On the way to Agra I stopped off at Mathura, birthplace of Krishna.
As I exited the car, I was quickly pounced upon from a guide. (When you've got your own driver everybody wants to be your friend!)
The guide showed me around and gave me a confusing history lessons about the Gods.
Mathura has a Hindu temple right next to a Muslim mosque. Around there are armed policemen and metal detectors. I had a look about and just when I was thinking how much a white guy stands out my guide drapes a garland of marigolds around my neck. Cheers!
As I left, I gave the flowers to a nearby cow, so I should be full of good karma now.
Next stop was to be the hotel, and then Taj Mahal. As we drove along the driver picked up somebody and said he will be my guide for the Taj Mahal, hmm okay.
Actually the guide for the Taj Mahal was excellent!
There was a queue to get in and he led me through to another counter and we got in straight away. At first you can only see the minarets as you are led into a courtyard with large walls and not until you pass through the gate do you get the first full view of the Taj Mahal.
It really is a spectactular building (1,2,3,4,5,6,7. 20,000 people worked over 22 years to produce it, so you would expect it to be something special.
What you don't see in these famous pictures is that it is perfectly symmetrical building and is flanked by two mosques. (One is purely for symmetery and cannot be used as a mosque as it's facong the wrong direction)
While the years have taken some toll on the Taj Mahal in general it is in excellent condition. Mostly this is due to the way in which it was built. The marble has been carved away and inset stones are used as opposed to painting, as well as more traditional carvings. Scripts from the Quran adorened the outside carved in black onyx. Also four large minarets are positioned at each corner carefully tilted outwards by only a degree, believed to be so that in case of an earthquake the minarets would fall outwards and not onto the Taj itself. Of course the gardens around are also carefully manicured and filled with reflecting water ponds.
The guide managed to skip past another huge queues to go inside the darkened mausoleum where intricate flower patterns are displayed. I later saw how they were created in a shop. The marble is stained with henna and the individual pieces are each shaped using a grinding wheel. The grinding wheel is operated by pushing a rod back and forward while the other hand holes the piece of stone against the wheel. Some of these designs are tiny with individual pieces just millimetres across and all down with different stones with diffent hardness and of course colours.
The piece is then traced onto the marble and the outline shows in the henna, then the marble is scrapped away to fit in the stone. Finally the marble is clean to remove the henna.
Some of the designs have over fifty separate pieces to assemble and at the end, one small colourful flower.
Easy to see why it took so many people so many years!
I finally left once the sun had set on the Taj Mahal.