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November 29-December 2, 2012. We went to Agra for the Taj Mahal of course. We’d read that the city is dusty, dirty, polluted and uninteresting, but there are other things to see in the area. We saw nothing of Agra except to drive through it on our way to somewhere else.

Near to Agra is Keoladeo National Park, also known as Bharatpur Bird Sanctuary. When we arrived there we had to walk a little way from the car park past a lot of tourist stalls to the entrance to the park where there are bicycle rickshaws. The guys who ride you around the park are great. They know where to go and they know a lot about the birds. You can also hire a bird guide if you want to. We didn’t but in true Indian fashion many of them tried to convince us we should. The most tenacious of them followed us all the way to the gate. When he finally realized he’d lost and we weren’t going to hire him he shouted after us “You from America Michael Jackson Obama good country”. What? One last appeal to our patriotism? Wrong country. There’s no denying India has it’s own special ways and charms.

The Keoladeo National Park is a wetlands wintering-ground for birds from all over the world, and absolutely amazing. It was nesting time for the painted stork. Thousands of them. In one area of the park every tree was filled with nests, one piled above another, the nests filled with young of varying ages, the air filled with adults bringing food. Thousands of them. Easily a dozen nests in each tree, all the trees crowded together, hundreds of trees everywhere we looked. It really was breathtaking. I’ve never seen anything like it. Hundreds of blue herons nest downtown in Vancouver every spring, high up in the trees in the west end. For those of you who live in Vancouver – it’s like that only about one hundred times more, and not so high up. There were other birds in the bird park, but nothing like the great theatre of thousands of nesting painted stork. We were completely mesmerized and delighted.

Babies
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Trying to fly



Adults





An adult feeding its young in the nest at the bottom of the picture. In the centre of the picture is another nest and standing up in that nest is an even younger chick waiting for food.




Fatehpur Sikri, near Bharatpur, is an entire ancient abandoned city. Built a few hundred years ago by Akbar, one of the many Mughal Emperors, he established it as the capital of the Mughal Empire. Oh the whims of the rich and powerful. Emperor Akbar abandoned it after only about 10 years to go fight the Afghans, and then chose Lahore as the new capital. Another thing we read was they simply ran out of water . . . .
It was fascinating to wander around this huge complex, and marvel at the superb construction of red sandstone.










We also came across this little beauty.



Once back at our hotel we settled in for the evening knowing it would be a very early morning the next day to visit the Taj Mahal. At about ten o’clock there’s a banging on our door and Julie crying out “Alison, Alison get your camera, there’s a wedding procession . . . .” I was out the door in about two seconds!

The procession starts with this contraption, which I think is pushed along. See the huge speakers? They face all the people in the procession and there’s music blaring from them. See the thick power cord? It splits in two and goes down either side of the procession to power the huge triple-lanterns that are being carried at regular intervals, and to power all the lights on the groom’s carriage. And there’s a brass band too just to add to the general melee. You can’t have a wedding procession without a brass band!





At the other end of the procession is the groom’s carriage all lit up like a Christmas tree on steroids, pulled by two white horses, the groom resplendent in his most special finery riding high on his throne.





In front of the groom’s carriage, between the lanterns and the bright floral umbrellas is this





All the immediate family were dancing and singing and throwing money around. We were invited to join in with the dancing, at one point Julie and I both trying to dance Bollywood style with all the women. What a hoot. On and on and on the parade went, moving at snail’s pace as the music blared, and the band played, everyone danced, and the groom sat high on his throne able only to watch.

Two young men dressed in their wedding finery



Finally we came to the reception area, which seemed to be a huge area of a public park, walled off with shiny red and gold fabric, the ground carpeted, dotted with silken tents, and a grand stage at one end with golden thrones and couches, presumably for the happy couple and family at some later point in the proceedings. And another band playing. All along three sides of the area food was being prepared and served. Guests had been there since about seven o’clock. By the time the groom and his procession arrived at about 11.30pm everything was looking a bit tired.





The groom came down off the carriage. The white horses were unhitched, and the groom mounted one of them and rode into the reception area. I couldn’t believe it. The groom rides in on a white horse and the bride doesn’t even get to see it? It’s getting late. Julie and I know we have to get up at about five in the morning but we so much want to see the bride. The groom is now involved in a special ritual with two Hindu priests. It’s almost midnight and we finally decide we’d better go back to the hotel and get some sleep. Oh how I wish we’d waited. We found out later that the bride comes out at midnight.

It took over one and a half hours for the procession to get from outside our hotel to the reception area. Julie and I walked back in ten minutes.

The hotel we stayed at included free breakfast. Everyone gets up really really early to get to the Taj early, to get in line early, to get in first. The restaurant ostensibly opens at 6am so we come down ready for breakfast at 6am. We find it closed and in darkness. I peer through the glass doors. There’s a man asleep on the floor snoring loudly. So funny. But even funnier was they woke him, moved him to the side of the room behind some tables, and he went right back to sleep and continued to snore, loudly, all through breakfast. Only in India.

Everyone has seen pictures of the Taj Mahal. All I’m going to say is it really is as beautiful and magnificent as all the hype. Glorious.
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Main entrance



The back, from across the river, in the evening light




All words and images by Alison Louise Armstrong unless otherwise noted.
© Alison Louise Armstrong and Adventures in Wonderland – a pilgrimage of the heart, 2010-2015.