Published: April 27th 2008January 11th 2008
The Taj Mahel is well camouflaged by the dirty, noisy, tourist area surrounding it. Even standing one block from it, you wouldn’t know it was there unless you were at one of the many rooftop restaurants. The view from these restaurants makes for an interesting clash with coke ads partially obscuring the view of the immaculate Taj. The area surrounding the Taj is (supposedly) motorized-vehicle free to keep the Taj from turning black, but it was no less stressful to walk down the street since each rickshaw seemed to be replaced by someone selling a tacky souvenir. It was not quite as bad as Paharganj in Delhi, but the narrow roads were still lined with open sewers, covered in animal shit, and very busy. Our hotel however was a lovely, tranquil oasis with a beautiful garden for only 10$ a night!
The first morning we were there we woke up at 5am to make it to the Taj for sunrise. The admission was totally outrageous, compared to what things cost here, at almost 20$ per person, but well worth it [and included a bottle of water and little shoe-covers to keep the Taj clean, what value! :)] After being frisked,
we walked through an arch, that was beautiful in its own right, to see the magnificent Taj faintly glowing in the dawn light behind a row of photographers. It really is worth seeing in person no matter how many photos of it you’ve seen! It is just as perfect as in the photos, but so much more majestic and awe-inspiring in person. It is an architectural wonder being almost perfectly symmetric (the grounds and other buildings included), and it was built on a raised platform so that it is set alone against the backdrop of the sky making it seem even larger and more majestic (you notice the difference when you look at it from a roof top restaurant - the village buildings that are obstructing the view making the Taj look much less impressive).
We wandered around taking photos as the sun rose. One thing that was really surprising is how huge it seemed from the outside but how small from the inside. India often seems totally clueless about how to present things in a beautiful way, but luckily they only exercised this lack of judgment in one spot of the Taj complex: in the corner on one
of the adjacent buildings they had installed an electronic sign board flashing out air pollution readings!
While in Agra, we took a day trip to the nearby ghost town of Fatepur Sikri, which was once the capital of the Mughal Empire (Muslim rulers). They built many beautiful buildings, including a majestic mosque and a palace, before abandoning the city due to a lack of water. It was really fun to wander around the mosque and the ruins of the palace and the other buildings as freely as if we had discovered them ourselves. The mosque is still in use by the town that has sprung up to cater to the endless stream of tourists (mostly Indians). The only part that wasn’t fun was that this young boy started following us around acting as our unofficial tour guide. He was too nice for us to tell him to get lost, but ohhhhh soooo annoying [he kept calling us maharaja (king) and maharini (queen)]. I tired to give him money to indicate that we were done with his “services” but he refused it. After realizing that what he really wanted was for us to look at his stone carving shop, we
looked, said ‘no thanks’, and finally got rid of him! Back to enjoying the day!
Exploring Fatepur Sikri was great because we were completely free to walk in and out, and up and down any of the old ruined buildings. We climbed on to the roof of one to peak over the surrounding wall into the palace because we did not want to pay the admission fee. Jim started playing his guitar. Soon we had a gang of young Indian men talking to us and playing some terrible Indian electro-pop for us on their I Pod. It was super fun! We also felt like movie stars while we were visiting the mosque. First it was just one young Indian girl who came up to us to ask if she could take our photo. Soon there was a group of about 50 young Indians snapping our photo and posing with us. It was like they had never seen a foreigner before! What fun!
We didn’t do too much in Agra as it was intimidating just to leave our peaceful hotel much less Taj Ganj. But we found some great restaurants with friendly owners and one of those ‘do anything’
kind of businesses (money changing, travel arranging…) that are so common here called Nicki’s Chill-Out Shop and hung out with ‘chill-out’ Nicki and a crazy Southern woman from the US.
On our last day in Agra we learned the hard way that you should book your train tickets ahead of time (we only got a ticket to the next town, not further south where we wanted to go). After getting our ticket we explored Agra’s Fort which is a bunch of really beautiful buildings (some in better shape than others) surrounded by the thick fort wall. The king who built the Taj was overthrown by his son shortly after its completion and spent the rest of his life “imprisoned” in this fort (which really looks more like a palace in places). From the fort the king could look out over the river at the Taj where his wife was buried. The great thing about India is that historical buildings are often still in use and half of the fort was actually being used as an army base [on the map of the fort it actually said “Area Under Military Occupation! :)].
There are more photos below