I know it sounds absolutely crazy and far-fetched dream to even think about city walks, about mixing with strangers, taking a walk into the narrow streets and exploring the crowded markets, after the coronavirus outbreak, but I am sure we can start making blue prints for future. I say so because its time to correct a lot of things that were compromised so far. It is going to be a very long journey towards normalcy but now is the time when we must think of ways to make more space for pedestrians, keep the crowded places in check, look into hygiene measures and adopt measures that will make travelers feel safe. We have all the time in hand, needed to rethink and start again. This is just for starters. We would need to do a lot to get the momentum back. But trust me, most of all, we would need community effort. Everyone must be vigilant, follow rules and be concerned for each other.
In the times of physical distancing, a lot will change about city walks….
In merely 100 days, a lot has changed. The way we used to travel, eat local food and walk around freely to explore places, will not be the same anymore. Some lifestyle changes will become a part of us permanently. I visited Agra, just before lockdown and here I talk about the old memories as well as how will things change in future, post lockdown.
Stay Home for now, just enjoy Virtual Travel
I have been thinking about the past and future, both!
In the times of physical distancing, how will be substitute experiences where a group of people are required to work in close proximity! I have been thinking about this because my last trip or most recent trip was to Agra- The city of Taj Mahal, where I did some local city walks. Now the questions that have been bothering me are, ” How will the Local walks resume?”, ” Will the precautionary measures be enough to take care of our health?”, ” How much are the local guides prepared?”, “Will they show around the city differently?”, ” and “How will we make more space for outdoor activities, pedestrians and cyclists in small congested places?” Well, let us ponder over those questions but first let me talk about the local walks of Agra.
This is the post that I had written for a publication but it did not see the day of light, due to restricted travel stories. I totally understand because this is not the time to inspire people to travel. I am sharing the story without any changes because I want to remember my trip and the travel memories in its original form. Its gonna be a keepsake till normalcy returns.
I had traveled to AGRA, just before Mr. Trump’s visit when everything was hunky-dory in India
The world looks up to India for the awe-inspiring, Taj Mahal, but the historic city of Agra often fails to showcase its true potential. Its colonial character, dramatic heritage and the other Mughal-era architectural gems are a treat but only if we celebrate them. Here is a small attempt of peeking into everyday business, foraging stories and eating locally in the old city of Agra.
Not just a food walk but city walk!
I had just devoured a sumptuous breakfast platter and yet I was eyeing the Bedhai (Bedmi or sometimes spelled berahi) puri and sabzi in the Subhash Bazaar, near the northern edge of Jama Masjid, right behind the Agra Fort railway station. I walked past it but just then our guide, Gaurav said, “You haven’t done Agra well until you have eaten this” and I recanted. Others joined in too. I bet for that one moment the attention of the locals shifted towards us, (bunch of writers-photographers) after we bombarded the hawker and his make-shift food stall with photography. We shared and indulged in some fresh and crispy bedais. This fried, puffy bread, similar to kachori with fillings of legumes and pulses, served with a bowl of potato curry is not only famous in Agra but the whole Braj area. The swarm around the stall spoke about its popularity. Our guide explained that since Subhash Bazaar was a wholesale market with reasonable deals, the footfall of buyers started really early and continued all day. The shopkeepers from around the city promptly opened their shops and depended on local eateries for all day meals. Some of these places had stood the test of time and survived for decades.
If you have been wondering what was I doing in a crowded wholesale market in Agra, at eleven in the morning, let me take you through an “old city trail” which began at Agra Fort Railway Station.
Agra Fort Railway Station and Jami Masjid
I am not sure if I had bought a platform ticket and been inside a railway station without an impending travel but I liked this experience, with no hurry of any sorts. While the foot-over-bridge facilitated a lovely side-view of the Jama Masjid (more popular as Jami Masjid) which was built by Shah Jahan in the honour of his eldest daughter, Jahanara Begum Sahiba, we also got to know that this was among few stations of the country which had both broad gauge and meter gauge.
Here, I must add that the opulent ‘Fort of Agra’ or Agra fort made in red sandstone, was the first In India along with Ajanta Ellora caves of Maharashtra to make it to the list of UNESCO world Heritage sites. Later came Taj Mahal and Fatehpur Sikri. Agra Fort railway station is a rare railway station that exists so close to a UNESCO site. The existence of octagonal Tripolia Chowk connecting the Delhi gate of the Agra fort to the Jami Masjid in the past, came as a learning to me.
Constricted but colourful lanes (Galis)
Some of the best kept secrets are revealed in the galis (narrow lanes) of India and thus we couldn’t miss the activities of one of the most popular markets of Agra, the Subhas Bazaar. Seth Gali, the main hub of the market or the Lohar Gali (named after the blacksmiths) are some of the streets where we touched upon the soul of enterprise of the city. As we navigated, we discovered the pulse of some of the businesses like vegetables, spices, colourful fabrics, jewellery, sweets, handicrafts and textiles. Some of the shops have existed here for nothing less than five hundred years. We also stopped to make some conversations with the amicable shopkeepers who belonged to the fourth, fifth and eleventh generation of their family business. It was like coming face to face with some interesting aspects of intangible history. In addition to spices, sweets, props, to general household essentials, one can find every type of wedding good in these shops. While I enjoyed the colour splash of these streets, I would request the authorities to up the game of cleanliness and maintenance to make them a vacationer’s hotspot.
Opulent Houses (havelis) with Iron castings
Gawking at old architecture is another way of appreciating the precious past. The houses in Subhas Bazaar are opulent but it was saddening to see them in dilapidated state. While the Mughal style arches and Victorian windows spoke of luxury, what really stood out were the iron castings above the entrance. We were surprised to know that some of the most affluent businessmen procured them from London. Lala Kokamal’s house was nothing less than a plus hotel, in size but it needed repair. It was amusing to read akhara, (a wrestling ground) on its highest floor. Our guide told us that most of these businessmen hired wrestler aka pehelwaans as bodyguards and they built akharas in their houses to enjoy the game of wrestling. In one of the sweets shops, we also spoke to a wrestler whose father and forefather had been associated with the family and the business for ages. We did not leave the Seth Gali until we had spotted the oldest post office of Agra.
Making of Petha and Mankameshwar Temple
The Petha producing industry is very important to Agra and its sin not to buy some for friends and family. Petha, a soft candy like sweet, made from ash gourd vegetable or white pumpkin is not just a famed treat from Emperor Shahjahan’s period, but has also earned a Geographical Indication (GI) tag for the city. While Panchi petha has earned global fame, there are some prominent local brands too. We stopped to meet the owner of Munna Lal Petha Wale to look into the specialities of his shop. Acknowledging our curiousity, he directed us to his workshop area where saw the making of this sweet treat
The last leg of the city walk called for a quick stopover at the famous Mankameshwar temple, dedicated to Shiva, the lord of the universe. A flight of stairs took us to the revered sanctum sanctorum, where we offered prayers and sweets. Before retracing our way back to the Agra Fort railway station, we did not miss to look through the Vaidya Gali, a street that is exclusively meant for the Ayurvedic healers and ancient medical science practitioners of Agra.
Let us just hope we prepare well in the coming months, to resume again. The whole community will have to contribute to make each other feel safe.
Some more local city walks!
1.Colonial Heritage – After the Mughals, Jats and Marathas, Agra had its date with British rule too. The city has some beautiful churches, missionaries and cemeteries in the city.
2.The Tajganj Walk – You got to do this to discover the true story of Taj Mahal and meet some of the direct descendants of the people who built the Taj.
3.Mughal Garden Tour – The gardens along the bank of Yamuna River are unique and must be explored for their ancient water system, walkways and more.
4.Taj Nature walk – A 7 kilometre walk in the green belt to discover the flora and fauna of Agra.
What must change about the LOCAL CITY WALKS?
It will take a minimum of 6 months or more for travel to resume as before but while we reminisce past local walks, let us keep thinking what changes will make us feel safe. I have a few pointers but I am not sure we are even half way there.
- The community has to come forward.
- Everyone has to take it seriously.
- Hygiene rules can only be successful if they are followed by everyone.
- The people working in the kitchen of a restaurant, the shop keeper, the workers, the man selling paani puris, a man walking on the street, everyone has to own up the responsibility for the hygiene of each other.
- The environmental benefits that have come should not be missed and must be used wisely. There must be cut down on excessive movement, too many people at one place at a particular time.
- Systematic planning will help the walks resume! Number of people will have to be cut down.
- Every city will have to make more space for its Pedestrians and cyclists , which will be a boon for city walks too.
- The local guides will have to start preparing and they must be prepared to lead the cause here.
Do suggest more ways! Let us contribute and make a new version of travel happen soon in future!