Step Wells and Pottery and the Taj Mahal, Oh my!
Today, Saturday May 21st, began like any other day, with alarm clocks and breakfast and a scramble to get all of our luggage to the bus. We left around 8am, and hit the road, headed for Agra. For the beginning part of the bus ride, a good majority of us napped or caught up on some journaling. There was not much in the way of scenery, so we were left to occupy ourselves.
Midway through our journey to Agra, we stopped along a narrow road in an area that appeared to be nothing special. We got off the bus and followed our tour guide, Dependra. He led us across the street and through an entrance. At this point, we were not fully sure what was awaiting us around the corner. As we passed through the door and emerged out on the other side of the entry way, there were some audible gasps. We looked upon an incredibly deep hole in the ground. But this was not just any hole in the ground, it was a step well. There were 15 levels that stair-stepped towards the bottom of the pit. On one side of the pit was an intricate and beautiful façade, which contained multiple rooms built into the Earth. These rooms, Dependra told us, were used in the heat of the summer. The lower elevation and complete darkness inside allowed for lower temperatures in the rooms, and provided some relief from the brutal summer temperatures. Although this was useful, the main purpose of the step well was to provide the people in the area a way to get water, even if the water levels were low. Each of the 15 levels leading to the bottom was covered in staircases. Each level had approximately 22-24 different stair cases leading to the level below it. The entire step well was symmetrical, and the multitude of stairs provided multiple routes to access the well water, no matter the depth of the water, allowed many people to access the water at once, and provided symmetry that was visually appealing. Around the edges of the step well, we were able to see pieces recovered from the ruins of a temple adjacent to the step well.
Once we finished at the step well, we headed to the bus, only to be diverted by our tour guide and directed through a rickety doorway that lead to a modest, mostly outdoor, home. We were introduced to the man who lived there and, after some polite conversation, we found out that he is a potter. He offered to demonstrate his trade, and we all watched, captivated as he turned a mound of seemingly lifeless, dry clay into a beautifully molded cup, pot, and incense holder. The ease with which he moved and the steadiness of his hands was unexpected and amazing to watch. Once he finished, he offered to let any of us try our hand. Michaella, Kathy, Erika, and Akanksha all volunteered, and had varying degrees of success; however, they all would agree that pottery definitely isn’t as easy as it appears. When it was all said and done, the potter showed us some of the work he had completed, and it was magnificent. Trying out pottery, or watching some girls try it out, gave all of us a new appreciation for the complexity and beauty of pottery. With this new and unexpected experience under our belt, we hopped back on the bus, to continue our journey to Agra.
When we got to Agra, the energy in the bus increased suddenly. Looking out our windows, we could see the Red Fort, where the royal family used to reside, and we could also see the Taj Mahal! Our bus got us as close as it could, and then dropped us off. It was early evening and very humid, but we didn’t mind horribly, because we were headed for one of the Seven Wonders of the World. We did not go to the front but, rather, decided to visit the back, so we could devote more time to pictures in the front the next morning. We traipsed through a garden and, suddenly, we were upon it. Across a mostly dried up river and built on a foundation held by a retaining wall was the Taj Mahal. Instantaneously, it became real, and we all realized where we were. Michaella particularly enjoyed it, and was completely blown away that she was looking at the Taj Mahal. We all stared for a while, and the took an insane amount of pictures. From selfies to group photos and sorority symbols to jumping pictures, we took picture after picture. We also took some time to learn about the history of the Taj Mahal from Dependra. We learned that the only non-symmetrical part of the Taj is the grave of the creator because, originally, he was not supposed to be buried there. He had the Taj built for his 3rd wife and, after his death, his son had him buried there as well. The history was fascinating, but standing before the Taj was absolutely breathtaking.
We spent a good amount of time behind the Taj Mahal, learning, talking, and taking pictures. Once we decided to leave, we walked back through the garden to find the bus. However, when we left the garden, we came face to face with a camel we had seen earlier…a camel that was giving rides up and down the street. Obviously, this was an opportunity that couldn’t be missed. Akanksha and Heather climbed first, and their faces were priceless and the camel lurched forward in an attempt to stand up. Following them, Kathy and Anna took a ride. Their reactions were equally entertaining for the rest of us.
When we were all sufficiently entertained, we walked around the corner and boarded the bus for the hotel. At the hotel, our luggage was unloaded and we began the lengthy check-in process. Once we got our keys, we all headed up to our rooms, with a little over an hour to shower and get settled before a group dinner at the restaurant in the lobby. Dinner was delicious, and the portions were generous so most of us shared dishes. At the conclusion of dinner, a portion of the group went to the rooftop of the hotel, where the pool was. Although it was dark and our pictures were not good, we could see the Taj Mahal in the shadows. There were also fireworks in the distance, apparently for some cricket tournament. Being able to watch fireworks as we overlooked the Taj Mahal was an incredible experience. However, after a short time, we all headed to our rooms, because we had to be up and ready at 5:15am the following morning.