Passage to India – Saturday – Trip to the Taj Mahal (1)

We husbands really shouldn’t have favourite wives. However, Shah Jahan – occupation Emperor (Mughal) – clearly favoured number three. Mumtaz was a modern woman – keeping her maiden name, Mahal – but unfortunately not quite liberated enough to exercise any sensible birth-control.

The couple produced 13 children, her lucky number. Pregnancy number 14 turned out to be a child too far, and Mumtaz sadly died in childbirth. After this, you might have thought Shah Jahan would have been pre-occupied with nappies, bedtime stories and helping the older kids with their homework. But no, he found time to spend 22 years building an incredible mausoleum for his late lamented wife.

The Taj Mahal was completed in 1653. I am pretty sure my dad visited it during the war. And today was the anniversary of my mother’s birth. And my grandmother was one of 13 kids. So this was a little bit of a pilgrimage. I am sure my dad would have built my mum a similar memorial had he had a few thousand spare labourers and a decent plot of land. The Taj Bottomley? That would have put Oldham on the map.

Having said all of that, there is a saying that it is not the destination that matters but the journey. And our journey was an epic and crazy 6 hours.

I checked out of my Delhi hotel at 7am, procured a fistful of rupees for the trip, and joined my four travelling companions – Praveen, Goutam, Terry and Carl – squeezing ourselves and all of my luggage into a rather battered van. Our two guides squeezed into the back seat with my suitcase, Carl and I had the comfy chairs in the middle, and Terry had the scary seat in the front. After 10 minutes we had still not found the seatbelt buckles, so I asked that we stop and tip the seats up, so we could strap ourselves in. Call me over-cautious.

I have written about Indian driving before. But this was something else. It took an hour for us to clear Delhi. The traffic was heavy. We crawled, stopped and very occasionally hit a high gear down the dual carriageways. It was hot and dusty. Everyone is fighting for the next yard of road.

Indian Rules of the Road

(a) Use any part of the road you fancy at any time

(b) Straddle the white lines as much as possible – these are not lane markings.

(c) Move from left to right across the road as much as possible

(d) Undertake or overtake or better still, squeeze through the middle

(e) Use all three lanes (especially when there are only two)

(f) If the road is full, use the dusty track at the side

(g) If the road is still full, use the other side of the road, avoiding oncoming traffic

(h) Maximise road space usage by driving as close to the car in front as possible

(i) Cut other road users up where possible, but please beep them first

(j) Use of your horn is obligatory every 30 seconds

(k) Do not use your lights after dark

(l) Reflectors are banned from rickshaws and cycles

(m) Ensure your vehicle has no less than 6 – preferably 10 – passengers

(n) Hang additional passengers off the back of your vehicle

(o) Do not respect other road users – as this will slow you down.

(p) Cows are an exception. They are to be respected.

(q) Do not stop when joining or crossing a main road – the other road users will try to avoid you.

(r) Pedestrians should wear dark clothes so they are not easily seen

(s) Use of indicators is strictly prohibited.

(t) As are crash or cycle helmets.

By these rules, our driver was Advanced, borderline Expert. He weaved and veered like a Lewis Hamilton on pep pills. Or Michael Schumaker without them. His horn usage (he had a respectable b-flat) was exemplary. As Carl remarked, you would pay good money for an experience like this at Alton Towers. I felt bad about insisting on the seat belts, and hoped I had not insulted his capability.

To appreciate the skill and concentration required, I need to describe the challenge. The roads are mainly tarmac. But not quite completely – and the holes are placed randomly. There is a dust track at the side of the road which can be used at the drivers discretion. Here traffic moves in either direction and there are large obstacles such as street vendors, pedestrians, parked cars and concrete bollards. There may be a significant ramp down to these dust tracks, and there may not be a way back. And they are very dusty.

Permitted Indian road users

(a) Large lorries with people in the back

(b) Pedal and auto rickshaws – the women are seated inside and the men sit or stand out at the back

(c) Cycles – man pedals, woman sits side saddle, holding various children

(d) Cycles – carrying tall, wide and unusual loads

(e) Motorcycles – as above, but faster.

(f) Pedestrians – usually carrying something, often on their head

(g) Street vendors – selling bananas, mangoes and cucumbers

(h) Cows

(i) Chickens

(j) Camels

(k) Tourists in air-conditioned cars looking a little scared.

There is definitely a niche here for a PS3 game. Pick which sort of road user you want to be and race to the Taj. You only have 9 lives. Fortunately or unfortunately for us it was all very real. Every second was a potential collision, with road users passing each other at various speeds within inches. The cars and rickshaws are scratched and dented (as are the cows) but to be fair, at no time did we experience a bump or see a collision. We did – unnervingly however – see a crowd of people at the side of the road gathered round a car which was on its roof, and extremely crushed.

We stopped for breakfast at a roadside eatery. The Indian equivalent of little chef. A large tent with a decent menu and plenty of tables. We ate our food off tin trays, like they do in jail. Whilst the water was bottled, the cups were standing on a wet tray. We dried them very carefully.

We also stopped for the tolls.

Tolls – Exempted Dignitaries

President of India
Vice-President of India
Central and State Ministers, while in vehicles
Leader of Opposition of Lok Sabha or Rajya Sabha or state legislatures having the status of cabinet ministers while in vehicles
Governors of States
Governors of Union territories
Speakers of Chairmen or Central and State legislatures while in vehicles
Members of Parliament in the entire country on production of identity card issued by parliament
Members of legislative assemblies or legislative councils within the state on production of identity card issued by the respective legislative.
Foreign dignitaries on state visit to India
Foreign diplomats stationed in India using cars with CC or CD in number plate
Winners of the Gallantry award, namely Param Var Chakra, Ashok Chakra, Mahavir Chakra, Kirti Chakra, Vir Chakra and Shaurya Chakra on production of identity card authenticating the award by the competent authority.

This was quite a large sign as you can imagine. We scrolled down looking for our exemption. Point 10 looked promising. Half the car was certainly foreign. We failed Point 11 on the letters test. Point 12 looked less promising – the gallantry competition seems to have been sewn up by the Chakras. We would have to cough up.

Point 8 opened up the thorny issue of MPs expenses, and the possibility of fraudulent identity cards. And why did some people need to be in vehicles and some not? How was it the president and VPs of India could get through on a bike, without ID?

So we approached Agra. Bewildered by the experience. Our nerves having gone through fraught and jangled to “whatever” and finally into amusement. In the end it did feel like an elaborate video game or a fairground ride. We were in denial.

Praveen’s estimate of “a maximum of five hours” for the journey subtly switched to a “minimum of four hours”. As he is our software vendor, this is a worrying adjustment. In fact it was 6 hours by the time we had negotiated the traffic in Ager and got lost a few times looking for the VIP gate. Finally we arrived and bought our tickets in an unusually clean and modern building. The prices for non-Indians were about 10 times those for Indians. Discrimination or what? Nevertless £10 for the Taj Mahal seemed a good price in comparison with £35 for Warwick Castle.

We eased into a smart modern electric vehicle and floated calmly towards the big white building. The destination in sight, the journey imprinted in our memories. Filed under “survival”.

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