Much has been written about Agra, but I am still daring to. This Independence Day, I drove to Agra with my wife and decided to do the unusual there. Besides one customary visit to the Taj Mahal, all the rest was nothing that the normal tourist would do. Let me share the details.
INDEPENDENCE DAY AND FREEDOM
Most of us may have seen a dancing bear-show on the road, somewhere in India. These bears are snatched from their mothers at a tender age of 3-4 weeks. Their muzzle is pierced with a hot iron rod and a coarse rope is passed through this hole while the wound is still raw. And then, while the bear has still not got over the pain, their canines are mercilessly extracted without any anesthesia. Their dance training is yet another gory story. The bear cub is put on a hot tin sheet and the Kalandar (the controller of this poor creature) plays the Damru (a small, 2-headed drum). From early childhood, this bear cub starts to associate pain and trauma of being on a hot tin sheet, with this sound. And, on hearing this sound, it begins to dance.
While driving towards Agra, just 16km short of the city, in a village called Keetam, there is a large scenic lake called Soor Sarovar. This lake is a migratory birds’ haven during the winter months. Since winter was still far away, my reason for going to this lake was not the migratory birds. Inside this sanctuary, there is a facility with a difference – a facility that rescues and takes care of these dancing sloth bears. It is called the Agra Bear Rescue Facility. Wildlife SOS, one of the most successful wildlife rescue organisations in the country, runs it. They are supported by the Forest Department in their efforts. Besides Agra, they also run similar facilities in Purulia (West Bengal), Bannerghatta (Near Bangalore, Karnataka) and Van Vihar (Near Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh). They are currently looking after over 450 rescued bears – over 100 of them in the Agra facility alone.
We visited this facility, learnt about their efforts to rescue and free these bears, saw the care being extended to these rehabilitated animals and instinctively saluted the gesture of this organisation by adopting a bear for a month.
A COLOURED TAJ
Everyone visits Agra for the Taj Mahal. Some even see the Red Fort (mistakenly referred to as Agra Fort). Very few go across the Yamuna and visit Mehtab Bagh – the proposed site of Taj’s replica in Black marble. An organised city sightseeing tour may even take you to Sikandra and Itmad-Ud-Daula (Noorjahan’s grand-father’s tomb). But only exceptional ones go and see the coloured Taj I am referring to – The Red Taj. Interestingly, not many locals will also be able to guide you to this beautiful monument. It is just off the main M.G. Road and is locally known as the Catholic Cemetery.
This monument is the tomb of a Dutch national – John Hessing. He was a military officer in the army of the Maratha Confederacy. His wife, Alice (or as some references mention, Ann), built the tomb. Though the monument is nowhere close to Taj Mahal in size, it is still a beautiful work of art. The craftsmanship in red sandstone is remarkable. If you look closely enough, you’ll also realise that the monument is an amalgamation of Mughal, Indian and European architecture. While the similarity of design to the Taj Mahal strikes you, what seems odd are the 4 missing minarets, though the edifices for the same do exist. Apparently, Alice ran out of funds and could not complete the monument the way she had envisaged.
The solitary watchman told us that once in 1-2 months, some tourist might chance by. Otherwise, it is a forgotten monument even for the locals. Perhaps the price it has to pay for being in the shadow of the original Taj, a modern-day wonder of the world.
ACROSS THE YAMUNA
The pilgrims to the Taj, if their itinerary and time permits, do cross over to the other side of River Yamuna to see the monument with a river flowing in front. Their standard destination across Yamuna is the Mehtab Bagh. While we also took a look at the Taj from there, we found that a more interesting view was from another spot close by. Once you reach the Mehtab Bagh entrance, do not enter the garden, but follow that road to the banks of Yamuna. The view from here is breath taking.
DRIVE JUST ANOTHER 160KMS TO TIME-TRAVEL TO THE 9TH CENTURY
After visiting the Taj Mahal at sunrise, we drove onto the Agra-Jaipur highway. The road is not good for the first 20 kilometres or so, but once the dual carriageway starts, it is a beautiful drive. Our target, Abhaneri (originally, Abhanagri; now dialectically debauched to Abhaneri). The village is just 5-6 kms off the main highway. The village is a 9th century village and the attraction here is one of the most beautifully crafted Chand Baoli (Stepwell). Amazingly, it is still beautifully preserved. Though this village has other baolis as well, but nothing comes close to Chand Baoli.
The baoli is amongst the deepest and largest baolis in the country. Unlike most baolis, which are rectangular, this one is a square. The steps and their symmetry, considering the construction of this happened in 9th century, psyches you.
It is a rainwater harvesting beauty and used to provide the villagers a cool place to meet during the scorching heat of summers.
Next to it is the Harshat Mata Temple. Though not as well preserved as the Chand Baoli, this temple is a sterling example of medieval architecture. These 2 structures make a visit to this quaint destination totally worthwhile.
So, let me sum up by saying that the next time you are in Agra, do plan a slightly longer stay and enjoy these otherwise lesser-known beauties in and around the city.