The untold story of Agra

Written by Veeresh Malik | Updated: Aug 31 2007, 04:31am hrs
I was in Agra last weekend, and the mob violence and destruction staring at us from our TV screens does not surprise me. The place was a tinderbox, regardless of the fact that nature had been bountiful with rain, of late, in that part of Uttar Pradesh.

Unlike other tourists, I am a repeat traveller to the city of the Taj Mahal, and the even more interesting Agra Fort, as well as Fatehpur Sikriall courtesy a lifetime in Delhi escorting friends, relatives and others there and back. There was also a phase in my life when I would go there regularly in connection with a shoe export venture, in the course of which I trekked up and down every second back and bylane, while leaving the rest for evening sojourns with a friend who was selling diesel pumpsets and later generators. In addition, I have spent time there as a child, and still have friends who hail from Agra, and have also acquired relatives by marriage who used to live there. Let me put it this waywhile my tourist relatives and friends would stay at hotels, there was always somebody whose home I could put up at.

Last weekend was the first time I could not do so. I had nobody left in Agra. The post-Partition Punjabi and other families involved in shoe exports are mostly gone. The Parsee family of a famous bottling business has moved to Mumbai. The friend who sold pumpsets now works in Delhi. Other acquaintances have all moved.

For those who trace Mughal history, Agra got lucky at the cost of Burhanpur. But it is now reverting to just another town in the badlands of UP, a place where even hardened taxi drivers from Delhi wont venture after dark. It is not safe. Why is the Taj or Fort not illuminated at night Not safe. There are goons everywhere and rackets at every crossing. This was apparent to us when we were heading for Fatehpur Sikri, and were forced to pay an entry tax by local goons who said this was the property of their forefathers. On the way back, I pulled out a camera, and had the shortlived satisfaction of seeing the crooks flee.

By the time we reached Taj Ganj to check into our hotel, we had been pursued by hoods riding motorcycles without numberplates, who had somehow managed to acquire my name and address from the car number. Or from the hotel. Either way, when we left the next day, I did not bother to stop and shop. We had women with us, see

Within Agra, you will seldom see local women in the crowded bazaars and markets, unless escorted. Touts and guides populate the place. Old guides point out a missing minaret here, a pilfered door there. Ghaznis spoils from Somnath lie around, neglected and much reduced in splendour. Speak to the locals, and the stories come tumbling out. High-end, middle-class and even 60-people-in-a-bus visitors now come with everything tied up, with minimal local participation. The airport does not handle scheduled flights anymore (the traffic does not support it). Locals talk about charter flights coming in, and how Jaipur evolvedbut what does a tourist do in Agra after dark Those who do visit come in secured formats, leaving no business for even those trying to make an honest living.

Yes, the Taj Mahal is the main visual draw of Indian tourism, up there on every publication, and Agra was once a boom town, too. But Agra, sadly, has devolved into a day-visit destination, with hardly any trickle down benefits to the people living there. The recent violence must be placed in the context of the fallout of the citys economic decline. Locals have noticed how TV publicity works.

And as for the Taj Hey, dont illuminate itwhy invite trouble The wonder of Agra is why fingers havent yet been pointed across the border for this latest round of mayhem.