Today Stuart and I fancied seeing a bit more of Agra than the usual tourist trail. So we went a bit native. A bit.
Agra is situated on a bend in the River Yamuna, and this defensive strength has proven definitive in its history. The city's past goes back as far as 2,500 years, when the area was part of Ashoka's Buddhist empire. It was a stronghold of the last Hindu kings of the Lodi Dynasty in the 16th century, but was subsequently taken as capital by the Moghul rulers, Babur, Humayun and Akbar.
The city is famed for the magnificent Taj Mahal, which lives up to the hype and is truly incredible, but there is more to it than that. The British also recognised the strategic importance of Agra and established a mighty garrison here on the edge of the plains of Panipat, where India's fortunes have so often turned.
Also there’s the beautiful Agra Fort (also know as the Red Fort), the lovely'Baby Taj', and the beautiful Tomb of Akbar at Sikandra on the outskirts of Agra.
And of course 1.6m people live here too. Many work in tourism naturally but many others work as stonemasons, marble in-layers, and leather workers. In fact leather shoes are a massive part of the local economy - just over 6% of the world’s shoes are manufactured here!
There is farming too and the more humble rural life. So before hitting the tourist trail again we decided to grab some bicycles and head off into the countryside nice and early to see what we could find out. See what the locals really did. Take a left turn, if you will.
Just out of town we stumbled across an old man tending his cows. He dries cow pats to sell as fuel. He was cheery and smiled a lot. He seemed happy to practice his English on us through his broken teeth and sun-weathered leathery skin. Bless him.
We then met a family who welcomed us into their home - just a shack really - and insisted on making us some chai (sweet milky tea made with fresh ginger and cardamom). Three generations lived under one roof. The grandad had the youngest on his knee singing him songs. The women of the house were making their daily chapati outdoors and let us watch. They make upwards of 50 chapati per day - all for the family to eat. But the first of which is always given to the cow for good luck.
A short distance away a farmer showed us his meagre property and delighted in showing us his wild marijuana plants out back(!) Goodness only knows what he thought we were going to say.
We then saw a small school. It was perched half way up a hill. Just a couple of rooms really. Wooden benches and a few blackboards. Classes were in full swing outdoors. Everyone child was dressed very smartly in their clean blue school uniform. The classes were drawing, maths and more maths. We couldn’t help but laugh when we saw one boy get scolded for copying another’s homework and a second boy get clouted round the ear for getting a multiplication sum wrong. He was probably only 6 or 7 years old.
The guy told us that the school had only recently installed women’s bathrooms but this had a transformative affect. It allowed girls to stay in school after puberty. Previously girls had had to stay at home as where were no sanitary facilities (ie towels) available. This single act meant girls could now be educated beyond puberty in this area. Incredible in 2018. But a big step toward.
After our countryside adventure we returned our bikes to their owner before heading back to visit some of the other more mainstream tourist highlights of Agra.
First stop was the massive Agra Fort. It was built in the 1500s to keep the then royal family safe. A high wall, a water moat of crocodiles, a dry moat of tigers, an even higher wall, armed soldiers, a slope for rolling boulders down, and channels for boiling oil. This place was sure well fortified. And, as we discovered, housed some beautiful palaces inside. 75% of the fort is still occupied by the Indian army to this day.
Then we took in the Itimad-ud-Daulah which is located on the opposite side of the river to the fort. Sometimes called the 'Baby Taj', this is a gem of architectural detail. It's located in an area of surprising peace and tranquility and was built before the Taj itself. Completed in 1628, it houses the mausoleum of Mirza Ghiyas Beg and his family. He was the father of Emperor Jahangir's wife, Nur Jahan. Incidentally, Nur Jahan was also the aunt of Mumtaz, the woman who inspired the Taj Mahal.
Talking of Taj Mahal influences, yesterday we had seen the Tomb of Emperor Akbar at Sikandra. It was interesting to see this precursor to the architectural style which reached its peak with the Taj Mahal. Completed in 1613 by his son Jahangir, the tomb of carved red ochre sandstone is of monumental size, and set, like most major Mughal buildings, in gardens.
Tired, but happy we returned to outlet hotel. It had been a day of contrasts. A day of surprises. Both personal and historical. Nice place Agra.