Agra 

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I was joined in Agra by Fanny, a friend from New York.   The afternoon we arrived we walked to the Yamuna River and hired a boatman to ferry us across so we could admire the Taj reflected in the water as the sun set.  Next morning we were at the East Gate as the Taj opened.   It was a beautiful dawn.  The entrance fee at that time is quite high so there are fewer visitors and it is by far the best time to go.  A friend visiting recently (November 2009) tells me since the terrorist attack at the Taj Hotel Mumbai there has been an increase in security at the Taj Mahal and that it is no longer possible to buy your ticket at the East Gate and enter.  Tickets have to be purchased ahead of time from an office in town
 
When you hire your boatman be sure he is including the return trip

 
A lone boy and his camel waiting for tourists wanting to be photographed on his camel with an amazing backdrop.   Behind the camel funeral pyres are burning
 

In 1631 the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan was grief stricken by the death of his third wife, Mumtaz Mahal during the birth of their 14th child.
He began construction of her mausoleum the following year and it was completed in 1648
The fountains down the center of the Hawd al Kawthar (Tank of Abundance) are turned off so as not to disturb the reflection

As the sun climbs higher the colour of the semi translucent white marble goes from pink to cream to sparkling white
By the time the Taj was at it's most dazzling white and the sky it's most brilliant blue the crowds were flowing in and we were ready to leave
Twenty thousand labourers from Northern India, sculptors from Bukhara, calligraphers from Syria and Persia and stone cutters from Baluchistan spent 12 years building the plinth and mausoleum. Inlayers from Southern India created the yellow marble, jasper and jade inlay (pietra dura) of the border of the floral dado and arches. A specialist built the turrets another carved only marble flowers.  A thousand elephants transported the building materials. The white marble came from Rajasthan and the jasper from Punjab.  Inside the inlay is not pietra dura but lapidary of precious and semiprecious gemstones. Jade and crystal from China, turquoise from Tibet, lapis lazuli from Afghanistan, sapphire from Sri Lanka and cameleon from Arabia. Twenty eight types of precious and semi precious stones were inlaid into the white marble

Each of the four sides are identical, having vaulted arches carved and inlayed with semiprecious stones and quotations from the Quran
Floral dado with jasper and jade pietra dura
A red sandstone mosque stands to the West of the Taj, it's floor was laid with the outlines of 569 prayer rugs in black marble.
 In the interests of symmetry an identical building the Jawab stands to the East but it was never used for worship
Agra rose and fell to many over it's history and when the British moved the administrative center to Allahabad it quickly became an area of heavy and chemical industry.  Pollution is a major threat to the Taj

Nobody promised a pretty Agra but after the exquisite beauty of the Taj the squalid reality of the city was shocking
I had seen plenty of cows wandering around Varanasi but these were my first camels. I never quite got used to meeting camels and elephants on the streets it was always a delightful surprise
Itmid-Ud-Daulah aka The Baby Taj
 The tomb of Mizra Ghiyas Beg, the grandfather of Mumtaz Mahal of Taj Mahal fame.

Predates the Taj and as the first Mughal building completely built of marble and using such extensive pietra dura, it may even have been the inspiration for it's more famous neighbour
 
Entrance gate
The 'Baby Taj' is exquisite and well worth a visit.  Fanny actually preferred it to the Taj but then she had seen the Taj many years ago when it was still possible to view the tombs.  
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