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Byline: Story and photos by Evan Pondel Staff Writer

AGRA, India - Armed with wooden swords and balding tennis balls, the combatants prepare for an early-evening joust.

The lines are drawn and the sides are taken as a ball is hurled through the stillness of dusk, only to be intercepted by the stunning whap of a wicket.

Crickets do not chirp in India.

They are the chattering boys who come out of their cavernous dwellings every evening to play this sport in the potholed streets of Agra.

Travelers flock to this centrally-located city to see the famed Taj Mahal - the marble majesty cresting over the rooftops of an otherwise grimy destination. But for Agra's 1.3 million inhabitants, the Taj is more of a lighthouse, guiding India's nomadic poor to a place where charitable tourists roam.

An early-morning walk to the 17th-century monument is all one needs to understand its draw. A cow chews its cud in the middle of the street. A boy with hands cracked like a drought-wracked basin smiles for a few rupees. And a peacock splays its feathery armor to ward off a troupe of gossiping pigs.

In the distance, the east gate to the Taj Mahal beckons a line of rickshaw wallahs - elongated tricycles with tourists in tow. The doors don't open for another 30 minutes. Drowsy visitors are still rubbing their eyes, unsure if they really saw a leprosy colony about 500 yards from where they now stand.

Finally, the gate opens and a portly man carrying his young daughter walks beneath the same archway that the builder, Emperor Shah Jahan, walked through in 1653. The emperor built the Taj as a tribute to his second wife, Mumtaz Mahal, who died in childbirth. A wall of red sandstone is the only obstacle that stands between the Taj and its visitors.

An opening in the wall soon reveals the emperor's vision, a marble- skinned monument wrapped in muted pink from the rising sun. A cluster of tourists gathers at the foot of a water course that leads up to the Taj. Photography from this vantage point is irresistible. No need to purchase a postcard at the gift shop.

And then the Taj goes out of focus.

Two large cows are pulling a manual lawn mower, trimming a perfectly shorn carpet of green. One of the cows stops and a groundskeeper lashes its backside. The cow continues mowing.

The Taj is back in focus.

The sun is visibly higher, illuminating several gemstones surrounding the main dome. A three-minute walk to the base of the Taj and the shoe collectors appear.

It is forbidden to wear shoes when touring the Taj, so a smorgasbord of footwear is lined up every morning. On this particular day, there are some leather sandals, several pairs of flip-flops, clogs and sneakers. A barefoot man watches the shoes for a few rupees.

Slippers are optional. But many visitors prefer to feel the Taj on the soles of their feet. The smooth marble radiates with warmth.

Thirty paces from the shoe collector is the central structure of the Taj. Under the main dome, a false tomb is enclosed by a marble screen. The actual tombs of Mumtaz Mahal and Shah Jahan are in the basement below the chamber.

Tour guides immediately turn on flashlights and move their beams over the marble to set the semiprecious stones aglow. Ruby reds and emerald greens jump off the walls, and tourists' jaws fall agape, mostly to please their guides.

Voices echo throughout the Taj, orchestrating an eerie murmur. The soprano of those voices is a bat nesting in the dome of the central structure. Almost every dome in Agra and New Delhi is inhabited by bats. Their incessant screeching is a reminder that there is no need for security guards.

Just east of the Taj is the Yamuna River. Its murky water licks at the wild grass throughout Uttar Pradesh, among the most influential Indian states when it comes to politics and culture. Running parallel to Yamuna is the Ganges River, known for its sacred ties to Hinduism.

The east-facing Taj opens to a vast panorama where farmers stand upright on flatboats, drawing their staffs from Yamuna's muddy bottom. The air is still, and the afternoon haze drowns the landscape in stale yellow.

Off in the distance, funeral pyres dot the horizon. Although outlawed in the late 1980s, the practice of wife-burning took place on many of these pyres. Known as sati, widows would set fire to themselves as a rite of passage when their husbands died, believing that they would remain together for eternity.

Facing the Taj again, several optical illusions emerge. Large columns seem concave from afar but convex up close. Even the tourists wandering the grounds take on different characteristics. The man who was carrying his daughter earlier in the day is now sitting by himself cross-legged. He has a solemn look on his face. And a few tourists who wore elaborate saris in the morning are now dressed in shorts and T-shirts.

The temperature has risen substantially as the afternoon wears on. Dehydration is near. Time to say goodbye to the Taj.

The shoe collector miraculously remembers who wore the clunky black sandals.

The Taj is soon in the background.

A spot of tea would do.

The hotel lounge is quiet ... until a gunshot reverberates throughout the lobby. A concierge smiles and says the gardener often shoots a rifle to scare the monkeys who frequently take a dip in the swimming pool. He reassures the guests that the monkeys are not harmed.

The concierge then suggests a late-afternoon visit to Fatehpur Sikri, a city that was once the capital of the Mughal Empire in the 16th century.

A flock of white taxicabs awaits those who would like to take the hour or so drive to the city. En route, the outskirts of Agra look like they haven't changed much in the last 100 years. Donkeys are toting bags of cinder blocks. Balances are used to measure the weight of textiles. And children carelessly relieve themselves in the street.

Raw sewage and heaps of trash collect at the end of each block. The gossiping pigs are perfectly content.

The road is smoother now that Agra is miles behind. Industrial trucks dominate India's highways. Ganesh elephants are painted on every truck, welcoming the prosperity that could reside around the next bend.

On the right side of the road, a large furry animal appears to be standing on its hind legs.

These are the bears of Fatehpur.

They have been raised by the roadside since they were cubs. Their keepers attach a stick with a rope to the end of their noses. When cars pass, the bears are prompted to stand on their hind legs so that curious tourists will stop and take pictures. Donations keep this practice alive, but warning signs about animal cruelty are posted in major hotels. Better to keep driving and ignore the bears.

Upon our arrival at Fatehpur, children knock on car windows asking for rupees. Some carry trinkets. Most are empty-handed.

With a population of about 29,000, this city of ruins lacks the bustle of most tourist destinations. Reminisces of the Mughal Empire are evident throughout Fatehpur, with abandoned watchtowers and crumbling walls spread out across miles and miles of arid land.

Tour guides speak of Akbar the Great, who began ruling the Mughal Empire when he was 13 years old. His influence on the architecture of Fatehpur abounds, especially in some of the courtyards he constructed to play board games with human pieces. Recognized as a forward thinker due to his tolerance for different religions, his thinking became clouded when years of drought rendered Fatehpur uninhabitable.

Perhaps the greatest lure throughout the city is Jama Masjid, a mosque that draws tens of thousands of Indian Muslims every year. Once you're inside, the tomb of Shaikh Salim Chishti enlivens the senses with its ornate latticework.

An older man with a graying beard and atrophying legs plays the harmonium for passers-by. His voice is rather dark, almost whiny at times, as he exchanges glances with those who spare a few rupees.

A couple of hours in Fatehpur is sufficient, although hotels and restaurants are available for overnighters.

Back on the road to Agra, a day that began at the Taj and finished in Fatehpur is balanced by a 30-minute nap in the taxi.

The driver, Mr. Singh, is steady at the wheel. He doesn't stop for the bears even if his passengers are curious.

Mr. Singh has been driving his taxi for almost a decade, working several months out of the year for a British-based travel agency. He sends most of his paycheck to his family in Punjab, a northwestern India state that borders Pakistan.

The sun is just about to set in Agra when Mr. Singh enters the hotel driveway. A slight bowing of the head and Mr. Singh retires to a parking lot where he and other drivers will sleep for the evening.

The hotel lobby is empty. The air conditioning has not been working for at least an hour as a series of brownouts continues to plague Agra.

A guest's stomach is a bit uneasy after eating a bowl of overcooked spinach and lentils three days ago. An early-evening waltz through Agra might be settling.

On the street in front of the hotel, a barber has set up a stool and a small mirror for those in need of a quick shave. A few yards away, a bazaar hums with shoppers in search of fruit, vegetables and Indian sweets.

A middle-age man approaches with a mouthful of betel, a nut wrapped in leaves that have a mildly intoxicating effect. His mouth becomes frothy and red with each chew. He asks for a few rupees and receives a small donation. He gracefully smiles and says please instead of thank you.

Soon the boys with the wooden swords and balding tennis balls appear. The chattering cricket players quiet the gossiping pigs. And as darkness sets in, the poor who flock to the Taj in search of charitable tourists can finally rest.

Evan Pondel, (818) 713-3662



The best time to see the Taj Mahal is in the early morning or late afternoon. One helpful Web site is The Lonely Planet guidebook also contains a lot of valuable information.

The Government of India Tourist Office in Los Angeles can be reached at (213) 380-8855. Its Web site is (type ``Agra'' into the search window).


6 photos, box


(1 -- 3 -- color) India's iconic Taj Mahal is framed in decorative arches from across the central lawn in early morning, top. Elsewhere in the region, a man plays a harmonium outside a shrine at Fatehpur Sikiri, above, and a flatboat floats slowly down the Yamuna River, opposite.

(4 -- 6) The Taj Mahal, top left, is the main attraction in India, and visitors, above, must remove their shoes to walk through the monument. Just east of the Taj Mahal is Yamuna River, left where a farmer carries fertilizer along th banks.

Evan Pondel/Staff Photographer

Roger Pondel/Special to Great Escapes


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Title Annotation:Travel
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Oct 3, 2004

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