Red sand stone marks the Agra Fort as one of many built to reflect the grandeur of the Mughal Empire in the 16th century. Remnants of the others still stand along the highway, forlorn sentinels to a bygone military power. When the British came, they repurposed the fort in Agra, which saved its basic structure. The other forts, by contrast, fell into disuse and had their stones hauled off for other purposes.
Built on and added to over the centuries, Agra Fort consists of a maze of walled courtyards, mosques, and lavish private chambers reflecting the uses of the various armies who held it. Amazingly, the Agra Fort alone came through the 19th century intact to be heralded as a UNESCO World Heritage site in the 20th.
The Marble Inlay Artisans of Agra
I’ve watched these artisans, and let me tell you it takes muscle! Somehow, out of pieces of rock, through exquisite patterns of inlay, the artisans of Agra produce collector’s items. Difficult to execute, beautiful to behold, and something to last through generations.
Despite my longing to own a piece, my friend and I held to our self-imposed, one-beautiful-thing purchase per trip. We had fallen in love with a silk rug in Jaipur! But when I come back to Agra, I know exactly the marble inlay piece I’ll have shipped home. (I readily concede my limitations when hoisting luggage into the overhead airline bins–those treacherous bits of engineering foisted on the rest of us by under-thirty males!)
The tomb of Imad-ud-Daulah
Further examples of the art form of marble inlay of semi-precious stones can also be seen at the tomb of Imad-ud-Daulah and his wife, which is hand-painted with floral decorations and includes marble screens of geometric latticework. Some consider it a direct precursor to the Taj Mahal. Though smaller, the site is exquisite.
Bollywood Dancing as an Art Form
I learned to enjoy the Bollywood song and dance style from our crash course in Indian movies before the tour began. Consequently, I eagerly anticipated the scheduled evening of Bollywood beats with a local dancer after supper.
We’d been treated to some excellent Indian cuisine by this time in our travels, and the restaurant disappointed. Besides mediocre food after wonderful Indian cuisine elsewhere, the building was hot and crowded. But the entertainment was the real problem. It wasn’t that the dancer and her assistant (cousin, as I recall) weren’t beautiful and talented. It wasn’t that the recorded music was mind-numbingly repetitious (although it was). What embarrassed me occurred because we tourists were not given adequate information.
After several numbers, the lovely dancer coaxed us to dance with her. Our group was initially reticent, but one of the older men reluctantly agreed and gallantly gave it his best shot. His preferred style — ballroom. He wasn’t told, however, that in a Bollywood revue no one touches. No sooner did this spectacle begin, than a ring of Indian men from other parts of the restaurant quietly formed in the doorways to our private dining room.
The ballroom dancer held the young Indian woman in the traditional ballroom embrace, and while he was too close to her to see it, we onlookers saw how she flushed, averted her face, and lost rhythm. Oblivious, her erstwhile dance partner clutched her valiantly to the end of the song.
The watching Indian men didn’t interfere, but the moment was an unpleasant ending to a lovely day. Definitely a reminder that cultural sensitivity has to be an ongoing quest.
Luxury in the Trident Agra Hotel
Some of my friends may decry how shielded from the economic realities of class disparity in India tourists tend to be. I wish with all my heart that we could live in a worldwide egalitarian society. I believe in the principle so completely, that I’ve donated to charitable institutions all my life. The life of Mother Teresa still makes me worry that I haven’t done enough.
But I have to tell you, after a hot busy day seeing amazing things, there is nothing more wonderful than being greeted by impeccably groomed wait staff at a clean and cool hotel. The massage that came later was incredible!
Incidentally, we were told that the red dot on the young woman’s forehead, which formerly held class/religious significance, is now only a beauty mark. In fact, several times on the trip a smiling hostess pasted a similar mark on our faces.