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Letter from India: Agra Culture

"The phrase 'pictures don’t do it justice' was invented for the Taj Mahal"


Story and photos by Marc Kristal

On day two of my recent journey, after sitting woozily in the Gurgaon’s lobby and watching a man with an electrified tennis racket swatting airborne insects (the snap-crackle-pop of their barbecuing husks echoing in the vast space), we board the bus and begin the perilous ride to Agra, some 200 kilometers south.

“Three things are required while driving in India: good horn, good brakes, and good luck,” says Bhowani as we begin several hours of near-death experiences involving hundreds of the country’s ubiquitous colorfully-painted trucks. As we pass through vast fields and ramshackle villages – seventy percent of the population lives in the countryside – Bhowani asks about the Western media’s portrayal of India. When we describe reports of great wealth and a booming economy, he proves his value as a guide: by telling us, not only what we’re seeing, but putting it in the context of a subcontinent where 270 million people – a quarter of the population – live on less than a dollar a day, couples have large families to counteract the high infant mortality rate, and the water can be on for an hour or two three times a week.

Artful cowpies

I ask about what appear to be large doghouses made of intricately carved wood; they line the road, surrounded by stacks of pizza-like objects. The former, Bhowani explains, are piles of cow dung, encased in decorated clay – “it makes a dirty job interesting,” he says – and used as fuel; the pizzas, of course, are cowpies. Bhowani relates that each farmer leaves a handprint on each of his pies so people know to whom they belong. Here, we agree, is the difference between the first and developing worlds: in the former, it’s thumbprint recognition to turn on the computer; in the latter, a palm embedded in dung.

India is home to 28 World Heritage sites, and three of them are in or near Agra: the fascinating 16th-century Mughal walled city Fatepur Sikri, Agra Fort, and, of course, the Taj Mahal, which I have waited my entire life to visit. Probably jet lag is a contributing factor, but when, shortly before sunset, I step through the soaring arch of the entry pavilion that frames the first full-frontal view of the monument, I cannot control my tears. The phrase “pictures don’t do it justice” was invented for the Taj Mahal: the fact that it sits on a plinth, its back to the river and with nothing behind it but blue sky; the aroma of the water, the birds floating gently around the gleaming white dome; the long axial water channel, leading from the entrance to the monument itself, that seems to draw you forward as if on a magic carpet; the sense – as it is a tomb – of transcendence, from the hard factuality of this world to the departure of the spirit, as light and air, for the next.

Oberoi Amarvilas, Agra

Amazingly, the hotel – considering the act it has to follow – isn’t a disappointment: The 102-room Oberoi Amarvilas borrows elements of Mughal palace and tomb architecture, and exploits its unique proximity to the Taj – a mere 600 metres – by providing each guest room with an unobstructed view of the monument. It also benefits from an extremely effective landscape design. Though the property only covers eight acres, landscape architect William Bensley excavated the area behind the building to create a V-shaped space with elegantly terraced slopes flowing down to an expansive swimming pool. This has the effect of making the grounds seem larger, more palatial and more exotic, enabling the eye to move upward from the pool and slopes and past a lawn to a large wooded area in the near distance – above which float the incomparable forms of the Taj.

The interior, conversely, has a strongly Anglo-Indian flavor, so that the somewhat space-challenged public and guest rooms feel clubby rather than small. One of the most notable characteristics of the Oberois, regardless of style, is the high level of material and, in particular, craft – quality craftsmanship remains broadly available, and affordable, in India – and the Amarvilas is enriched by marble and teak floors and walnut doors and trim; bespoke carved and marquetry furniture expressing European classical styles in a Mughal idiom; and bright washes of pattern and color in the fabrics. Most effective, for my money, is the bar, a modern version of a Victorian club room: Winston Churchill, in his youth as a 4th Hussars cavalryman posted to the Raj, would have approved.


Marc Kristal is an architecture, design and travel writer. Kristal, a contributing editor of Dwell and a former editor of AIA/J, and has written for The New York Times, Architectural Digest, Elle Decor, Wallpaper, Surface, and numerous other publications. In 2003, he curated the exhibition ‘Absence Into Presence: The Art, Architecture and Design of Remembrance’ at Parsons School of Design, and in 2009 he was part of the project team that created the award-winning Greenwich South planning study for the Alliance for Downtown New York. His books include Re:Crafted: Interpretations of Craft in Contemporary Architecture and Interiors (2010) and Immaterial World: Transparency in Architecture (2011), both from The Monacelli Press. Also a screenwriter, Kristal wrote the film Torn Apart.  He lives in New York.


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