This article was published in an NRI-focussed publication (NRI Achievers) in September 2013.
Agra and its surroundings – the unknown and the unusual
Much has been written about Agra. But I am still venturing to write this piece. My recent trip to Agra was to experience the unusual. Besides one customary visit to the Taj Mahal, the other activities were not what any tourist would normally engage in. Let me share the details.
While driving towards Agra, just 16km short of the city, in a village called Keetam, there is a large scenic lake called Soor Sarovar. This lake is a migratory birds’ haven during the winter months. Since winter was still far away, my reason for going to this lake was not the migratory birds.
This sanctuary houses Agra Bear Rescue Facility – a facility that takes care of rescued sloth bears. Wildlife SOS, one of the most successful wildlife rescue organisations in the country, runs it. Besides Agra, they also run similar facilities in Purulia (West Bengal), Bannerghatta (Near Bangalore, Karnataka) and Van Vihar (Near Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh). They are currently looking after over 450 rescued bears – over 100 of them in the Agra facility alone. And they are supported by the Forest Department in their efforts.
I visited this establishment to understand the entire tale of this rescue.
Most of us may have witnessed a dancing bear show. Each of these dancing bears has had a traumatic past. Poachers-cum-handlers would snatch 3-4-weeks-old bear cubs from their mothers and then proceed to pierce these babies’ muzzles with hot iron rods. While these wounds were still raw, a coarse rope would then be passed through this hole. That is not all – the babies’ canines would then be mercilessly extracted without administering any anesthesia.
After that, the dance training of these cubs would start. And this training is another gory story.
The bear cub would be put on a hot tin sheet and the Kalandar (the handler) would play Damru (a small, 2-headed drum). From early childhood, this bear cub starts to associate pain and trauma of being on a hot tin sheet, with this sound. And, on hearing this sound, it begins to dance.
Wildlife SOS rescues these bears who have had a traumatised past. Upon seeing their noble work and the care they were extending to these rehabilitated animals, I instinctively saluted their gesture by adopting a bear for a month.
A Coloured Taj
Everyone visits Agra for the Taj Mahal. Some even see the Red Fort (also referred to as Agra Fort). Very few go across the Yamuna and visit Mehtab Bagh – the proposed site of Taj’s replica in Black marble. An organised city sightseeing tour may even take you to Sikandra and Itmad-Ud-Daula (Noorjahan’s grandfather’s tomb). But only exceptional ones go and see the coloured Taj I am referring to – The Red Taj. Interestingly, not many locals are also able to guide you to this beautiful monument that is near Bhagwan Talkies just off the main M.G. Road and is located in Catholic Cemetery.
This monument is the tomb of a Dutch national – John Hessing. He was a military officer in the army of Maratha Confederacy. His wife, Alice (or as some references mention, Ann), built the tomb. Though the monument is nowhere close to Taj Mahal in size, it is a beautiful work of art. The craftsmanship in red sandstone is remarkable. If you look closely, you’d realise this monument is an amalgamation of Mughal, Indian and European architecture.
While the similarity of design to Taj Mahal strikes you, what seems odd are the 4 missing minarets, though the edifices for the same do exist. Apparently, Alice ran out of funds and could not complete the monument the way she had envisaged.
The solitary watchman told us that once in 1-2 months, some tourist might chance by. Otherwise, it is a forgotten monument even for the locals. Perhaps the price it has to pay for being in the shadow of the original Taj, a modern-day wonder of the world.
Across the Yamuna
The pilgrims of Taj Mahal, if their itinerary and time permits, do cross over to the other side of River Yamuna to see the monument with a river flowing in front. Their standard stopover across the Yamuna is Mehtab Bagh. While we also went there but figured that another spot close by accorded a better view. Once you reach Mehtab Bagh entrance, do not enter the garden, but follow that road to the banks of Yamuna. The view from here is breathtaking.
Time-Travel to 9th Century just 80 km away
After visiting Taj Mahal at sunrise, we drove off on Agra-Jaipur highway. The road is not good for first 20-km or so, but once the dual carriageway starts, it is a beautiful drive. Our destination was Abhaneri (originally, Abhanagri; now dialectically debauched to Abhaneri).
This 9th-century village is just 3 km off the main highway and it houses one of the most beautifully crafted step wells in India – Chand Baoli (Moon Stepwell). Amazingly, it is still beautifully preserved.
The baoli is amongst the deepest and largest baolis in India. Unlike most baolis, which are rectangular, this one is a square. Considering its construction happened 1200 years ago, its symmetry would leave you awestruck.
Built for harvesting rainwater, it used to provide the villagers a cool place to meet during the scorching heat of summers.
Next to it is Harshat Mata Temple. Though not as well preserved as the Chand Baoli, this temple is a sterling example of medieval architecture. These 2 structures make a visit to this quaint destination totally worthwhile.
I conclude with a hope that these unusual and unknown facets of Agra and its surroundings would inspire you to plan a longer stay during your next visit here.