I arrived in Agra by train in the morning, got settled in at N Homestay, and at the suggestion of their guide/driver Mokul, I took the rest of the afternoon to visit Fatehpur Sikri- home of the Jama Masjid mosque and Mughal palace predating the Taj Mahal. Little did I remember that the entrance fee for the Historic palaces had gone up to 500 INR, so I only had enough money for it, and to take the bus back to Agra (and maybe a bag of chips). Lunch consisted of the leavings of my goody bag from Simla. Luckily I did bring a scarf (I had completely forgotten my hat) because the Jama Masjid is an active mosque. I have also been using my water purification drops when filling my water bottles from the tap, and so far, so good. One could go broke keeping up on drinking water here in India. Also, I paid $20 CAD for this water purification kit, so I might as well use it. TRAVEL TIPS TO FOLLOW, SO NECESSARY FOR SURVIVING FATEHPUR SIKRI.
Arriving in Agra, I knew right away I had officially arrived in India, and gone were the days of orderly, friendly, clean little towns. It was a madhouse of Autorickshaws around the train station, and all of the drivers clamoured at me “taxi? taxi? hotel, miss? hotel?” Basically one has to say “No,” firmly and give an emphatic shake of the head about a million times or or ignore them completely running the gauntlet until you find your driver, – which will happen, seemingly by magic. After riding the regular public bus from Agra (very hot and dusty- bring a scarf just to put over your nose to filter some of it out), there are tour touts waiting for you at the little bus depot in Fatehpur’s bazaar. If your hotel or homestay has a driver/tour guide and offers to take you to Fatehpur Sikri (hereafter “FS”) for 700 INR or suchlike cost- DO THIS! Learn from my mistake. I decided I didn’t want to spend the 700 INR for my own private autorick and tour, and simply took the 40 INR bus ride from Agra. I thought I was being really smart by forgoing the extra cost…
There is a direct path straight up from the bus depot in Fatehpour’s bazaar towards the gate to the mosque, but one is essentially walking a path of garbage, so I took the long way around and took a second look at the bazaar, which was full of vendors and services of every sort. Traffic slowed to a crawl those last 50 meters from the beginning of the bazaar and the bus depot. The road above the bazaar leading up to the mosque and palace grounds, though, is wide, free of traffic, and lined with ice cream and goodie vendors, so Indian families take full advantage of the refreshments before going into the so-called abandoned city. Walking up the ramp to the entrance of the huge and extremely impressive Buland Darwaza (Victory Gate) entrance to the Jama Majid mosque, I couldn’t help but laugh at the frolicking and leaping goats combing the ramparts for goodies left by tourists.
As soon as I entered into the mosque, a young man calling himself a “guide” offered to show me around. These guys (and there are a lot of them) are touts, not guides. They will indeed take you around the mosque, they’ll show you all the different parts of the grounds and tombs, they have good information, and they will even take really nice photos of you and for you while on the grounds, and will be very pleasant- but they will conclude their tour at their own little blanket set out with the souvenirs they sell- usually carvings in soapstone or alabaster. There’s nothing wrong with buying from them except they’ll give you the hard sell and you will have to haggle within an inch of your life, and there’s nothing wrong with not buying from them and tipping them for their time instead. They’re not as happy with the tip as they would to sell you their stuff, but whatever. Bazinga. I saw all the parts of the mosque- was encouraged to do all the little things that people do when they visit, like tying a string in the lattice screen of the white marble tomb of Shaikh Salim Chishti and making a wish (NO TELLING), and genuinely enjoyed my tour. I found the cemetery and the crowded ladies-only cemetery behind lattice screens interesting as the marker stones were very compact. The honour of being interred within the mosque was only conferred to family members of the saint. The white marble tomb with the reflecting pool before it, and single tree growing beside it within the broad expanse of the mosque complex courtyard was genuinely beautiful. I explored the courtyard of the mosque once I left the young tout, and there is no angle from which this little building is not striking and a spot of visual coolness in the expanse of baking redstone. It was also a constant hub of activity as people came to pay their respects, tie their string, make their offering of thrown perfume or rose petals and some rupees to the saint. Directly outside a group of musicians crouched in the shade, playing and singing their devotions. I noticed that the tomb had gutters leading directly to the pool, so that rainwater would be collected there for both its beauty and utility.
Exiting the mosque from the King’s Gate, I then proceeded into the expansive palace grounds, paying the entrance fee at that point. The architecture and gardens were unlike anything I had seen before (or would see again in India), especially the 5 tiered Panch Mahal, and it’s no wonder for King Akbar who lived here encouraged unique designs melding Islamic, Hindu, Christian and Buddhist elements and imagery in the decor. King Akbar decreed that each religion was to be respected equally, and to “seal the deal” he took a queen from each faith. The special audience hall (Diwan-i-Khas) and the decorative pool in front of his palace use a quartered square design illustrating the new faith he developed, called Din-i-llahi (God is One). Wandering around this place was genuinely enjoyable. There were lots of arcades in which to shelter from the sun, gardens to refresh the eye from all the red sandstone, and wonderful spots from which to view the surrounding farmlands. Within the palace grounds, I also discovered the striped chipmunk-like squirrels, wild green ring-necked parrots and many songbirds and swallows (and pigeons) that inhabit India. To sit in the shade from the softening afternoon sun and breeze, journaling and watching the parrots and other birds race from buidling to building to tree was a real joy.
I was really glad that I had come out to FS and explored these amazing buildings. Until I was foolish enough to NOT run and catch the bus I saw leaving the bazaar as I came down to the corner. “Busses run for another two hours,” I told myself, “I’ll grab a quick snack and catch the next bus.” Famous last words. I waited at the bus depot and no other bus arrived. I had a snack, wrote in my journal and exchanged a few pleasantries with a couple of the touts there who were brothers… and then it started getting dark. The young Islamic touts started to look a little uneasy on my behalf and gently remonstrated me “Why didn’t you run for that bus?” Finally one of the young men said “I don’t want you sitting here after dark. Tourists have been stranded here before by the bus. I have seen it and helped them get back to Agra before. Maybe the last bus will be here at 5:45, but if not then you should let my driver friend take you back to Agra because none of the tourist taxis come here.” This was factually correct and not an exaggeration on his part, I hadn’t seen a single white car with the blue and yellow “Tourist Taxi” emblem painted on the side since arriving in FS, and there weren’t even any Autoricks. Two of the young touts arranged someone to drive me back and they tried to quote me double the price of what my homestay driver had offered for the return trip. Boy was I mad at myself and a little annoyed with them as I tried to discuss the discrepancy with them. When he finally admitted that what he was really including in the price was a commission for him and his brother who had both kept me company for two hours while I waited, and arranged my ride, my frustration vanished. I was happy to give them a commission, but I was not happy about being ripped off for a drive back to Agra- qualitative or semantic difference, as either way I was out a lot more rupees than I wanted to be for the day, but I don’t have a problem with rewarding people for taking their time to help me.
As it was, there was a massive traffic jam on the road back to Agra, and my driver was fortunately able to get out of the jam before too many vehicles boxed us in from behind, so we took a link road around the blockage and made it back to Agra with only a little delay. It was a bit of an adventure itself and when I experienced some acute culture shock (see next entry). I tried to not kick myself too hard for having to pay so much money to get back to the homestay, but on the other hand FS is a good hour outside of Agra, and I was very relieved that I got back safely and in comparative comfort. Who knows when I would have got back to Agra if I had gotten on that bus. For all I know, it was the thing causing the jam.
I am just so grateful that the world is indeed full of good people, that I do better than survive and get where I need to go safely thanks to the kindness of strangers. I am very grateful for my karma in this regard, and don’t for a moment take it for granted. I’m also very grateful that those who took care of me have increased their own karma. As I chatted with the two young men, both married and fathers in their early 20s, we agreed that everyone benefits so much more when we are kind and fair to one another.
So, if you find yourself taking the public bus to Fatehpur Sikri, do me a favour and hire one of the young touts to show you around the mosque and palace grounds- don’t be put off that they phrase it like you would be just doing them a favour by letting them practice their English- they’re intelligent entrepreneurs tour guides and proved by their help to me thoroughly decent people. You could do a lot worse than pay them for their time.
Matriarch Naghma of N Homestay had a wonderful thali dinner waiting for me when I got back to their place, and was kind enough to sit and chat with me while I ate. She told me the interesting history of her family home, how happy and content she was to share it with travelers, and how this was definitely the best part of her life with her sons grown and one of them recently married. After eating, I was grateful to retire to my very spacious room, shower and wash my clothes and retire to bed.
Tomorrow is the Taj Mahal at dawn.