AGRA TO MATHURA
Today was the long anticipated day when we woke up early, had breakfast at the Trident, and headed for the Taj Mahal. It was hot, even at 7AM. Our bus took us to a place down the street from the Taj where boarded an electric car that could drive past the police barricades to the East Entrance. We had to dodge horse-drawn carts and beggars peddling small elephant key chains, postcards, and bangles. The car dropped us off where we presented our tickets and passed through security. Once through, we proceeded into the first courtyard and slowly made our way along the ponds, mosque, guesthouse, and the Taj itself.
Pictures are more than enough to explain the Taj, but what you don’t realize is the vast number of people who pour in, nonstop. You’re always dodging photos and fighting to get to a place to take a symmetrical shot. A lot of people stop you and ask to have pictures with you if you look non-Indian. You also take off your shoes or wear booties to protect the marble of the Taj. Monkeys steal scarfs and water bottles, drinking from the murky ponds and running across the banister by the riverside. The thing that upset me the most was the sheer amount of vandalism on the walls. You’re not allowed to bring in lipstick, nail polish, or anything like that for this reason, but I still watched people scratch the walls or write on them in chalk. There is an issue with removing inlaid semi-precious stones as well and people must work to repair the walls constantly.
After the Taj, we came back to our hotel to pack and get ready. I swam with some people before taking a shower and getting on the bus to eat at the Taj Mahal restaurant in town. Once we were done with lunch, we headed to Saga Stores, which does “pietra dura ”, or a kind of semi-precious stone laying in marble. We saw a demonstration of how the pieces are made. The people who were demonstrating were descended from the people who did the original work on the Taj Mahal. They said only about 200 families do this work there.
We then were allowed to shop and I bought two small plates/coasters, one for my grandma and one for my mom. I picked what I thought they would like but that wouldn’t be too much; one was more expensive than the other because the more details, the more the cost, but we were given a discount so I got the pieces for about $200. My professor walked with me and we talked about native cultures and religions for a while before it was time to get on the bus.
We arrived at our new home near Mathura called Samvid Gurukulam, or Motherly Love. The basis of the program is to take children and women who are in a crisis situation and give them care through a family structure. We saw an open window with a crib and a sensor where babies can be dropped off in privacy, sending an alert for a caretaker to pick up the baby and bring it in to the facility. We also visited the temple, schools, hospital, children’s play areas, and nurseries for both normal and special needs children. Then we visited one of the families, consisting of a mother, an aunt, a grandmother, and fourteen children of all ages. They live together on the campus and function as a family although none of them are related. They are just orphans, battered women, and elderly people in need of a place to live that can provide for them. We spent the night on the campus.
Mathura is the birthplace of Lord Krishna, so we also visited the Govind Dev Ji temple, built in 1590, with the help of two monks that slipped us through the tight streets and into a back alley where we entered from behind and skipped hours of waiting in line. The ceiling is decorated with new flower chains every day. Today was a Japanese white flower. We had to watch for pickpockets and monkeys as we shoved through the crowd and came to a room full of flower chains and monks. We weren’t allowed to take photos. We were pushed to the front of the room and given leis, then drenched with holy water before we were shoved back out.
In the comfort of our alley, we ate solid condensed milk and were presented with bindis and scarfs. On the way back to the bus, we encountered several stubborn cows, sleeping monkeys, and an elderly woman who walked nearly a mile for money that she never got.
Before we returned for dinner, a presentation, and bed, we also visited a modern temple, Prem Mandir, which cost millions of dollars to build. It looked like a casino more than anything.
We were yet again given special treatment and allowed to kneel before some monks who gave us jasmine flowers.
There was another light and fountain show and several giant sculptures of religious figures. I liked it, but it reminded me of Vegas. I was definitely ready for bed when we got back. There was a lizard in one girl’s room, so I ended up sleeping with three in our bed. It was an interesting sandwich!