Our Saturday tour didn’t just cover sunrise (more or less) at the Taj Mahal; it also included the Agra Fort and, about 45 miles west of Agra, Fatehpur Sikri.
Our guide, who said his name was Sandy because most clients have a hard time remembering his actual name which is Sunny (?), was not very clear about what our day’s agenda should be. He offered to take us to a couple of “art” places where we could see marble inlay work and star sapphires but were also souvenir places. We declined. He kind of seemed at a loss as to what to do with us. But we reminded him that Agra Fort was on the agenda and, so, we went there.
It is a stunning red sandstone fortress that was utilized for some period by Akbar, the grandfather of Shah Jahan, the builder of the TM, and then used by Shah Jahan’s evil son to imprison Shah Jahan in his final years. I guess evil son thought dad was spending way too much of son’s inheritance . . . Son also did away with his brothers in order to maximize his share and to ensure his place. He was a particularly nasty piece of work. The Shah’s only request in the face of his son’s nastiness was to have a view of the TM; a request which the son granted.
As we were leaving Agra Fort, Sandy/Sunny told us that he would not be going with us to Fatehpur Sikri. We would get a new guide out there and after that we would be driven back for lunch in Agra where we would be met by Sumit, the owner of the tour company. No mention was made of our visit to the tomb of somebody-or-other, which was featured in the description of the tour and which, as you can tell, was high on our list of places to see.
So it was that by 10:30 am, Joan and I found ourselves in our car with our very nice driver, Sanjay, on our way to Fatehpur Sikri. It was a drive long beyond its miles and would have been made much better had we had someone to explain what we were seeing. I have to say we were just happy to arrive at our destination and have a guide waiting for us. In one fleeting moment of insanity, I feared that there might be a white slave market in India for middle aged (to be kind) American women.
I think the only reason we went to Fatehpur Sikri was because Joan’s neighbor said it wasn’t to be missed. She was right; it was amazing.
Fatehpur Sikri was built by Akbar after a saint who lived there granted Akbar’s wish to have a son. Akbar, who was a Muslim, had three wives: One was Hindu, one was Muslim and one was Christian. At FS, which is a very large complex, he built one palace for each of his wives. Each is very distinctive, reflecting the wife’s heritage. All of them are beautiful; one of them had walls inlaid with pearls and diamonds sadly no longer there. Akbar’s palace has an enormous raised bed, which would have been piled with luxurious textiles. The complex is comprised of two parts: Personal/residential and religious.
On the religious side is a white marble temple to the saint. Our guide had explained to us why the temple was built and that it still was visited, that everyone had to cover his or her head before entering*, that offerings could be presented and wishes made to the saint. We thought we understood what he was telling us. Turns out we hadn’t quite tracked what was meant.
Before we knew what was happening, we were being asked to sit down on a dingy rug in front of some guy with piles of fabric in front of him. The guy explained that these pieces of fabric, some small, some medium, some large, were given as offerings along with a handful of flowers, that a person making such an offering received a blessing, tied a piece of yarn around the lacy marble work and could make a wish.
“So, what size of fabric do you want? Small for a poor, orphan child, medium for a poor orphan girl’s wedding saree, or large for [I can’t remember, maybe] a large poor orphan’s something. Small for small heart, medium for medium heart, large for large heart. By the way Madame Sarkozy visited here; see, this is her photo.”
Turns out Joan and I have small hearts but we still got three wishes. Since one of Joan’s was to get down the steep stairs safely, which she did, and one of mine was not to be sold into white slavery, which I wasn’t, I guess it was worth the cost.
*Joan had a hat with which to cover her head; I did not. Instead, as I was about to enter, our guide picked up an object that looked a bit like the plastic baskets you sometimes get a hamburger and fries in, turned it over and popped it on my head.
We had a somewhat cramped shuttle bus ride from FS to the parking lot but at least Joan and I got to sit down. Quite a few folks were hanging out the door.
We got back to Agra and our lunch stop late, perhaps 2:30. We were headachy and ravenous. No Sumit to be seen. We ate and left the restaurant and looked for our driver. After spending a few nervous minutes looking around, we did find Sanjay and he was with yet another guy. This guy asked us what we had thought of the tour. I waggled my hands to indicate so so and asked him who he was. He pushed a bunch of sorry looking, glitter bespangled red roses at Joan and said he was Sumit.
We then told him what we thought of the tour. He seemed surprised. He made excuses. He told us untruths. He asked us what he could do to make it up to us. We failed to say “refund our money” and declined his offer to buy us a cup of coffee or arrange for us to see a light show that evening. It was not a happy end to the day.
BUT in spite of the amateurish organization, misrepresentations and outright lying we encountered, I had a great day and saw some truly incredible sights. Our driver was very nice and a safe driver and our guide at FS was excellent. I’m glad we did it but I wouldn’t recommend doing it the same way to anyone else.