Monday, January 5, 2009

globetrotting: 300 concubines and the city of bees

I'm in Agra still, waiting for the fog to clear so we can go visit the Taj Mahal. In the meantime catching up on emails and facebook and watching monkeys scamper through the alleyways.

Yesterday we took the bus out to Fatehpur Sikri, about 30km from Agra. This is an abandoned city built by Akbar the Great in the 16th century. We started at the 'Sikri' part of the monument, which was mind-blowing. You read about 'pleasure palaces,' but you never really fathom them until you visit. We hired a guide after paying to get into the monument (and paying Rs10 to use the 'english toilet'), which was well worth it (as was the toilet). In a green tweed jacket and khakis, our guide was right out of a Wes Anderson movie. We did have to explain to him that I was in no way Jason's 'main queen' as he tried that joke on us early in the tour. Akbar had three main wives (a Hindu, a Muslim and a Porteguese Catholic) and built the palace and city on this spot b/c this is where he prayed for an heir (apparently despite having 300 concubines, Akbar was little bit of a blank-shooter). The hindu lady was the lucky (or shrewd) one and bearing an heir got her own ginormous palace within the palace. The other two fared pretty well also and all three of them had distinct palaces reflecting their chosen faith. It was really interesting to see faded images of saints amidst the sandstone Hindi and Muslim carvings.

The wives had such nice palaces to themselves, they must not have minded Akbar's playroom where the other ladies hung out. Seriously, Akbar was the original Hef. The playroom contained a platform the size of my apartment to hold Akbar's bed. It also had a platform overlooking a beautiful pool where you know those concubines frolicked in the nude. The columns leading into this section of the palace also had erect phalluses sticking off the tops...umm....yeah, no explaining this place away.

All joking aside, the red sandstone palace was one of the most beautiful places I've ever been, truly a wonder of the world. Very glad we made the trek out.

If Sikri was a paradise, Fatehpur was a nightmare to me. Yes, there was a beautiful white mosque (which we opted not to bring the Rs500 offering into as our guide instructed), but the city was overrun with a most unwelcome resident. Not just the touts (of which there were plenty, Jason ended up with a handcarved souvenir), but millions of BEES. Giant bees! The biggest bees I've ever seen!!! And they were dead and dying all over the grounds. And since it was a holy place we had to walk around in socks.

I freaked. Totally freaked.

Which meant I got out of buying a handcarved sculpture. Which meant I didn't have to make a smartass comment to our new guide (the Wes Anderson one ditched us when we wouldn't buy the offerings) when he tried to make me feel bad not buying an object he worked for 10 days on. He'd already told us that he spent two hours a day studying the Koran (and more time studying English, French and German), and I was tempted to say "well if you didn't study so much you could carve a lot faster." But I didn't. I also had low blood sugar when the bees attacked. Bad combo. All this after I made a wish with a piece of "lucky red thread" in the White Mosque. At least I didn't pay for that.

Instead I waited in the open, dodging bees while Jason made his purchase. I found my headscarf to be quite handy dandy in preventing the insects from landing in my hair and I tried to keep still. You see, I stepped on a bee at a reservoir when I was a kid and so they are particularly traumatic to me. Jason was unaware.

The architecture was pretty sweet though. Especially from the outside (where we finally escaped). The gate to the city was something like 52 meters high. Talk about somewhere you wouldn't want to invade.

We made our way back down the beeless hill and stopped at the first restaurant we found (all that fear makes one really hungry). Here we discovered what bad Indian food tastes like. The garlic naan was like cardboard. You know when you get disappointing pizza? Yup, just like that. Flavorless dal, and passable potato dish. The servers were really nice though and we felt a bit guilty for our disgust at the cuisine. Luckily while waiting for the bus I had time to lose my street food virginity and grabbed two delicious samosas. The flavors exploded in my mouth. Chilis and potatoes dominated my tastebuds while all sorts of unknown spice mysteries danced down my gullet. Granted I could've scarfed a bottle of Tums later on in the evening and didn't have much appetite for dinner at "The Stuff Maker" restaurant back in Agra, but it was soooo worth it.

I realize I still have to blog more about food, my visit with my friend Ritu's lovely sister, our trip to the Gandhi National Museum, heck, my flight here and Ice-T sighting in Newark -- but right now I think the fog is lifting and my Rs30 is due for this hour online.

Hope to update you before the 11:30 night train or from our next stop in Varanasi!!!


  1. Thanks for sharing this Meghan. Your vivid description of your Samosas is making my mouth water - even if it is only 9:30 AM! :-)


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