Sunday, April 20, 2014

Agra 5: Not Getting to Firoz Khan's Tomb

Hot action and glamour. Bizarre poster for some American Z grade western that was being shown dubbed into Hindi at local cinema halls in Agra. Don't ask me how the distributors got their hands on this undoubtedly classic film.

South of Agra, on the road that leads towards Gwalior, is the tomb of Firoz Khan, and I have never been there. My abortive attempt at visiting the tomb, quite unexpectedly, turned into the most genuine adventure I had during my time in Agra, and while I wound up with absolutely no nice pictures from my strange misadventure, it was still very much experience worth having. 

The identity of Firoz Khan is somewhat murky, though most sources claim that he was the caretaker of Shah Jahan's Harem, who died in 1647. His tomb, which lies about 5 Km south of Agra, is by most accounts quite grand and more than worth a look, though, as I was to find out the day that I tried, virtually nobody goes there.

It was the afternoon after I had gone to Sikandra. The weather had cleared, and it was turning into rather a splendid late afternoon. I had an auto drop me off at the intersection of the road to Gwalior with one of the main roads inside the city.  From there, I started walking south, through the fringes of Agra, where the city begins to slowly peter out into the countryside. The weather was good for walking, so I thought I would go several kilometers before I started asking random passers by where the tomb was.

It's funny in India just how quickly one can go from a place that's completely dominated by the foreign tourist trade to places where non-Indians are a rare and exotic sight. Despite being only ten or fifteen minutes from the Taj Mahal, one of the world's foremost tourist attractions, where I was now was a place that clearly does not see foreigners. People started giving me the classic, "What the hell is he doing here?" look, which is neither friendly or unfriendly, just sort of a mixture of curious and confused. I knew I was well off the beaten path.

After walking for maybe thirty minutes, I started asking people going about their business where the tomb was, and immediately I knew I was in trouble. I seem to recall going up to about ten different people, from cops to fruit sellers to teenagers playing cricket, and none of them knew what I was going on about when I brought up "Firoz Khan's Tomb," or "Firoz Khan Ki Maqbara." "Firoz Khan ki Maqbara Kahan hai?"  mostly got head scratching and directions to the Taj. Still, it was worth noting that unlike in the area just south of the Taj Mahal where all of the backpackers stay, here, as a foreigner, I could actually have a conversation with random people on the street and not have it devolve into some sort of ridiculous scheme to wheedle money out of of the pluses of getting out into less frequented areas.

I wandered around in circles for quite a while, unsuccessfully trying to get some sort of bearing towards the tomb (and entertaining the locals), and was starting to wonder if the tomb hadn't been torn down and replaced by a high-rise or something, when a cycle rickshaw guy came up to me and asked me where I was trying to get. I explained to him about the tomb, and then he looked at me with a bemused expression, and explained to me that he lived nearby. He then offered to take me there, and I accepted the offer. Poor fellow didn't know what he was in for. 

The rickshaw wallah took me west of the road, into an area of poor, though obviously very new, houses probably belonging to people who had recently moved in from the countryside. The roads were dirt and in very poor condition, and the area was very much unlike what had been described in my guidebook, which gives one the impression that the immediate vicinity around Firoz Khan's Tomb is fairly open (though maybe that's my mistake and not the guidebook's...or maybe the area's changed drastically in the past few years).

As the two of us bumped down the tangle of dirt roads, being regarded suspiciously by the locals, I started pondering whether the rickshaw wallah wasn't pulling some odd, convoluted, and very labor intensive trick. The neighborhood was getting worse, and the roads so rough that the rickshaw wallah couldn't pull me any faster than I could walk. Then I saw, off in the distance, the dome of the tomb rising above some very ad-hoc looking housing. 

The rickshaw turned a corner, and ahead of me I saw a large red sandstone gate, very elaborately decorated with Chini Khana, and in good condition. But as the rickshaw pulled up, people of all ages started emerging from their houses and gawking at me, and a loud and spirited conversation (which everybody assumed I couldn't understand) ensued as to what possibly could have brought me there. The rickshaw wallah informed everybody that I had come to see the tomb, at which point the crowd, which must have numbered at least thirty (including children, who made up about 60-70%), started loudly discussing something which I couldn't follow. 

Not quite sure what to make of the weird scene, I wandered off towards the gate, and saw that it was locked. Now, this is not atypical of India's more obscure monuments: One sometimes has to hunt down the chowkidar or groundskeeper, to open up places like this, and it's par for the course that they'll expect a small tip.

I went back towards the crowd, saying "chabiya?" (keys), and making an opening a lock gesture. After some more discussion that involved the word's chabi and chowkidar and Darwaza kolo (open the door), an old surly looking fellow emerged from the crowd. 

"Locked, hai, locked," he informed he.
"Haan, toe, app chowkidar hai?" (are you the chowkidar?)I responded in my broken Hindi.
"Toe, aap key pass chabiya?" (do you have the keys?)
"Nahi." (no).
This rather took me aback....the groundskeeper's job is to have the keys..that's why the Archaeological Survey of India pays him...
" kahan hai?" (so....where are the keys?)
"Yahan nahi." (not here)
"Yes, I know that, but....kahan hai?"
"Tourism Office."
"Tourism Office Kahan hai?" (where is the tourism office?)
"Agra mein." (in Agra)
"Toe...kyun chabiya app key pass nahi hai?" (so...why are'nt the keys with you?)
"Tourism Office."
"Tum Tourism Office jao." (Go to the tourism office.)
"Leiken...kyun chabiya app kay pass nahi hai? Agra paanch kilometer door. Yeh....shit!" (why aren't the keys with you? Agra's five kilometers away. This....shit!)

The surely fellow now crossed his arms and got silent and even more surely. I pressed him a few more times, but he had decided not to talk to me anymore. He withdrew into the crowd, who were still all chatting with one another, though I could see him looking at me and talking about me, with the occasional "behen chod" (I refuse to translate) rising up out of the conversation. I really wasn't sure what exactly I had done wrong.

I explained to the rickshaw wallah that I would be happy to pay the chowkidar to let me in. But the rickshaw wallah only reiterated that I'd have to go to the tourism office, while the chowkidar turned around and walked away.

The whole sequence of events had been quite strange, and I thought then that maybe the best course of action would be to go back to my hotel and cut my losses...but then, I thought, what the hell else did I have to do that afternoon?

The rickshaw wallah had already offered to take me to the tourism office, so I thought I might as well take him up on it. I had expended far to much energy by this point to not see the damn tomb. 

Though, as I was riding the five kilometers back into Agra, being pulled in and out of traffic, something occurred to me: Why would the key be at the tourism office? The site is administered by the Archaeological Survey of India, and the chowkidar was ostensibly in their employ. But government tourism offices are run by a different agency. They might have been able to contact the A.S.I., but they probably wouldn't have the keys there at the office.

Getting back into town, the rickshaw wallah pulled up next to the office and waited. I told him he could go, but he was having none of it: I think by this point he had spent so much time trying to get me to the tomb that he was expecting a pretty big reward for his efforts. 

I walked into the office, which was a fairly typical affair with some maps of Agra and posters of the Taj. There were a couple of "Tourism Officers" there, sitting around looking a little bored. 

 I went up to a lady behind a desk and told her that I had tried to go into Firoz Khan's Tomb, but the chowkidar had told me that I had to come here to get the key....whereupon the lady behind the desk looked at me like I was crazy. She called over a male subordinate to help figure out what the hell I was going on about. 

The next ten minutes were taken up, not with deliberations on the location of the keys, which I knew instantly were not in the possession of the tourism office, but with me trying to explain to the tourism officers what the tomb of Feroz Khan was, and where it was located. Though these were people assigned by the government to promote tourism in Agra, none of them had heard of the building. 

For a while, the tourism officers went down the list of major monuments in Agra, and after exhausting all of those possibilities, produced a map and asked me to point the tomb out...except it wasn't on it. Finally, I told them that the rickshaw wallah knew where it was, and that if I could just get my hands on the keys, then he could take me and it would be fine. But the tourism officers informed me that, if the keys were not with the chowkidar, the only other place they would be would be in the Archaeological Survey of India office...which was closed...

The topic of conversation now swung towards the chowkidar. The male tourism officer, who was doing most of the talking by this point, seemed to be just as perplexed by the chowkidar's behavior as I was. It was weird that he didn't have the keys, and even weirder that he sent me to the tourism office to get them.

I had by this point accepted that I wasn't going to get to see the 17th century tomb, but the tourism officer was getting indignant. It was the chowkidar's job to let people into the tomb, you see, and the government was paying him for it. 

Now the afternoon took another unexpected turn: The lady behind the desk ordered her subordinate to go to the tomb and get to the bottom of things, and I was requested to come along, and then file an official report on the problems I had encountered...who exactly the report would go to was a question I never got a coherent answer to.

The tourism officer and I emerged from the building. The rickshaw wallah was still waiting outside, though now that he saw that he was going to be pulling along an extra person back down to the tomb, he looked less than happy to see me. 

We set off, and I found myself travelling along the same five Km stretch of road for the third time that afternoon. I talked a bit with the tourism officer, who seemed like a swell guy, though he had only been posted to Agra a few weeks before and didn't really know the place too well. He appeared to regard the whole affair with a mix of anger and embarrassment: Justifiably, he was pissed that the chowkidar wasn't doing his job, but I think he also felt that the episode reflected badly on India as a whole. 

The three of us (the rickshaw wallah, the tourism officer, and me) eventually arrived back at the gate to the tomb, though if the locals had been shocked to see me the first time, they were even more so the second time around. A crowd formed instantly around us, and I recognized most of the people from before, though the chowkidar was conspicuously absent. The rickshaw stopped, and the tourism officer got off and immediately addressed the locals.

He started demanding that they tell him where the chowkidar was, and when nobody gave him a straight answer, the conversation devolved into a shouting match, with all twenty locals against the tourism officer, and the locals coming off second best.

As far as I could tell, the tourism officer was making legal threats against chowkidar, and the chowkidar's family and relations were trying to make excuses for him. But the tourism officer was having none of this, and in short order his threats were getting the locals genuinely scared. Soon the whole crowd of them started furiously arguing simultaneously with the tourism officer and with each-other over what they should do. Insults went flying in every direction. I  have no idea what the Tourism Officer was specifically threatening the locals with, but it was enough to get the whole neighborhood worried, desperate, and pissed off.

Standing back near the entrance of the tomb, no longer the center of attention, I marveled at what I had started. My attempt to visit the 17th century tomb had shook up the entire locality. It had certainly not been my intention to ruin anybody's day, though it did seem, even if I couldn't understand the exact circumstances, that the chowkidar had it coming.

Yet, for all his efforts, the tourism officer couldn't get the chowkidar to appear. He had managed to wrest the man's phone number from the crowd, but the chowkidar wasn't picking up. After a final round of threats,  the tourism officer decided that it was time to leave the field of battle. The two of us got back on the cycle rickshaw (the rickshaw wallah by this point looking thoroughly sick of the whole affair) and started to ride off. 

But as we tried to leave the neighborhood, several ladies (don't ask me why each one was a lady) approached us, and came up to talk to the tourism officer, all in rather shady, hushed tones of voice. The impression I got was that they were trying to make him some sort of offer, perhaps a bribe, though when I asked him about it, he said they were "Just making excuses and shifting blame." They were apparently ratting other people in the neighborhood out, and, according to the tourism officer (who, for all his righteousness and indignation, was perhaps not a totally reliable source), trying to make it seem like other people were responsible for the chowkidar's failure to be present with keys.

Now we rode back, for the fourth and final time along the five km stretch north to Agra. I tried to get out of the tourism officer why the chowkidar had not had the keys, and indeed why the episode had created such a giant stink, but there was clearly something the man didn't want to tell me. For his part, he made no attempt to hide his embarrassment and disgust, and between almost uncomfortably profuse apologies at my not getting to see the tomb, went into lengthy disquisitions on the moral decline of Indian society, brought about, according to him, by a mixture of easy money, T.V., porn, bad politicians, holy men, and just plain laziness.

He went on to say that, if I wished to see the tomb, I could come with him the next morning, when, theoretically, the keys would be obtainable. 

"But there's no need," he said.
Why's that?" 
"It's totally wrecked. Ruined. This is not a proud monument."
"Totally wrecked?"
"That is how they treat their heritage...they don't care for historical buildings. It is totally destroyed!"

This was a very odd attitude on the tourism officer's part. Yes, the locals had certainly been behaving badly, and the locale left much to be desired, but the tomb itself, as nearly as I could see, was in really fairly good, or at least not appallingly bad, condition. I had seen historic buildings in vastly more desperate shape just earlier that day when I went to Sikandra.

It seemed then that the tourism officer's anger at the way the locals had been behaving sadly blinded him to the fact that the tomb was still something worth seeing, and a possible tourist site, if only the Archaeological Survey of India would have the intelligence and foresight to open the damn thing up. Though I was certainly on the man's side as far as the chowkidar was concerned, and though the man had really gone very far out of his way, in part at least, for my benefit, the fact that he saw the tomb as "totally destroyed," worried me. 

The truth is, the vast majority of the historical buildings in India are under some sort of pressure. All one needs to do is take a twenty minute walk in the back lanes of Old Delhi to see dozens of old and interesting structures which are in rough neighborhoods and deplorable condition. Yet the fact that these structures are under such threat is precisely why they should be taken notice of. If simply being in a difficult location made a historical site not worth bothering with, then it would make sense to simply do away with the larger part of India's architectural heritage. 

Yet again, the three of us wound up back at the tourism office, where I filled out my report. I had to write (in my atrocious handwriting), about a page long account of my experiences trying to reach Firoz Khan's Tomb, while both the lady behind the desk and the tourism officer were very particular that I should make it abundantly clear that I "was very disappointed"...which actually I wasn't, in the final analysis: Though I hadn't made it to the tomb, the day had turned out vastly more interesting than I had thought it would. And who knows? Maybe the report actually made a difference. At least one thing that I can be sure of is that the good folks at the Agra tourism office now definitely know where Firoz Khan's tomb is. 

I bid farewell to the tourism officer, and asked, as politely as possible, if the rickshaw wallah would drop me back at the hotel. He was willing, and since he had gone so far above and beyond the call of duty that day, I gave him a big tip.

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