On Feb. 14, 2019. 9:00 p.m, the Advanced Art and Indian History students rushed towards the buses with their hands full of luggage, heading to the Dehradun train station. Until Feb. 17, the Art trip was going to merge with the Indian history trip to observe the grand architecture of Agra.
At about 11:00 p.m, we reached the Dehradun train station to head to Agra. We rolled our suitcases cautiously to avoid the people and dogs sleeping on the floor. We hopped onto our trains and got our beds assigned. With strenuous effort, I climbed up the bunk bed and prostrated myself onto the bed.
Feb. 15. 5 a.m, my eyes flinched at the overtly bright ceiling directly above my face. We were in Agra. After our two-hour bus ride, where we got to catch up on our sleep, we reached our hotel.
The first thing in our itinerary was to visit the Agra Fort. To be bluntly honest, I was not very excited as I had already been there last year for my AP Seminar activity week trip.
However, I quickly realized that the weather was much more pleasant this time, which made it ideal to walk around and truly dive into the essence of the magnificent structure. Last time, in the middle of August, the sun blazed, making the floor scorching hot. Also, back then, I had been too focused on my Instagram feed, trying to get the best portraits of myself against these beautiful monuments.
Agra Fort, the main residence for the emperors of the Mughal dynasty, seemed to stand erect and majestic, despite having been around for more than 400 years.
The sandstone walls of the fort lured me at first glance, just like before. I admired the arabesque designs, flowing, intricate, and symmetrical patterns derived from floral motifs, engraved onto the walls and the black smudges that looked as if parts of the walls were burnt.
The more I contemplatively walked, the more I was captivated by the things that weren’t present. I thought about the massive workforce that would have been required to build the enormous monument by hand. I thought of the numerous laborers whose lives had doubtless come to an end building the monument. As I silently observed, I soon became immersed into the history that these walls encompassed.
Mr. Prateek Santram, Indian history teacher, explained that Mughal architecture did not have doors as it got really hot during the summers. It had air ducts, fountains, and canals to cool off the emperors and royalty who dwelled and visited them..
An unsettling serenity filled me as I realized the ground I stood was where emperors of the Mughal dynasty such as Akbar and Shah Jahan had resided. I felt like a silent observer of history swiftly passing past me in front of my eyes. I had never thought of walking through historical places in this way. Glued to my phone, I had only passively looked at the pictures I took of myself, checking how they turned out.
As we passed different sections of the fort, Mr. Santram explained to us the significance of each section. As the sandstone architecture turned into marble, he explained to us that one of the marvelous balconies that had a full view of the Taj Mahal was where Shah Jahan was kept under house arrest by his own son Aurangzeb.
With his narrative, I could picture Shah Jahan lean against the railing, looking at the Taj Mahal and reminding himself of his dead beloved wife, his only joy in the solitude forced onto him by his own son.
With the sun setting, we, too, returned back to our hotel to get some much-needed rest.
Feb 16, 2019. Soon after breakfast, we departed for Fatehpur Sikri, which is a small city built in 1571 with the intention of building a capital/military base. However, Akbar, who had built the city made some drastic mistakes in the construction of the city, which made him abandon the city in 11 years of his stay.
Despite its flaws as a city, such as being built with an eroding material such as sandstone, and the lengthy distance that had to be covered by elephants to bring in water from the nearest water source. The vast expanses of red gave the area an eerie beauty that made the functionality flaws seem so insignificant.
It was truly hard to resist the urge to take pictures using Fatehpur Sikri as the backdrop, so I tried to be content with briefly snapped shots while walking around the city. I didn’t want to remember it as merely a green screen for my pictures this time.
Mr. Arjun Puri talked about the significance of each sector in meticulous detail, which made my imagination even more vivid.The most interesting part about this one-man job was the cultural aspect of it. Akbar, known for being one of the most liberal minded out of the Mughal emperors, invited Hindu and Sufi people to debate of the subject of religion and truth. Consequently, he created his own faith called Din-I-Ilahi, merging what he believed were the best aspects of all religions.
The water tank looked serene and minimalistic from afar, but was nonetheless filled with unending intricate geometric patterns. This was also where several debates on religion were held. I imagined two groups, wine drinkers and non-alcoholics, sitting on each side of the raised seat in the middle of the waterbed and debating on the true nature of God with Mr. Puri and Mr. Santram’s narrative.
This beautiful four-story building was made for the purpose of relaxation in the heat of summer, and according to Mr. Puri, Akbar had a different wife to “relax” with on each storey of the monument.
I walked alone around each corner of the monuments, taking in every flawed, yet captivating detail of the worn architecture. And the more I walked in solitude, the more I was enticed by the uncanny essence of the building.
The sandstone felt so warm, creating a comforting atmosphere, yet the lack of enclosed areas of places that were no longer inhabited gave off an exposed and vulnerable vibe. Although I took pictures as I went, my focus was no longer taking the best shots, as I was so immersed in feeling the place.
In the afternoon, we visited the tomb Akbar built for a Sufi saint called Salim Chishti. It was said that Akbar had dearly wanted a son as his heir, however after numerous failed attempt, when he reached out to the Sufi saint for help, his wish was magically granted. Hence, many still go to the temple to tie a ribbon on the temple wall for fertility.
Several “tour guides” approached us and started to explain the history of the place, which was dubious due to several different narrations. After the brief explanation, they would demand money for their unwanted service. The architecture was enchanting due to the mix of white marble and raw sandstone.
However, the serenity of the place was disturbed by numerous so-called “tourists,” and children as young as five years old aggressively trying to sell their little elephant keychains and severely outdated calendars. However, their desperate attempts at catching our attention were quite hilarious; when my friend told them that she was from France, a boy screamed out “Zinedine Zidane,” a retired football player from the 1990s and the coach of Real Madrid.
Feb. 17. 2019. Early in the morning, we headed out to see one of the seven wonders of the world, Taj Mahal. Upon reaching the site, my friends commented that they felt like they were looking at a picture. Maybe it was its picturesque nature, or maybe the overwhelming media representing it.
But I soon realized that it really was the odd one out in Agra. Built for Shah Jahan’s love, Mumtaz Mahal, it was built from the highest quality of marble. While the rest of Agra was mostly made out of bricks and sandstone, Taj Mahal stood, shining and erect, flaunting its grandeur. It seemed more like a screen or a picture. It was a tiny paradise in the midst of a dusty city: the gardens flourished,and the waterways spread throughout the place to cool off the Agra heat.
With the magnificent Taj Mahal, our art trip with the Indian History group came to an end. We parted ways, and we headed off to the remarkable art museums of Delhi…
Hyenjin Cho is the Editor-in-Chief of The Woodstocker
All photos by Hyenjin Cho
Edited by Rohan Menezes