For most travellers, the Taj Mahal is the sole reason to visit Agra. Now a UNESCO heritage site, the Taj Mahal stands tall on the banks of the River Yamuna, its white dome glistening against the sun. The Mughal emperor Shah Jahan had built it in fond memory of his wife Mumtaz, and today the site attracts millions of visitors from around the world every year.
But this was not the purpose of my visit to Agra. No…not this time. This time, I wanted to be a part of the Taj Mahotsav – a 10-day extravaganza that takes place at Shilpgram.
It was afternoon by the time I reached Agra as the driver took a longer route. I was running behind schedule, so I went directly to Shilpgram – the venue for the Taj Mahotsav. Shilpgram is located 50 metres from the eastern gate of the Taj Mahal and is a place well-known by all the locals. After all, the Taj Mahotsav was in its 22nd year now.
The Taj Mahotsav is a festival that attracts not only the locals, but also a lot of foreigners. It is one place where they get to witness the rich and diverse heritage of the country. As I sauntered from stall to stall, I was greeted with warm smiles by the shop owners. These artisans came from all parts of the country to display their artefacts – from Kashmir to Tamil Nadu, from Gujarat to the north-eastern states. While one excelled in Kalamkari work on Chunris, the other had readymade Rangoli patterns. While one sold handcrafted carpets and intricately designed salwar kameez, the other sold exquisitely designed woodwork and cane furniture.
As I talked to the artisans, I realised that this is not the only fair that they attend. Most of them travel from one fair to the other all across India to display and sell their wares. Md Ayoub is from Kashmir and has been a part of this fair for eight years now. His stall had Kahmiri shawls and handicrafts displayed. But what attracted me to his shop was the kesar tea he was preparing in a samovar. The aroma was divine and it certainly gave a traditional look to the shop. A little ahead, I spoke to Hukam, a native from Punjab. He said that he travels throughout India, his specialty being Patialas with exquisite patterns and prints. He made his living solely through such trade fairs as the Taj Mahotsav, and he has always had a great experience here in Agra.
The furniture and woodwork section of the fair was the most interesting section, as all the artefacts had intricatehandmade detailed designs. They had everything – from bangle stands and key chains to something as big as a bed or a living room set. I marvelled how these people managed to transport such huge beds across India, and wondered whether so much effort is really worth it. Ashish, dealer of wooden furniture from Haridwar, said “We are happy with the Taj Mahotsav as it gives us a chance to showcase our talents and also to make large sales. All through the year I travel throughout India attending trade fairs as it helps in my business.” And then at the middle of it all there stood a door – a huge door made entirely of wood resting against a tree. It had detailed carvings on it and it looked magnificent. Priced at 14 lakhs, it was a masterpiece.
The Taj Mahotsav was bursting with life and colour, but that was not all that it had to offer. The far end of the ground was home to stalls offering lip-smacking dishes. Each stall offered a different cuisine – Hyderabadi, Punjabi, South Indian, and many more. I finally settled with the Hyderabadi cuisine and treated myself to a sumptuous meal comprising of a variety of kababs with parathas. The owner of the shop had been in the business for over two decades now, and he was a master in the culinary art. The next stall was frying jalebis, which were almost as big as dinner plates! The hot jalebis looked mouth-watering and I couldn’t help but take a bite. And, as expected, they were heavenly.
Lunch was done, but there was still more to see at the Taj Mahotsav. Just next to the food stalls a huge stage was set up for various groups to showcase their talents. I managed to catch a young kid dancing to the tunes of a Bollywood number. There were also a group of autistic kids who had just finished their performance. It was heart-warming to see these kids with bright smiles and radiant faces. Each year the Taj Mahotsav witnesses performances by eminent personalities – from classical and semi-classical backgrounds.
My visit to the Taj Mahotsav was drawing to an end. It had been an enthralling experience – a heady mix of culture, art and craft. As I walked towards the exit gates, I saw a group of Harayanvi men dressed in their traditional attire pulling in huge crowds. As they beat their huge drums in rhythm with their folk songs, crowds gathered around them and it was a session of high-voltage song and dance. The spectators joined in and shook a leg while the others cheered... a perfect ending to the day.
My purpose for the journey was now complete, but I had one more stop to make – the Taj Mahal. As I sat on the cool marble floor against the setting sun with the majestic Taj Mahal casting its shadow on me and the cool breeze taking away all my weariness, I knew that my hunger for a memorable experience had been satiated.
I decided to take the Yamuna Expressway on my way back and it is perhaps one of the best roads that you will travel on. It is devoid of traffic (owing to the high toll rates) and I reached the outskirts of Delhi within two hours! My trip to Agra was tiring, but was perhaps one of the best that I have had. It made me proud to be a part of a country whose culture is so distinct and diverse.