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1995, Agra, India

Agra, India  

Four men sat in the shade and took turns to move their counters around a board crudely scored in the red sandstone. The smiling face of the man in the yellow turban said that he was winning.

Away from the shade on the oven-hot pavings in the courtyard at the deserted city of Fatehpur Sikri, were the markings for a much larger version of the same game. It was played here centuries earlier by Akbar, the 16th century Mughal emperor who chose this site 40km from Agra as his capital.

Akbar would sit on a stone table at the centre of the board with his three wives and direct slave girls who would dance their moves from square to square. The game, called Pachisi, is perhaps the only living relic of Akbar's ambitious scheme of creating cities.

Today the city is an essential part of Agra's tourist trail and, with the Red Fort, provides the two supporting sights after India's most famous monument, the Taj Mahal.

Agra is a two-hour rail journey on the Shatabdi Express from New Delhi but at this time of year in Delhi or Agra there is no escape from the heat. On the day I visited the sites there were no other Europeans at any of them. Even the mad dogs were out of sight as northern India baked in a summer heatwave and the mercury bubbled around 46'C (115'F).

How can anyone go to New Delhi , whether for business or pleasure, and miss the Taj Mahal? I wanted to see what was behind it. Brochures and guide books always show the same old pictures presenting a building or natural wonder from its most flattering angle. Why can we never see the warts - the hot dog stands, the car parks, the litter bins and sweet wrappers?

As we approached the monument the warts came into view and hearing. A blaring hooter drowned out the voice of street vendors. Pepsi Cola stands, bicycles, rickshaws, hawkers and a small herd of water buffalo blocked the gateway. This seething mass must be negotiated before getting through the door.

The high perimeter wall is like the division between purgatory and heaven. Inside the gate, the Taj Mahal comes immediately into view. With gardens and trees to the right and to the left and in the foreground, it is stunning; sculpted serenity.

The story behind the tomb, commissioned by Shah Jahan for his wife, Mumtaz Mahal, is well known. The time it took to build, how many workmen were employed and where the marble was quarried are in any guidebook (20 years, 20,000 and Makrana) but the books do not say what is at the back of it.

The interior of the tomb is unimpressive. A man with a torch illuminates some of the inlaid jasper while his pal chants loudly to demonstrate the echo. You know they are going to want money for this. The mock tombs of Shah Jahan and Mumtaz are situated over the burial chamber and you must go down some stairs to find the real ones. The tomb guard loaned me his torch.

The chamber was empty but for the tomb of Shah Jahan, and the smaller one of Mumtaz - and a man shuffling about on the floor in a corner.

I decided to save the rear of the building until last. In the immediate vicinity of the monument you must go barefoot or use overshoes, which cost 2 rupees to hire so I went barefoot. In spite of the heat it was comfortable walking on the marble. I had wanted to see one of the side buildings at the far side of a stone square. It was only after reaching the middle that I became aware of the now unbearable heat scorching the soles of my feet and was forced to dance back to the marble like one of Akbar's slave girls.

It was time to look beyond the Taj Mahal. There was a wall and I could hear shouting. Beyond the wall young children splashed in the Yamuna river and water buffaloes basked with only their heads above the water. Behind them a sweeping sandy flood plain stretched across to the Red Fort where Shah Jahan was incarcerated for his final days.

After two weeks of wading through crowds and squalor and crumbling, tatty masonry and roads in Bombay and New Delhi it was uplifting to discover that here at least India had got something right. In spite of the fears of environmentalists that the Taj Mahal might be ruined by industrial pollution, there seems little sign of such damage. Compared to St Paul's Cathedral, for example, it has the space and peace to be appreciated as Shah Jahan had wished.

Only when you step back through the gate does the real India attack you with the ferocity of a waiting tiger whose favourite supper is a camera-packing European. I bounced from one hawker to another like the silver ball in a bagatelle machine until my car drew up and scooped me off the road like a getaway in a jewellery heist.

It was no better at the Red Fort. The chess set seller, the whip merchant, the fake-marble-Buddha vendor and the man with the brass dangly things had got there before me.

On leaving, the chess set man pursued me to the car, lowering his price as he went. The 300 rupees had gone down to 100 and finally 50 as he threw it into my lap. The set was certainly worth £1, even £3 would have been a bargain. But I already had a set. It was impossible to explain this.

We sped away as if this was the second heist of the day, passing the Jain bird sanctuary on our right. The Jains are a curious sect, believing, as they do, that all life is sacred, even that of the tiniest microbe. Like the Hindus they also believe in reincarnation.

At Ahmedabad the Jains have a home for stray insects where orphaned ants and geriatric grasshoppers can live out their days in a protected environment. In Agra they have a similar place for birds.

Agra out of season has its compensations. The restaurant was deserted apart from the waiters. One of them wiped his forehead on the tablecloth as I scanned the menu.

When we reached Fatehpur Sikri, the heat had risen to a new intensity, so much so that the metal frames of my spectacles became unbearable against my cheeks. I did what any Englishman would do in such circumstances - knotted my handkerchief at each corner, put it on my head, and continued the tour.

My guide was full of useless information about how many men it took to build Fatehpur Sikri, how much stone was used, where it came from, and Akbar's religious beliefs and how, liberally interpreted, they enabled him to comfortably incorporate Hindu, Muslim and Christian wives.

Adjoining Akbar's palace is a large mosque, the walls of which tower 100ft, although the ramparts above the water tank are perhaps only 50ft high. The pea green pool of scum-coated water below is more than 40ft deep.

'There is a man in the village who jumps off the wall into the water. He is 85. He will do it for you now if you want. Shall I get him? He will want 150 rupees,' said the guide.

It was tempting. 150 rupees is only £3. But what if the old boy did not make it this time? What if I had to plunge in to try and find him? A combination of distaste for such a sordid spectacle and self-preservation prompted me to decline.

Returning to the car, the man in the yellow turban tried to sell me his winnings. 'Genuine old coins of Fatehpur Sikri, 100 rupees,' he said. I told him to take a running jump, preferably into the water tank.

It had been a long day and was going to be longer. The Shatabdi Express was five hours late. When the train finally arrived a fly alighted on my shirt as I sank into my seat. I flicked it away and it landed in the lap of a sleeping man across the aisle.

I wondered if he was a Jain. Had I just brained his grandmother?

© Financial Times

©2006 Richard Donkin - all rights reserved