Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Agra - A predicament to India's tourism?

I have often been told that the Taj Mahal is the glory of India and when I knew my folks were planning a visit in between my semester exams, I did not think twice when it came to making a decision. All I wanted to do was to see that one marvelous architectural wonder and satisfy my eyes and senses. I’ve been planning a trip to the Taj for sometime now and finally, I got an opportunity to make it happen. Speaking frankly, I’m someone who doesn’t complaint much and would just make-do with whatever is being provided to me. But a visit to Agra just gave me a blunt shock and a reality check of where exactly our country is in terms of concrete development and where we’re heading towards. 

Our train to Agra, the Bhopal Shatabdi Express reached Agra from Delhi at 08:30 A.M., as soon I walked out the station a pungent odour gave me an instant headache. Apparently, Agra does not have a sewage treatment plant which in simple words means that water from toilet drains flow through the open gutters on roads which gives the whole city an unbearable stink. Outside the station, you are not-so-happily greeted by a bunch of taxi drivers and guides who start charging you an exuberant Rs. 4,000/- a day for just renting an Omni and touring around Agra. Thankfully, the pre-paid taxi stand came as a blessing in disguise where I managed to get ourselves taxi service for one full day i.e., till our train back to Delhi at 08:30 P.M for about Rs. 2,000/-.

Our first stop was Fatehpur Sikri where we hired a guide licensed under the Archaeological Survey of India for about Rs. 350/-, the guide made it look like he was doing us a favor free of cost by coming with us and showing us around with his major attitude problem and a bloated ego about how he knows the place in and out. Fatehpur, Akbar’s palace for his three queens was a delightful experience since it let people inside only with tickets and hence it wasn’t too crowded and was quite peaceful. Sikri on the other hand was a dreadful suffering! The place is a Durgah built to glorify Chisti Salim’s legacy and does not live up to holiness it seeks to portray. Entry into Sikri is free of cost and hence you find a range of street hawkers (mostly little kids) who chase you into buying things from them to sweepers and beggars who end up emotionally blackmailing you until you give them some money. The guide informed us that once in the Durgah people make wishes by buying a shawl; some flowers and a sacred thread and place the same on Chisti Salim’s crypt, at that moment I knew this dude was spinning a tale and would definitely take us to one such dealer from whom he would without a doubt collect a commission from later. My intuition came to be true when he actually did the same. The dealer showed us shawls ranging from Rs. 1,000/- to Rs. 8,000/- reminding me of my moral obligation of pleasing god and the consequences if I failed to do so. I was however not satisfied with his offer and told my family that we should just skip buying things from this guy and walk away. On seeing us do that, he came behind us and brought the price of the shawl down to Rs. 300/- and asked me if I wanted one for myself. When I refused, he said that Chisti Salim is going to be very disappointed with me and I am going to be cursed with a life of sorrowfulness; I was amused to say the least! 

After spending about 3 hours in Fatehpur Sikri we headed back to Agra which is about 40 kilo-meters away. On reaching the Taj Mahal complex, we were told by our taxi driver to get off the cab and take a cycle rickshaw. The rickshaw took us through the south gate and I’m more than sure that memories of that disgusting hell hole will haunt me for the rest of my life. The road was extremely narrow filled with tiny shops on both sides. There were about three mutton shops right outside the Taj infested with flies and the other shops basically included handicrafts and souvenirs all overpriced. The road was filled with people, few tourists and several vendors and beggars. The Agra stench I mentioned earlier, lets multiply that by five; this road did not have gutters and the sewage water was seeping past the stores on the road. As we reached the end of the road we saw a really huge queue, that wasn’t really an issue considering it was a Sunday. I was looking for the ticket counter but couldn’t locate it. Finally, after asking someone I was asked to walk towards a dark dingy office and I managed to get the tickets. Tickets for us Indians was priced at Rs. 20/- and tickets for foreigners (wait for it) Rs. 750/-!! I don’t get how the price varies that much. After we got into the Taj Mahal, again the sea of mankind brought itself together and it ended up giving me one bad headache. Quite ironic isn’t it, once at the beginning of my trip and once at the end of it! 

After we were done with the Taj Mahal, we were taken to the Government Shopping Center; the prices here were way more expensive than the pricing we saw at the tiny little shops outside the Taj. The reason for the exuberant price – “Sir, original, aatenttic dejign sir!”. Since we had come all the way, it was only practical to take back something which would remind us of a few happy moments spent in Agra.

Our train back to Delhi left at 08:30 P.M. sharp (thankfully), I’m not going to get started on the condition of the railway station. While in the train, I thought to myself about how many people are probably employed in and around India in the name of the Taj Mahal. A minor approximation in my mind gave me the figures of somewhere around 10 million people who are directly or indirectly (travel agents et al) employed gainfully because of the Taj Mahal. It definitely is one among the primary sources of income for the tourism department and the condition of the Taj Mahal is far from being clean, hygienic and well maintained. India sells itself in the name of the Taj Mahal at an international platform and all that Madam Mayawati does is construct elephants of her own size. Cholera, Dengue and other water borne diseases was ubiquitous around Agra while we were touring the place and we talk about meeting international standards. “Athithi Devo Bhava” and all that, Give me a break! The only memories the international tourists went back with in my opinion is the stench, the pathetic lax of infrastructural development around the Taj Mahal and finally, a testimony to the truth and authenticity of how India truly is as shown in the movie, Slumdog Millionaire.

Overall, my trip to Agra was a plain reality check on where India is right now and what lies ahead. Our country is in dire need of some change. We are trying too hard to place ourselves on international platforms and meeting global standards without addressing key issues like public health, hygiene and infrastructural development. By keeping in mind the development of only metropolitan and cosmopolitan cities we are overlooking the presence and importance of smaller cities and towns like Agra. Its time for some rapid change; how and when that will happen, only time can tell.

1 comment:

Phantom said...

In the middle of all that stench and neglect lies the magnificent TAJ. Like the lotus in a swamp. That is the state of our country. We look at the core and forget what lies around it. We want tourists attractions to be money churning pots but then the we dont exactly work on the basic issues.