The day after visiting the Taj Mahal we go to Agra Fort, a vast red castle strategically located on a meander of the Yamuna river. It is built of red sandstone and dates from the 16th century. Within its broad, high walls are several self-contained palaces, and mosques. You can see the Taj Mahal across the river, from the main side wall of the Fort.
This view over the Yamuna to the Taj is beautiful, but the Fort is beautiful in its own right too. One of the delights of walking around it is the variation in architecture, from white marble floors, walls and arches edged with gold, to Petra-style, ornate, red, carved stone courtyards, and dark, almost monastic medieval chambers.
The Fort is situated in gardens, which, like those at the Taj Mahal, have green parakeets living among the trees. We also see parakeets nesting in the roof of one of the palace archways, and many Indian striped squirrels run around and come close to us.
Wandering around Agra Fort is entirely free of hassle. Only some happy children come over to speak to me, request photos, and ask the standard questions, ‘Where are you from?’ etc, and it is pleasant to talk and laugh with them.
We are staying in a small budget hotel very close to the Taj Mahal, and within its vehicle exclusion zone. The hotel has beautiful gardens full of palm trees and flowers, with a pet cat, dog and puppy roaming about. There is a restaurant outside in the gardens. The tables are moved around continually throughout the day, to follow the shade as the sun moves around the courtyard and garden. I eat my favourite dish of butter chicken and cheese naan.
The commitment to moving the tables and chairs so regularly is an indicator of the heat in Agra. It is a city kind of blistering with dust and heat, and the Taj Ganj area is full of mosquitoes. But the Taj Ganj and its narrow, jumbled streets barely wide enough for two rickshaws to pass each other, or one rickshaw and a group of people, appeals strongly to me, and I like it there. I like the quiet, vehicleless approach to the Taj complex; I like sitting in the gardens of the hotel at night listening to the call to prayer from the Taj Mahal mosque. Eventually though we have to beat a retreat from the mosquitoes, before having finished the last of our drinks. I am in socks, shoes, trousers and a long-sleeved shirt, but they are biting me on the face and hands without mercy. We go into the relative haven of our room indoors, though inside it is stiflingly hot, even with the fan on – whose cooling effect my brother describes accurately as ‘like someone breathing on you very gently’.
On leaving Agra the next day, we take a rickshaw to the Idgah bus stand on the outskirts of the town. While our rickshaw is rambling through the narrow alleyways of the Taj Ganj, our driver slows down to navigate past a group of people who are celebrating a festival day. I look to that side as red powder is thrown over me, which makes me laugh, covers my arms and face, and stains my green and white shirt.
‘It looks like you have a nosebleed,’ laughs Richard, as the powder sticks to my hot skin. Sabrina, squeezed in the middle between us, is covered in powder all down one side, too.
We turn up at the bus stand, and book tickets, me still smeared with red. We are taking another AC Volvo bus to Delhi. Having been unable to find out the bus departure times in advance due to various minor setbacks, we have simply turned up – but are able to book seats on the next bus without any trouble. We sit in the waiting room, playing a card game, while I check the Hindi words on the front of incoming buses, until I recognise our one to Delhi: दिल्ली