Agra: Zoo of the New

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Your clear eye is the one absolutely beautiful thing.

I want to fill it with colour and ducks,

The zoo of the new

Whose name you meditate —

April snowdrop, Indian pipe,


Stalk without wrinkle,

Pool in which images

Should be grand and classical

Not this troublous

Wringing of hands, this dark

Ceiling without a star.

(Sylvia Plath)

Poor, poor Sylvia Plath – stuck in her flat just outside Regents Park Zoo with her baby son and without her absent husband – wanting so much to show her child the best, but feeling she could only give her worst. Two weeks after she wrote these words, she killed herself.

Don’t panic: this isn’t a cry for help. But I love this poem because I sympathise (or perhaps empathise really) with her desire to fill the pool of her son’s eyes with “images that should be grand and classical”. That is exactly what I’ve wanted to do with my own girls. It’s one of the reasons we’re taking this trip – we want our girls to see big, and dream big.

Like Plath, how miserably I often feel I fail at parenting. But I found myself recalling these words as we stood outside the Taj Mahal at dawn, gazing on one of the greatest wonders of the world. “All for love” explains our latest guide as we gaze at the Taj, reflected in the (admittedly somewhat dried up) pools around it.

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If you don’t know the story behind the Taj Mahal, here goes. Shah Jehan, an immensely rich Mughal emperor in 1631, was grief stricken when his wife Mumtaz Mahal died. She’d borne him 14 children and asked him to build her a mausoleum on death. The Taj is the result.

Poet Rabindranath Tagore described it as “a teardrop on the face of eternity”, and Princess Diana – at the height of the whole ‘tragic princess’ thing – made front pages around the world when she sat alone in front of this monument to love. The royal divorce was announced months later. The Taj is, as they say, iconic.

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Things the guides tend to gloss over; the fact that Mumtaz was one of three wives, and the number of workers and elephants that must have been killed during the construction.

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Not sure Daisy really saw the point of a monument to love. “Is there a picture of Mumtaz here?” she asked. “Surely that would have been a better thing for him to remember her by?” The guide was a bit surprised. Children ask the best questions.

Undeniably the Taj is beautiful, one of Plath’s “grand and classical” images that I want to stay with the children forever. It’s also the only thing in Agra people really come to see. The result? Agra is touristed beyond belief, and full of guides who would also like you to see their uncle’s marble factory and lots of shops while you’re there.

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We didn’t bother. Nor did we see the ‘Baby Taj’, Agra Fort, or any of the other things the guides were so keen to show us. There’s only so much “grand and classical” the children can take, so in our two days in Agra we scandalised our driver and guide by going a bit off piste.

Day one: sloth bears and elephants with Wildlife SOS – not yet firmly on the tourist trail, but fabulous all the same.

Wildlife SOS, as the name suggests, is an animal charity – focused on rescuing mistreated animals throughout India. Almost singlehandedly, the charity has wiped out the ‘dancing bear’ industry in India that has been illegal but tolerated since 1972.

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The charity showed us a somewhat uncompromising documentary explaining how the sloth bears (funny-looking beasts) are captured as cubs and then have their muzzles pierced with a red hot metal ring. A rope is passed through the wound. When the bear owner tugs it the bear has no option but to dance, and if the owner is lucky the money flows.

Wildlife SOS has wiped out the bear industry by incentivising the gypsy tribe that traditionally owns the bears to hand them over in return for jobs (often at the sanctuary itself) and some cash. The problems of the bears and of the marginalized tribe – which has been left behind by progress – are intertwined, the charity’s education head explains. Solve one, and you solve the other.

The charity has rounded up every dancing bear, but can’t release them into the wild as they have no natural instincts. Instead they live in Agra, whiling away their days with an assortment of rescued dogs and langars (a type of primate). The poor bears, who are so funny to look at, exhibit classic behaviour for traumatised animals, pacing and shaking their heads habitually: the longer they’ve been dancing, the more likely they are to continue to exhibit the behavior.

As there are no more dancing bears in India to capture, the sanctuary looks to be a victim of its own success. The bears will grow old and die here but there should be no more new additions. Like Great Aunt Lucy’s home for Retired Bears, I guess. We didn’t bring any marmalade, but apparently they prefer honey anyway.

Sadly there’s no such happy ending for India’s elephants, for whom the charity runs a sanctuary down the road. Blind elephants, lame elephants, elephants from circuses and temples and elephants who were begging with humans on the roadside are brought here when there is enough evidence that they’ve been tortured.

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Just chaining them up isn’t enough to prove this, the guides explain, showing the scars on the elephants’ backs. One elephant from the circus lived entirely on steak burgers and had become dangerously obese. She’s lost a thousand pounds since joining the sanctuary and living on a more conventional fruit-and-grass-based diet. Others were hit by cars and trucks walking India’s roads in the middle of the night, as owners tried to move them secretly (a difficult task to conceal an elephant) to avoid paying fees for a permit.

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Owning an elephant means wealth and power in India, but there’s not much pressure to treat them well, despite some of the strongest animal protection legislation in the world. “There’s enough to worry about with people here – why would the courts worry about animals?” Wildlife SOS says. The charity has over 60 more elephants it would love to rehome, but doesn’t have the space.

I know it sounds stupid, but the elephants were bigger than I expected. Immense. We fed them bananas. Clover was terrified – but finally plucked up courage to stroke them on their sensitive trunks. The elephants squeezed their eyes together like Custard the cat when you tickle him under the chin. One of them, the education head told us, cried real tears when his chains were undone after years of abuse. Clover is proud that she finally screwed up her courage to touch the beautiful beasts.

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Our second day in Agra was of course the Taj at dawn. And then, because if there is one thing we’re learning about travelling with children is that you have to cut them a bit (sometimes a lot) of slack, we went to the nearest five star hotel and paid to use their pool. A fantastic decision, it turned out. Four hours of swimming, beef (!) burgers and afternoon tea later and the girls were significantly happier little people. And just about ready for a 23-hour train journey.

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I do sometimes wonder what the girls will remember as the best bits about this trip – the big ‘set pieces’ (the Taj, the temples) – or the snatched moments as we played together in a hotel pool, taking time together as a family (which we could have done just as easily in the South of France to be honest). Will they consider the travelling worth it, all things considered?

Still wanting to fill their clear eyes with colour and ducks, we move on. Pune is the next stop – for a Girl Guide festival with a difference. It’s alright – I’ve packed the Brownie uniforms and Paul’s got his woggle. Onwards and upwards.