Our last day in Varanasi included a trip to Sarnath where Buddha gave his first sermon. The tour included a walk through the temple as well as the gardens where there are about 40 dharma wheels which symbolize the teachings of the Buddha. The garden is also home to the Bodhi tree that was transplanted from Sri Lanka in 1935. The reason for transplanting this tree is because there were no more Bodhi trees left in this area and it was while sitting under a Bodhi tree that Buddha came to enlightenment. It was important to the Buddhists to have a Bodhi tree at this temple. There is also a sculpture of Buddha and his five disciples. We then walked down the road to see the tallest standing statue of Buddha which comes in at about 80 feet.
After our morning of learning about all things Buddha, we had lunch and headed to the train station. We boarded our 5:30 train at 5 PM with the hope of arriving in Agra at 6:30 the next morning. This train was similar to the last one but it was a bit older and quite a bit busier. With many more stops along this leg, there always seemed to be people coming and going. This time most of our group was scattered around in different carriages but we got lucky and once again bunked in with Lisa and Louis. We learned more about them and their journeys. They are British and have spent the past year working and travelling in Australia. The last four months they have been touring Southeast Asia and they will be heading home once this tour in India is finished. They are both looking forward to seeing their families again and settling down into a normal routine. Of course, they don’t know when or if the travel bug will hit them again but they are already talking about heading to New Zealand if it does. They both have a great outlook on life and I am sure that the future is bright for these young people.
AJ had warned us that this train is usually late due to fog and other unforeseen circumstances. He proved to be correct and we did not actually arrive in Agra until noon. Once we were all together, we bundled into an actual minibus and headed for the hotel. Our first impression of Agra was that it was not as busy as Varanasi and passing by a few high end hotels it seemed a bit more touristy. We had a late lunch and headed down to main attraction – The Taj Mahal. Translated the Crown Palace, it was built by Emperor Shah Jahan to commemorate his fourth (and favourite) wife who died while giving birth to their 18th child at the age of 39. The Palace took 22 years to build and was finished in 1648. Unfortunately, the Shah himself was not able to enjoy this palace as his son, thinking that his father was squandering his inheritance, threw him in jail and took over as emperor.
The palace did not disappoint. Though it looks just like the pictures, it was mesmerizing. I felt that I could just sit and look at it for hours. However, we only had a couple of hours so we took one or two (hundred) pictures and headed into the crown jewel – the mausoleum itself where the king and queen are laid to rest. It is hard to grasp that this grand palace, outbuildings, gardens and pools were all constructed only to house a couple of dead people. Our guide told us that when the British took over, they stripped much of the gold, carpets and other riches from the palace. Even so, the craftsmanship on the buildings is amazing. Generously inlaid with precious gemstones like opals, lapis lazuli and jade, the decorations offer stunning flashes of colour against the white marble. We had to pinch ourselves a few times to confirm that we really were standing at the Taj Mahal. The pictures will confirm that indeed, we were.
Before we left Agra this morning, we took a quick walk around the Agra Fort where the Shah Jahan spent the last seven years of his life. From his cell he was able to see the Taj Mahal and legend says that he cried everyday of those seven years for his wife and his palace. The fort itself is huge and was originally built by the Moguls starting in 1565. We walked across a drawbridge, over a moat (now dry) to get through the main gate. Many of the original buildings were torn down by the British to set up barracks for their troops but there are about 30 buildings from the Mogul era that are still available for viewing. A section of the fort is currently being used by the Indian military. We definitely did not have enough time to explore this fort completely but it was impressive nonetheless.
We are now heading into the state of Rajasthan on an actual tour bus! The roads are good and though traffic is not heavy, we are sharing the road with semi trucks, other buses, motorcycles, tractors pulling carts, camels pulling carts, cows just hanging out, and some cows riding in the carts being pulled by the tractors. Farmland is all around us with the four main crops being wheat, millet, maize and mustard. They also grow sugarcane, potatoes and other vegetables in this area. Our destination for today is Tordi Garh where we will be spending the night in a palace. That sounds pretty cool, doesn’t it?
The Buddhist shrine where Buddha’s first teaching was given.
The Bodhi Tree.
At the train station in Varanasi and our sleeper train.
Inside the Sleeper Train. Col was on the top bunk and I was in the middle. She was actually up there sleeping when I took this.
The Taj Mahal.
Our travel buddies.
The Red fort of Agra.