Tour Of India - From Bombay To Agra
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
Bombay—A Hindu tea-party--The G.I.P.—A monotonous journey—Agra—The Fort—The Taj—Sikandarah—ltmad-uddaulah's tomb—Fatehpur Sikri—The Taj by moonlight.
December 1, 1911, IN THE TRAIN (A JOLTY ONE) BETWEEN BOMBAY AND AGRA. - I had no time to see any sights in Bombay, as I was shopping, etc., the whole time. The crowds in the city were tremendous, the natives for hundreds of miles round flocking in. They were all in their best clothes, and the colouring was brilliant, orange-scarlet and sky-blue predominating.
Bombay was, they said, extraordinarily hot for November ; I bought a thermometer to travel with. When I bought it, it stood at 84° inside the Stores at 6.30 p.m.
The most amusing thing I did in Bombay was to go to tea with a rich Hindu merchant, who had given Rs. 5,000 to a Christian school so Jim was going to tea with him, and took me. The furniture was magnificent, the sofas inlaid with mirrors, and so on—excepting the staircase, which was painted deal. We had tea in a lovely marble balcony decorated with frescoes of Hindu myths in rather crude pinks and greens. I ate some sponge-cake which tasted gingery : closer scrutiny showed it was alive with ants ; so I tried the other things, which were all very nice. The whole roof had been made into a tessellated terrace, and from it we had a gorgeous view of the sunset crimsoning the whole harbour and sea and sky. Before we left we were all garlanded (my first day !) with wet ropes of flowers, and were given bouquets. I enjoyed it hugely.
I started last night by the GIP. The train is very comfortable. The carriages are large and have the seats, like sofas, along the line of travel, , not across it. You bring your own bed, and make it on the sofa.
It is not a bit hot today. My thermometer makes it 74° now (half-past twelve). The country is dull, though prosperous : almost flat, every acre cultivated or pasture. The crops are rather thin, except mealies, which luxuriate. The fodder crop has failed entirely in most parts of Bombay, and Jim has had to give up his trek on that account. In fact, there will be actual famine in February, he says, in a certain number of districts.
As this train passes through Agra, I have decided to get out there (at 3 a.m.!), and spend four days there, proceeding to Delhi on Wednesday; the day before the King arrives. There will be plenty of time to see Delhi during the week from the 7th to the 14th. My present plans for the next few weeks are, after Delhi, to visit the cities of Rajputana, which are said by all to be exquisitely lovely (Jaipur, Chitor, Udaipur), reaching Ahmedabad by Christmas. That is to say, I travel south-west from Delhi, back towards Bombay, but rather north of the direct line.
I have come to the conclusion that it will be worth while to stay out to see Kashmir, so I have provisionally booked a passage in the ship leaving Bombay April 20th, 2.30 p.m.
We are in wilder country now, in one of the native Rajput States. It is not unlike the Rhodesian bush among the Matoppos : some big trees and a regular forest of smaller ones, but not growing at all thick, and no undergrowth but hay-like grass. The hills look about seven hundred feet high, and we have passed over two deep ravines with river-beds. We also passed over a big river, bigger than the Orange River, which appears to be the Nerbudda ; we are between Itarsi and Bhopal.
Saturday, December 2, AGRA. -I arrived here at 4.30 a.m. I slept a little and was up again at eight. No cabs were to be had, as every Mohammedan was going to mosque, so I bicycled down to the Fort.
An Indian fort corresponds to a Greek acropolis, and in it are generally the royal palace and the best temples. Agra was the chief residence of three of the greatest of the six great Great Moghuls (pronounced to rhyme with " ogles "), namely, Akbar, Jehangir, and Shah Jahan; but I was quite unprepared for the astonishingly beautiful series of buildings I found. It would take an hour to describe them, as it took the whole morning to see them. The main ones were the Pearl Mosque, which is (in position) to Agra what the Parthenon was to Athens ; the palace of Shah Jahan, which is the apotheosis of delicacy and flowerlike beauty ; and the palace of Akbar and Jehangir, which is of a much severer style.
The whole Fort is of a wonderful rose-red sandstone, and so is Akbar's palace. All Shah J ahan's buildings are of purest white marble, the interiors profusely inlaid with agate and cornelians of every colour in marvellously graceful patterns. I am getting some photographs : meanwhile I send some horrid cheap German picture-postcards which give but the faintest idea, if that, of what the place is like. So much depends on the lovely colouring and the exquisite delicacy of the detail. Nothing I have seen in Europe is in the same key of beauty, unless it be the Alhambra.
Monday, December 4TH.-On Saturday afternoon I saw the Taj Mahal. The world in general out here conspires to make you sick of it before you see it, and the inevitable consequence was a trifle of disappointment at first sight it looks so " exactly as it does in books." But that feeling soon passes, and admiration grows over one.
I went back there today and realized it is a hot favourite for being the most beautiful single and complete building in the world. I approached in a boat down the river to-day, and this is the most perfect view of it. It is so subtly designed that you only get the full effect when you see it as the architect intended. The Taj itself is not wide enough to make a good base for its dome it looks lumpy and heavy when you look at it alone. But the architect put it on a wide platform, with four minarets at the corners, and at a distance these make one group with the Taj and restore the balance. Finally, to perfect the group, he put two mosques of red stone, one on each side, at a lower level, and the effect of these is to give an infinitely graceful lightness to the Taj. Thus the Taj can only be properly seen when it is balanced between the two red mosques—i.e., from the gateway due south or the river due north. But the trees in the garden have grown so that from the gateway the mosques are wholly concealed from view, and even the minarets are only partially visible. From the river, however, a perfect view is obtained, and the effect is enhanced by the increased height, since the Taj is on an embankment, and also by the reflection in the water.
The details of the work are as exquisite as in the palace. Most beautiful light-effects are obtained in all the vaultings of Shah Jahan's buildings by a device which I have never seen anywhere else. Instead of making the inner surface of, e.g., the top of the porch, a smooth and even curve, they lightly scoop the marble in a kind of Gothic pattern, so that there are faint ridges and hollows in it which catch the light with an almost prismatic effect that is infinitely lovely : it gives, as it were, a living sheen to the stone.
Round the porches are long Arabic texts inlaid in black slate, and above is a good deal of floral inlay-work on a big scale. Inside, the two tombs are like embroidered silk, so rich is the inlay work : but I think its more sparing use is the more beautiful. They are enclosed by a very fine pierced marble screen, and over them hangs a pierced brass Cairene lamp, the "graceful gift of Lord Curzon." The lamp is all right, but the light inside is electric and too hard. The daylight in this chamber is so subdued as to be only adequate at noon. The whole dome is scooped in the way I mentioned, and a musical note is echoed up and up it in the most awe-inspiring and melodious way. It takes seven or eight seconds to die gradually away.
Yesterday I drove out five miles to Sikandarah, where Akbar's tomb is. It would be a very fine sight if it were not so close to Agra ; but it looks unfinished. It is interesting as being the earliest of the great Moghul buildings here, though I hope to see earlier ones to-morrow. The great Moghul period of architecture was, - like so many supreme art-periods, surprisingly short. It begins with Akbar in 1570 and only " finds itself" after 1620: the decline begins in 1660, and after 1680 there is hardly a building of note. The immediate reason for its sudden decline was that whereas Akbar and Shah Jahan employed architects of all creeds and nations (the Taj, by the way, was designed by a Persian, not by an Italian), Aurangzeb (1657-1707), who was a bigot, re-fused to employ any one but devout Moslems, and none of these happened to be any good. The great mosques were built by Hindus and Persians.
This morning I saw the third of the great sights of Agra, the tomb of Itmad-ud-daulah—i.é., the High Treasurer of Jehangir. Its date is 1628 and it is the first of the " AI " Moghul buildings, and the earliest example of inlay work. It is a most charming building, the most fragile-looking of all of them. Its inlay-work is less delicate than in the later ones, but its lacework in marble is as light as gossamer. It has no dome, but a very graceful roof and turrets of the pagoda order.
Wednesday.—I had better post this before starting for Delhi, as the trains up there are so disorganized that it might fail to catch the mail if I waited.
Yesterday I made the expedition to Fatehpur Sikri, which is twenty-two miles away. It was the abode of a saint, who blessed Akbar's wife in childbirth. For this reason Akbar made it his capital in 1565, and built a splendid city with palaces and a mosque, in red stone. But the water was bad, and after trying for twenty years he had to abandon it and move to Agra. The place remains just as he walked or drove out of it : no one has lived there since and it is near no high-road. It is therefore uniquely interesting as showing the early Moghul style. There is no inlay work and no marble. In some places the red stone is minutely carved: it can be pierced as finely as marble. The chief feature is the grace and lightness of the palaces, with their slender pillars and airy cupolas.
In the courtyard of the mosque is the saint's tomb, in marked contrast to the rest. Outside is a white marble chamber of extremely fine pierced lacework all round. Inside, the tomb is like a four-post bed, and is composed entirely of mother-of-pearl, except the posts, where the mother-of-pearl is interspersed with tortoiseshell and brass inlay. The whole effect is like a big piece of opalescent jewellery. Unfortunately, I failed to get a photo-graph of it.
Last night we went to see the Taj by moonlight, with a moon almost full. It is incomparably more beautiful than by daylight, and more than fulfils the ravings of the enthusiasts who do their best to make it disappointing. You know what a tropical full moon is like, and you know the snowy glister of marble in moonlight. There was also a perfect stillness. Inside, the Cairene lamp justified itself, and the shadows on the vaulting were the very symbols of mystery and peace.
This morning I paid a third and last visit to the Fort, and loved it more than ever. I wish I could describe the Diwan-i-Khas, but it is too simple. I have never seen such a magical room. The stupid people haven't got a decent photo-graph of it.