I asked a young man in a ghetto in Agra if he had ever seen the Taj Mahal.”Taj Mahal?” he said. “I have not seen it, but yes, I have heard of it. It is in Delhi”. This quote from Royina Grewal’s book ‘In the shadow of the Taj – a portrait of Agra’ has been glued to my mind for years. How can people living around Taj don’t know where it is?
Though officially Taj is not our national symbol, but it is far more than that in people’s perception. For years it had been my desire to experience live around Taj, especially in Taj Ganj, but it was made possible only last week. I was curious to know how people living around it relate to this world wonder. How it has changed their life, vision and earning.
Agra is dirty, chaotic and a mess of haphazard urban planning. While travelling by train from Ahmedabad what disappointed me were scenes of open defecation for miles on both sides of railway tracks. The Swatch Bharat Abhiyan has miserably failed here. This first impression of one the world’s greatest heritage cities was not a pleasant one. Once you are out of Agra station the disappointment increases many fold as you are caught by touts, hawkers, hundreds of polluting vehicles, all against the backdrop of a majestic fort that ruled India till the beginning of the British Raj in 18th century for almost 200 years. A majority of its people associated with travel trade have cultivated a habit of touristy behaviour. But often it appears artificial. For example when I entered to a hotel for check in at the cramped Taj Ganj the hotel manger welcomed me saying ‘aare, app phir aye hey! Pichhli bar app ke saath kabhi accha anubhav raha tha’. I had never met him, nor that I had stayed in his hotel before.
Agra depends upon its tourism. Otherwise there is little scope for earning. There are no large scale industries. Agricultural lands are continuously being divided among family members. In spite of all these odds, Agra is a vibrant city. When you interact with people, many shares their relation with Agra from the time of Mughals and when you are inside Taj you witness a kaleidoscope of people, Tamil, Bengali, Gujarati, French, American, and so on. There is a sense of joy and happiness all around. The same goes for outside Taj, there are scenes from wrestling to cremating dead bodies, street vendors selling local crafts to delicious samosa, chat and jalebi. For a moment a visitor is transported back to India’s medieval era bustling with myriad activities.
Agra’s story goes much earlier than the Mughal era, perhaps to the time of Lord Krishna. Before Mughals it was a camp of Lodhis, but it was Babur, who changed Agra’s fortune forever. Though his rule was short-lived, he introduced many innovations, and the most appreciated one is the idea of Char Bhag garden on the banks of Yamuna. Ram Bagh, a sprawling garden across the river testifies Babur’s obsession for gardens of paradise. Water was lifted through the device of Persian wheels. Today none of these have survived but one can still trace their existence while walking on the edge of Ram Bagh.
(To be continued)