, I agree. The student had probably been studying just too hard. But the second story is creepier, mainly because it’s less over the top, and centres around two people we know—one who’s related to Gourab, in fact; Gourab’s uncle.
Way back in the 1970’s, Gourab’s uncle got married, and since his father was the governor of a state, the wedding swarmed with policemen and security guards. Much to the chagrin (and resentment!) of the bride and groom, the security detail insisted on accompanying them on their honeymoon to Agra. At Agra, Gourab’s uncle and aunt were supposed to stay at an old colonial guesthouse right next door to the Taj Mahal—a wicket gate from it led into the Taj complex.
The young couple did a tour of the Taj (with security guards hanging about their ears), and by the time they got back to the guesthouse, were thoroughly annoyed. Gourab’s aunt, especially, was cheesed off (She’s American, and hadn’t still got used to the very intrusive security arrangements in India). She was sitting in their room, fuming to herself, when a door opened and a white woman emerged, clad in a wet gown, with her hair dripping—as if she’d just come from a bath (which she’d presumably taken with all her clothes on). The woman crossed the room, watched by a bewildered Barbara, and disappeared through another door.
Barbara went looking for her husband to rave and rant about intruders using their room as a thoroughfare, and both of them then went to confront the local chowkidar, the caretaker-cum-watchman. The man was matter of fact about the entire episode, and said that the woman was a ghost of some long-forgottten Englishwoman who’d probably lived in the vicinity (and drowned in the Yamuna, I’m guessing). He came back with them to their room, and opened the door into which the woman had vanished. It was a cupboard.
And on that note—glad that we’re staying in a relatively new, mundane and hopefully unhaunted hotel—we begin our explorations of Agra.