Sunday, 10 July 2011

Day 153: Agra Fatehpur Sikri (30/06/2011)

Fatehpur Sikri is 40km from Agra but in some ways it is much, much further away.

Tiring of the bustle of Agra, in 1571 Shah Akbar resolved to move his capital here, overlooking the small detail, that while he could transport his administration and erect an architectural masterpiece, even he could not bring the River Yuman with him. And so it was, after a relatively short span of years, that his gift to the people of the small village, was abandoned in 1585 when barely out of its wrapping paper. What remains, nearly 450 years after it was built is a perfectly preserved monument to the importance of water, or perhaps the lack of it.

Ironically, as soon as we climbed down from the Agra to Fatehpur Sikri bus, the heavens opened and the rain fell in stair-rods. The fort city’s aquatic problems were probably intermittent as the wells and water tanks were full as we trudged up the hillside through the winding medieval streets to the main gate.

Small children cried out the customary ‘allo’ from darkened doorways and having attracted a guide cum voyeur, we arrived at the steeply stepped platform that serves as the open forecourt to the gate. The rain hammered down on us, bouncing back up from the stone base. Luckily we had raincoats but all these managed to do was to redirect the torrents of water from our shirts to our trousers. The electricals thankfully stayed dry under the makeshift capes.

As we passed the final, ornate red sandstone water tank, we were suddenly thrust into the world of Kipling’s ‘The Man Who Would Be King’. Fierce, bearded men sheltered alongside colourful sari clad women. Ragged children skittered too and fro in the downpour. Dogs and goats found corners to curl up in as the population of the gate-side tented bazaar joined the few tourists under the arch for protection from the monsoon. A fierce wind blew through the opening and we all turned our backs to the wall of water that came with it. The ancient stone guttering did what is has been doing during the last 450 monsoons and great waterfalls fell from above, smashing into the flagstones and delighting the whooping and dancing children who frolicked under the stream.

And then, as quickly as it arrived, the rain was gone and the sun began the clear up operation with its usual zeal. The temperature rose from a chilly, windy 15C to a humid, stagnant 35C in sixty seconds, as the hot stonework repulsed the standing water and the stifling status quo re-asserted itself. Our guide held himself out as a student of the Quran at the Madrassa within the walls of the fort and offered to show us around for free in order to practise his English. Lonely Planet was wise to the gambit years ago, and sure enough it was not long before we were being shown jewellery and carved trinkets that appeared miraculously from doorways a few paces ahead of us. The sell was not hard but it was insistent and so with a straight face, I held our new friend to his word and reminded him of his assurances at the outset. To sweeten his departure, I made a small financial gesture and he while he didn’t leave, he withdrew to a suitable distance, sufficient to enable him to return from time to time, in order to test our resolve with further offers of goods and services.

To boot, we attracted an unshakeable platoon of youngsters in the early stages of honing their pitches. Unsophisticated openings and clumsy closes marked them as some way from the apex of Madrassa’s skilful art. Despite periodic sweeps, we could never rid ourselves of all of them. The presence of one signalled the opportunity for half a dozen more to join us. The rag-tag band of apprentices followed us, mostly in curious silence, but occasionally with half constructed versions of the questions that in later life will enable them to draw the unwary tourist, first into conversation and later into negotiations.

The fort encloses a white filigree marble mosque, a graveyard sunken into the flagstones and a school. A sheltered colonnade winds around the perimeter of the complex. The Shah built separate palaces for his Christian, Hindu and favourite Turkish Muslim wife. A large walled garden is now home to macaques and chipmunks. The water tanks both inside and outside the 30m walls, are filled with water the colour of emeralds and children jump into them from vertigo inducing heights and swim between them down tunnels that are submerged in the rainy season.

The bazaar that has grown around the main gate is a riot of colour and noise. Oil fizzes with pastries and poppadum’s. The red and yellow henna powders that Hindus mark their foreheads with, sit in elegant and improbably steep sided piles on brass trays. Scooters hurtle down the narrow crowded lanes, hooting at ear splitting proximity, rather than slowing at all. Cows meander, goats forage for discarded vegetables, pigs root in the open sewers, children run freely and business is transacted at a hundred different wheeled trollies that line the awning covered avenues.

The standard ploy is to advise of a last bus that doesn’t exist. That way there is money to be made in offering a taxi and accommodation. We fell for the scam, and with a South Korean couple whose concern was starting to crinkle their inscrutable features a little, we made for the intersection of the Agra to Jaipur road, out of town, where the buses had to pass.
A boy with two dancing monkeys on a leash tried in vain to entertain us as we failed at successive turns to hail a bus, then a taxi and finally an open backed van, already full of produce and producers. Finally, a ramshackle pantechnicon pulled over and, full to the brim with Agra commuters, the four of us squeezed onto the driver’s bed. The rain fell again and the roof let it in. The wily conductor, if that is indeed what he was, bargained hard and was reluctant to hand over the change after we had negotiated 30 rupees each for the journey.

Two police officers added to the crush around the driver’s seat at the first stop. Soon both they and the driver and conductor we pulling deeply on a potent hash cigarette that filled the driver’s compartment with and heady cloud of narcotic smoke. Cows ambled across busy junctions. The bus altered course to pass within a horn’s breadth but did not slow. A herd of horses panicked into the road, and obviously sensing their tendencies, the driver braked hard and swerved to avoid them. Camels and donkeys stood in silent submission to their hobbles and loads as the rain soaked them. Villages passed and countless hash induced over taking manoeuvres appeared to concern no one but us and soon we too acquiesced to the inevitability of it all.

We arrived back in Agra with the feeling that we had travelled much further than the 80km journey.

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