Thursday, March 17, 2011

Sikandra and Agra: Akbar's tomb and the Taj Mahal

We recently drove from Delhi to see the Taj Mahal. On the way, we stopped at Sikandra to visit the tomb of Akbar, the greatest of the Mughal emperors. Here's the trip in pictures.

The sunrise over industrial Faridabad was beautiful, but I'm not enough of a morning person to have taken a picture. Being more of an animals-later-in-the-day person, this was the first pic I took on our trip:

Our driver pulled over at a seemingly random spot along the highway, and this macaque leapt out of nowhere at our car, startling everyone. Of course we fell headlong into the tourist trap, taking pictures :) 

When we gave the monkey's owner Rs 20, he demanded Rs 100 each from the three of us. He got Rs 30 and that was that.

Below: Sikandra. This is the "buland darwaaza" (great gate) leading to the gardens of the tomb of Akbar, the greatest, ablest, and probably the most enlightened of the Mughal emperors. Early 17th century, local red sandstone with ornate marble inlay (including Koranic calligraphy in letters at least a foot high). I can't imagine how anyone can plan and execute a facade as ornate and detailed as this.

Below: A closer look at the main arch of the gate. It's the south gate of the complex. This is not painting or glazed tiles - it's stone inlay, set in stone.

 Below: Because iconography is strictly forbidden, Islamic art relies heavily on geometric and floral motifs, and calligraphy. Chevrons, eight-pointed stars, and octagonal designs are common, but I find the incorporation of this swastika to be an interesting Hindu / Indic touch:

The gate is equally ornate on the other side. I took this picture after walking through the gate, into the gardens. Garden tombs, by the way, seem to be an innovation from around the 15th-16th century. Not really sure about this, though. The gardens at Sikandra are laid in the typical Mughal "chaar baagh" design, which divides the layout into four equal quadrants and is aligned precisely to the four cardinal points.

One of the smaller residents of the gardens. He was excessively bold for an Indian squirrel - almost climbed on my shoe. According to legend, the Indian squirrel got his stripes by helping Ram build the bridge to Lanka and bring back Sita. Ram patted him to thank him, and his fingers left this mark.

Other denizens of the gardens included spotted deer and black buck. On a previous visit, I've seen monkeys, but there weren't any this time. Looking out on the gardens feels like stepping into an 18th century miniature painting (which, incidentally, would likely be painted using a squirrel-hair brush).

Below: The tomb itself looks like a mishmash of architectural styles, with Islamic arches and a profusion of chhatris. Beyond the main arch is an ornate foyer, then a dark passage leading into the chamber where Akbar rests.

Below: Vaulted foyer through which you enter the tomb, with floral designs and calligraphy embossed with gold leaf.

Below: Damaged panel under main arch.

Below: Door leading to Akbar's burial chamber.

Below: Recess in the foyer wall. I suppose this is a recent addition - the wall looks like plaster and the design is too stark.

Below: Carved stone screen off the main foyer of the tomb structure. I am not sure what the symbolic significance (if any) of skylights and screens is in Islamic architecture - given the interdiction to portray god, I wonder there's more to it than beauty / ventilation / lighting.

Below: Akbar's cenotaph in the foreground. In the background is the ramp that leads into the chamber.

Below: The single skylight that lights the chamber.

Sorry this picture lacks drama and romance:

My little camera couldn't capture the ornate lamp that hung over the cenotaph in that dark chamber, so I had to use a flash to show the detail. Must ... get ... DSLR ...

Below: Gold-plated lunch recess for the guard at Sikandra.

Below: Lamp in the foyer. My guess is bronze.

Below: Pottery "store" on the highway from Sikandra to Agra. I took this from the car window - it's on the edge of the road.

Got stuck in a horrendous traffic jam on the edge of Agra. This chai shop was right outside our car:

Back on the road in our tasseled Toyota Innova, with Sekhar at the wheel and Venkateswara on the dashboard:

Below: Cut paper delivery guy stuck in the traffic jam along with us. Maybe he's headed for a bindery?

Below: Paper recycling guy was also stuck in the same traffic.

Below: Another "buland darwaaza", also of red sandstone. This is the gateway to the Taj Mahal. Again, chaar baagh gardens on the other side. The forecourt has entrances from three cardinal directions. We are in front of the gate that faces the fourth direction (north) and leads to the Taj Mahal (like Akbar's tomb, the Taj faces south). This gate is perfectly aligned with the Taj - you can see the pale arch of the Taj through it.

Below: Walking through the gate - view of the Taj from under the arch. It was very sunny, around 1:30 or 2 pm.

Below: On the other side of the gate. The Taj is mindboggling in its perfection and symmetry. I cannot imagine how anyone could even conceive of something so huge, so detailed, so complicated (importing precious materials and experts from so many countries) in the 17th century, much less actually have it made. The whole structure is tiled with marble from Makrana, Rajasthan. The jade, onyx, coral, amethyst, lapis lazuli, mother-of-pearl and other semiprecious inlay materials came from Persia, China, Tibet, Afghanistan, Russia, and the Indian Ocean. Many of the artisans came from other countries too.

Below: I turned around and took this picture of the sandstone gate again. It's equally ornate on the outside and inside. Again, not painting or glazed tile but stone inlay.

Below: The gardens are perfect at many levels. First, each quadrant mirrors the other quadrants. Second, the motifs tiled into the quadrants are horizontally and vertically symmetrical in themselves. And the whole complex is perfectly symmetrical and aligned to the four directions, with the Taj facing south.

Below: Satellite view of the perfection. This is how the Taj complex looks in Google Earth - perfectly aligned to the four cardinal points. Mid-17th century!

In the above image, going from south to north, you can see the forecourt with its three entrances to the east, west and south. Tourists enter  from the east. On the northern side of the forecourt are the sandstone steps and the big sandstone gate. Further up, the gardens in front of the Taj, and then the monument itself with its four minarets, flanked by the mosque and its replica.

Below: The main cupola with its crescent finial.

It's very difficult to convey scale. I took the picture below from maybe 20 meters away.

Below: The sides of the Taj Mahal are about as ornate as the front, and the arches built on a similar scale - perhaps the exact same height as the front arch. This calligraphic stone inlay runs around the main arch on the Western face.

Although many people were taking pictures, photography is not permitted in the main chamber where the cenotaphs of Arjumand Bano (Mumtaz Mahal) and emperor Shahjehan are. So I have no pictures of that dimly daylit chamber whose walls are covered with even finer inlay than the outside. The cenotaphs are encircled by carved screens.

Below: Wall of one of the narrow passageways that filter daylight very gently into the building. At Sikandra, a sign by the car park said: हमारी विरासत, हमारा गौरव (our heritage, our pride). Clearly not for some idiots.

Below: The Yamuna river runs by just north of the Taj Mahal. This is the minaret in the northeast corner of the structure. We sat for a couple of hours, I think, in the marble-covered shadow of the Taj, with a cool breeze coming in from across the river. Despite the hundreds of tourists gaping, jabbering and taking pictures, it was relaxing to sit there.

Below: This red sandstone building is to the east of the Taj Mahal, and a replica of the mosque on the other side. It was possibly used as a rest house - can't find confirmation of this.

Below: East-facing arch of the Taj.

Below: Southeastern minaret in the late afternoon sun. Makrana marble tile.

Below: We stopped for coffee at a not-very-clean UP Tourism cafe.

And then the long drive back home. A tiring but fabulous day!


Laurel said...

Utterly awe-some!

annipuss said...

Absolutely fabulous! Ann

cSmall said...

such wonderful photos, and informative captions! Thanks for sharing!

Arlene said...

Really great photos AND commentary. That makes so much difference! Delightful! Thanks so much for sharing, Laurel.

Anonymous said...

"Despite the hundreds of tourists gaping, jabbering and taking pictures, it was relaxing to sit there." When there are that many people they just become background noise, added to the cool breeze and any river/water noise and it sounds just heavenly! Thank you so much for sharing your wonderful pictures - even though it has taken me many months to get a chance to see them all!

All the best,

moi said...

Thank you, Astrid and everyone. I'm glad you enjoyed the pictures.

Rahul said...

very beautifully written... embedded with gorgeous photographs....

sana said...

Such beautiful pictures, and an even awesome description! I really wish to visit soon. India has so much history and stories behind it, too shameful people never even bother to protect it, forget taking pride in it. I really hate the graffiti at such heritage structure.