After seeing the Baby Taj, Simah (my cycle rickshaw driver) suggested I check out Mehtab Bagh which is a charbagh (Mughal style garden) right across Yamuna River since I was already at the East Bank. Mehtab Bagh translates to “Moonlight Garden”. What makes this garden special is the fact that it actually figures in the original design of the Taj Mahal complex. Even the river is part of the design!
As we left Baby Taj, the road turned rugged and dusty; the houses grew scarce. I trusted Simah, but there was a sense of unease in visiting a seemingly remote garden. I read somewhere that the area – with very few souls - isn’t safe to visit as the afternoon draws to a close. Not that it's notorious, but if anything happens, you'd end up screaming your hearts out and no one will hear you.
Simah had been preoccupied heavily pitching his trade; if I wanted to visit a leather shop, a money changer, a store selling marbles (with miniature replicas of the Taj Mahal), sari stalls and finally, a restaurant. I said no to every enumerated item, but I understood Simah’s industrious tries. Drivers like him get commissions if they take tourists to any of these places. Simah was laboriously pedaling his bike away so I couldn’t tell him to just shut up. It’s easier to just say “no” than act up on my annoyance.
A HEAVEN OF COLORS
Along the way, my eyes were greeted by rows of colorful garments and sarees being air-dried down the dusty road. It was one of the most fascinating sights in my Agra visit; a proverbial visual feast. Yes, they wash these garments at the Yamuna then dry them here. But what about the dirt and dust on the ground? I'm not sure I get it. There must be an explanation somewhere.
The road narrowed until we arrived in front of the garden entrance. I was going to pay 100 rupees for my entrance, but navigating the park alone felt eerie and brought me unease. It looked like I was the lone tourist here, but beautiful gardens and I do not harmoniously agree all the time – I was mugged at Parque del Retiro in Madrid, and that brought a few lessons on misplaced confidence.
There was no official ticket booth from where I stood. Though I was already there, I stepped back and decided not to get inside. It sufficed that I saw the front of the garden which was teeming with equal sized vegetation. Some 20 meters from where I was standing, I saw a small fountain, right where a central structure stood as demarcation. It wasn’t the garden I expected it to be, on cursory glance. I expected a park!
Since this charbagh stood by the riverside, I headed towards the river and saw the Taj Mahal from across. It is such an arresting presence. I never get tired of it. From there, I instructed Simah to take me back to the other side of Yamuna. I needed sustenance so I acquiesced and told him he could take me to a “good restaurant”. In tourist parlance, that meant pricier than average. Simah wore a grin wider than the river. I wondered how much he'd get by merely taking me to this restaurant. I had been scrimping needlessly, so I figured I didn’t mind spending more for food that time.
The place: Maya Restaurant.
Maya Restaurant also offers accommodations, but I was there for their food. Maya is located right at the heart of Taj Ganj (which, if Shah Jahan got his way, would have been called Mumtazabad), just a 5-7 minute walk to the Taj Mahal. Though the front of the restaurant was deceptively austere, the atmosphere inside was lush, sophisticated and a coterie of colors (the chairs were painted yellow and orange). I ordered what the menu called Mughlai, a mild curry of chicken, eggs, spices and dry fruits (160 rupees), a bowl of boiled rice (40 rupees) and a bottle of Pepsi (20 rupees). Though this may not be much by Manila standard, a backpacker’s meal should be much cheaper than its accumulated total (220 rupees). It was delicious! After getting the bill, they brought me another bowl filled with white and green mint, and toothpicks. This is a traditional post-meal offering, even in Bangladesh and elsewhere in India. I had to mention this because this isn’t customary outside the Indian subcontinent.
Maya Hotel and Restaurant is located at 18/184 Purani Mandi Circle, Faehabad Road, Taj Ganj, Agra, Uttar Pradesh. For more information, check out their website: http://mayainmagic.com/mayahotel/index.html
Traditional post-meal serving (white and green mint and toothpicks). I wish I knew what they're really called.
AGRA FORT CANTONMENT & TICKET BLUES
Before taking a short rest back at my guest house (Shanti Lodge), I asked Simah to take me to the Agra Fort Cantonment station so I could purchase my onward train ticket. (I like that word, “cantonment” which refers to a military training camp. Only the Indians seem to be using it these days, and it bears a pleasant lilt to the ears.) I queued at the Foreign Ticket Counter. All over the country, a separate booth for foreign tourists can be found in most train stations. Foreigners, in fact, have a specially allotted quota so that even when most public ticket seats have all been sold out, a certain number of tickets have been set aside just in case another foreigner requires one. This, however, does not guarantee a seat, as I’d bitterly learn in several legs of my Indian journeys. You need days – DAYS – ahead for a sure seat, especially to popular destinations.
I must have slept for an hour later that afternoon in my room. I was leaving Agra that night, on a sleeper. I was bound for the Blue City of Jodhpur. It was darn exciting. But I still had a few more hours to summon a little more “adventure” if it's indeed out there.
This is the Eye in the Sky!
Simah, my cycle rickshaw driver (above and below). He's a great young man who works hard for his family.
This is a monument of someone I forgot to check, but it's a familiar sight near the Agra Fort Cantonment. This is probably emperor Shah Jahan. I first saw this when my Delhi bus dropped me from a dark and eerie intersection nearby. No soul in sight for half an hour. I half expected Mr. Hyde or the boogeyman to pull me away. But what came was scarier - an enterprising autorickshaw driver who doesn't understand the honor of a deal sealed by a handshake.