When I visited Agra and the Taj Mahal last week, it was exactly after 10 years. That was in the midst of a hot summer in 2006. Much water has flown in the Yamuna since then and 10 years is a good time to see for oneself if the so called winds of change blowing across the hinterlands of India is for real. In these 10 years, the “Elephant” and the “Cycle” have got their opportunities alternatively to ride in Uttar Pradesh with the “Lotus” blooming or rather looming large at the centre!
We left Delhi pretty early (5.30 am to be precise) to beat the morning traffic till Noida. Close to Aerocity the new Airport hub replete with hotels and offices, even in the wee hours the roads were busy. One, with the slew of vehicles ferrying the staff from Call centres and BPOs of Gurugram after the night US shift and two, with the panoply of cars of all hue waiting in the roads for the call from their owners when they land at the airport. Now here’s the dichotomy. Folks who don’t bat their eyelids to write cheques for purchasing cars of the types of Audi, BMW,.. whine to pay the parking fees at the airport! So the drivers just hang around choking the roads leading up to the airports. (This by the way happens in almost all cities in India, I guess). After that initial congestion, the drive through the Lutyens’ Zone was nice. Lutyens’ Zone could be a credible advertisement for Swachh Bharat mission I thought. But then it’s always been that way.
Once we cross Noida, we quickly enter the new Yamuna Expressway which is supposed to make the Agra and the Taj trip more memorable. Earlier also folks from abroad always remembered the Taj Trip very well for the long travel from Delhi to Agra. The Expressway is international class so are the toll fees! But then if we need quality infrastructure and if private guys have to develop the same, you need to pay for it! Along the Expressway one cannot miss the Buddh International Circuit built for bringing F1 to India. It’s sad that India doesn’t feature on the F1 calendar since 2013! The circuit now is reduced to hosting national races and being a promotional/testing venue for automobile manufacturers. Blame it on the financial troubles of the promoter Jaypee group or the bureaucratic hurdles around hosting F1. One hopes F1 returns to India soon for the changes in brings in the landscape overall – partly which is even today visible. However just ahead, confirming the winds of change were the surprisingly neat and clean toilets at the 1st break at the food plaza!!!
The Expressway has a speed limit of 100 kmph for cars and 60 kmph for heavy vehicles. The driver of our luxury coach clearly believed that ours was a heavy vehicle and never for once allowed for himself the luxury of accelerating beyond 60 kmph. Never once. Now this discipline of following speed limits on highways must qualify as a big behavioral change!
As the Expressway ended and we entered the city limits of Agra, the dream drive ended. We were back to the early morning hustle bustle of a small town with buffaloes, dogs, hen and monkeys interspersed with a whole lot of people, handcarts, autos, crowded tempos,… on the roads. Busy road side eateries were rustling up morning snacks and the overall “dust bowl look” hardly can pose for Swachh Bharat. The road from where the Expressway ends leading to the Taj is surprisingly still narrow with chaotic traffic. The very impressive guide (impressive with his suave English and worldly knowledge) who joined us at Agra would tell me later that a highway straight from the Expressway to the Taj is ready and would be open to public soon. It was apparently waiting for the UP CM Akhilesh Yadav who has been busy with his parivar war these days!
The guide cautions us of all things prohibited inside the Taj. Well except for cameras, phones and wallets everything else is – looks like. The 1st sight of the Taj as you enter from the main door is breathtaking and indeed the best sight!
The guide no longer tells stories of why Taj was built as he knows very well that the tourists are all Google savvy these days. He focuses more on the intricacies of the construction and why it is a Wonder of the World. Talking of Taj being one of the Wonders of the World, at the Great Wall of China you can see an official certificate declaring it as one of the “New 7 wonders of the world”! Wonder why we can’t have a similar plaque at the Taj???
The whiteness of the Taj has been fading thanks to the excess pollution over a period of time. So the authorities have undertaken a massive job of restoring the whiteness of the marble with surface treatment. We were told that they use what is known as Multani Mitti (mud from Multan). This process is underway and one could clearly see the difference in the 3 of the 4 minarets where the treatment is already over. The main dome will be up for treatment soon next year during which time it may be closed and will be a letdown for the tourists! Considering that Multani Mitti is from Pakistan – wondering if MNS will have a problem with that under the present Indo-Pak rough weather!
The Diana Bench which has now become the best photo-op place or rather selfie spot at the Taj– continues to reinforce what marketing and PR can do to a product. A spot where couples celebrate their love with that enduring pic is named after a person for whom love was elusive for most of her curtailed life!
Compared to the last time, the vicinity of the Taj is certainly neater, cleaner and devoid of general litter. Of course don’t expect us Indians to drop all the disposable shoes only in the bins kept for that purpose. Bins are provided and as is our habit we litter the shoes all over the place!
A good over 2 hours spent at the Taj and post lunch we visited the other monument – the Agra Fort. Agra fort is also impressive and brings a lot of high school history lessons back to memory! The emporium which the guide took us for shopping was expensive even for the foreign visitors in our group. But what was striking was the way they explained the process involved in the making of the marble handicrafts in understandable English. And didn’t do the pushing and shoving to buy! Talking of push and shove, the road side vendors hawking different “tourist targeted” stuff were polite and didn’t really hound us – a change from last time.
As we left Agra for Delhi, again a very pleasant but slow drive on the Yamuna Expressway was fantastic. In the backdrop of the setting sun, the smoke from burning of the agricultural fields create a hazy feel and of course add to the pollution of the capital. I read about this practice of burning the rice stubble by farmers once the harvest is over just few weeks ago in a “Swaminomics” column in the Sunday Times of India. Read here. As pointed out in that piece, it’s high time, they find an alternate to this polluting practice lest any “Odd-even” or other kind of idea is not going to help curb pollution levels in Delhi.
Once we crossed Noida, we couldn’t escape the now notorious evening peak traffic of Delhi. From Noida to the hotel took close to 2 hours! In India we now famously suffer from last mile connectivity! In almost everything. For example in roads, the highways like the Mumbai Pune Expressway or the Yamuna Expressway eases the travel between the borders of the respective cities but the journey from the end of the expressway to the heart of the city is still a nightmare wading through narrow roads and ever exploding traffic.
So to conclude, many positive changes are visible. Few legacy issues remain. As in many other areas, “the elephant” is on the move and we are getting there albeit slowly. Though visiting after 10 years, this is my 3rd visit to the Taj and somehow for the 1st time I really felt like “Wah, Taj boliye”!!!
Postscript: One of the enduring lines of the guide while explaining India’s high population – “In India, in the day time we believe in ‘Culture” and in the night – Agriculture😂😂😂