Agra – Princes and Paupers

Princes and paupers in Agra

People travel from all over the world to visit the Taj Mahal, and even though I usually avoid such overhyped tourist traps, I was really excited to visit this particular icon. Now comfortable with the chaos that welcomed me at every train station, I exited the station with the pre-arranged driver to find a row of people sleeping on the pavement that stretched around 250 metres. They didn’t appear to be homeless and figured that maybe it’s common for people to travel from the countryside in the evening and sleep outside overnight to catch the early train. Sometimes in India it’s hard to know who’s sleeping on the street through abject poverty, and who is just having a lunchtime nap.

A lucky few slept indoors whilst the others lined up outside

A lucky few slept indoors whilst the others lined up outside

I thought the poverty I’d experienced in central Delhi was the worst I would see, possibly for the rest of my life. However, people in the city centre have access to (minimal) resources and commerce, whereas people on the fringes are caught between the costs of the city but lacking the rural resources to be self-sufficient. This demographic are condemned to the cycle of poverty to be lived in shanty towns lining the railway. As we approached the outskirts at dawn, it was informative to see people waking up and preparing for the day. Washing and brushing teeth with rain water collected in Jerry cans, market sellers setting up for a day’s trading amongst the muddy litter and also people openly defecating. No one should have to live with this indignity.

The train was speeding past but this seemed to be a farewell

The train was speeding past but this seemed to be a farewell

Railway life


The best time to visit the Taj is at sunrise for the best photos and before it gets too busy. The hotel was only a few hundred metres away which made it easy to be at the front of the queue for opening. After a short and confusing wait, I was in. For such an overwhelming monument it was an incredibly peaceful place. I’d avoided hiring a pushy guide at the other tourist sites but was keen to take in the full experience so indulged this one time. He was extremely knowledgable and pointed out good photo opportunities, as well as ordering the girls and I into cringey poses (which I was secretly delighted about).



Girls taj

I made the most of his encyclopaedic knowledge and asked a few cultural questions that had stumped me so far like: Is there a significance in wearing a certain colour on a certain day? Yes each day is dedicated to a different God represented by a different colour. What is the deal with babies wearing black eyeliner? It’s not eyeliner, it’s charcoal which helps keep out bugs and infection.

Taj corridor

The baby Taj is lesser known but also beautiful

The baby Taj is lesser known but also beautiful

We indulged in being tourists for the day and decided to grab some western food, a Subway no less. So in typical tourist fashion, I google mapped the 2km walk there and set off. How naive to think that Google would stick to actual roads. I walked through a small village which I assume isn’t on the tour bus. The local children were going wild, chasing us and trying to play and pose for photos. We then arrived at what we thought was a dead end.

image Agra kids one

Agra kids two

Google showed it as a road but it was now being used as the village dump, an assault on all the senses and a challenge not to vomit. Random pigs had congregated to feast on the sewage, presumably the same pigs that the villagers periodically slaughtered for food. Equipped in only flip flops, we decided to brave a light-footed and speedy skip over the top, concluding if it’s good enough for the locals, it’s good enough for us. We bathed our feet in hand sanitiser afterwards.

The millennium development goals were established by the UN in 2000 to dramatically reduce global poverty by 2015. It was calculated that even if every other country in the world achieved 100% and only India remained untouched, half of the world’s poor would still be in poverty. This is the scale and depth of poverty in India. The U.K. stopped giving aid to India in 2012.

From the sublime to the ridiculous in just a few hours.

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