Agra: The Taj Mahal. Enough said.

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Asia » India » Uttar Pradesh » Agra
March 10th 2013
Published: March 10th 2013EDIT THIS ENTRY

When our train pulled into the Agra station around 6:00 p.m., a rickshaw driver associated with the Pyrenees Homestay, which we’d booked through e-mail, was there waiting for us. He was very friendly and talkative during the ride, pointing out different sights as we passed them and asking us about ourselves, but when we reached our destination, which we were surprised to find was inconveniently located far from the Taj Mahal or Agra Fort, things began to take a turn for the worst.

The owner, with whom I’d been exchanging pleasant e-mails over the past few days, was out, and his stand-in, a young guy with a serious attitude, was working the front desk instead. He immediately teamed up with our driver to pester us about hiring a rickshaw for a day, and, despite our efforts to fill out the necessary check-in paperwork and get settled in, the driver proved to be relentless. We were then informed that the homestay had overbooked and that we’d have to stay in a filthy, ground floor, mosquito infested dump of a room. Dissatisfied, we asked if there were any other, cleaner rooms available with fewer mosquitoes, to which the clerk (who had apparently been holding out on us) replied that there was in fact an upstairs room we could look at. It, however, turned out to be no better than the downstairs room. All the while, the clerk maintained an unpleasant demeanor and the driver continued to linger in the lobby asking us every 5 minutes if we’d decided whether or not to hire him for half a day for 500 rupees – he’d chosen to ignore our frequent requests for time to think about it or discuss it later.

After a bit of deliberation, we made the executive decision to move to a well-reviewed hotel with a rooftop view of the Taj Mahal in the tourist district. At this point, the owner, with whom I’d been e-mailing, showed up and was extremely apologetic for both our treatment and the condition of the room we’d been assigned. He offered us a discount to stay, but I was covered in mosquito bites at this point and simply couldn’t handle the filth. The owner was very understanding and arranged a rickshaw to take us to our new destination, the Kamal Hotel. We took the rickshaw to the Taj Ganj area, situated nearAgra’s major sights, and checked into our exponentially nicer, though pricier, room. The receptionist there was charismatic and happy to help us, providing us a map of the city and marking out a logical route for sightseeing without any attempt to sell us a tour through the hotel.

That night, we ate dinner (and several meals after that) at a cute, tiny little place recommended in our guidebook called Joney’s Place, which was established in the ‘70s and is still going strong. Its walls were covered with signatures, comments, and passport photos, along with amateur drawings of the Taj, left by patrons passing through over the years. If you visit the restaurant and sit in the back left booth, you may be able to find the message Scott and I left. J

Although our plan was to wake up at dawn to visit the Taj, since that’s supposed to be the best time to go in order to catch the sunrise and avoid the crowds (if only slightly), we ended up at the hospital instead because Scott’s sinus problems had continued to worsen. This visit actually went much more smoothly than mine, and we were in and out of there in less than an hour, including the time it took for Scott to get a precautionary chest x-ray, which came back clear. We were even able to get all of his medications at the hospital, and our total bill was significantly cheaper than mine inKochi. Since we’d decided to hold off on sightseeing that day, we booked another night inAgrato ensure us enough time to see everything and to allow Scott some time to recover. We ate dinner at Joney’s Place again, where we noticed two adorable cats scampering beneath the tables, which made us miss our little Zooey-kins.

We awoke the following morning at 5:00 a.m. to make it to the Taj for sunrise. We got out the door a little after 6:00, and, since sunrise was scheduled for 6:40 and the Taj was a short walk away, we figured we had plenty of time. Unfortunately, the ticket line was pretty long, even at this hour, and moved rather slowly, not to mention they didn’t even open the gates until 6:35 ish. We still managed to get inside in time to get lots of good pictures, although I had to enter ahead of Scott because the guards wouldn’t allow us to take our tiny tripod (which we weren’t even aware we’d packed) inside, so he had to rush it over to be stored in a locker 200 meters from the entrance. When I got inside the gate, I saw several people toting large tripods, however, which was confusing…Perhaps they were professional photographers who had paid for permits, but I couldn’t be sure.

We spent about two hours on the grounds admiring the majestic, beautifully crafted structure from the inside and out and taking tons of pictures in the process. It truly is an amazing building, and we were glad to have decided to visit it after all. A bit of history regarding the Taj Mahal…Contrary to my previous assumption, the building, constructed by an estimated 20,000 men over the course of 21 years and completed in 1653, was never intended to be used as a palace or, despite its Islamic theme, a mosque. It was actually erected by the emperor Shah Jahan as a mausoleum and monument of love dedicated to his beloved wife Mumtaz Mahal, who passed away shortly after giving birth to her fourteenth child. I was shocked to learn that when Shah Jahan’s son came to power, soon after the Taj Mahal’s completion, he imprisoned his father for the remainder of his life, depriving him of visiting his late wife at her final resting place. Upon his death in 1666, Shah Jahan’s body was carried to the mausoleum, where his tomb was placed next to that of his beloved. Interesting fact: every part of the Taj Mahal was built in perfect symmetry, but, since Mumtaz Mahal’s tomb lies in the center of the mausoleum’s interior, Shah Jahan’s tomb, located to her left, breaks that symmetry. This in no way affects the sheer magnificence of the structure, however.

Upon leaving, Scott and I stopped at a local sweet shop and bought some ofAgra’s famous petha candy made from crystallized pumpkin. Though tasty, it was extremely sugary and tasted nothing like pumpkin. It had an interesting texture, in that it was crunchy and dry on the outside, but had the consistency of saturated gelatin (similar to Turkish delight) on the inside. We bought a box for 40 rupees (less than $1) since nowhere was selling individual pieces, but after one or two pieces each, we couldn’t handle the sugar and had lost a taste for the stuff.

After our visit, we headed to – guess where! – Joney’s for breakfast, then took a rickshaw to Agra Fort. This predominantly sandstone citadel was constructed between 1565 and 1573 as a stronghold for Emperor Akbar and, later, his grandson, Shah Jahan’s Mughal Empire. This large, ancient complex was impressive and had several interesting areas, but it didn’t quite measure up to the Taj Mahal – and we became quickly annoyed with guides who wouldn’t take no for an answer when trying to get us to hire them as well as strangers who incessantly attempted to “discreetly” photograph us as we passed them. Despite these minor frustrations, we did spend a good deal of time exploring the fort and enjoyed seeing the sights there.

Following the fort, we headed to the nearby Kinari Bazaar to check out the Jama Masjid mosque and get some lunch. The mosque was positioned right in the middle of the bazaar’s hustle and bustle (i.e. high decibel mass chaos) and was literally surrounded on all sides by shops and stalls – so much so that we had to make an entire loop around it, pushing our way past rickshaw drivers, motorcyclists, and people trying to sell us things, just to find the entrance. After ascending the stairs to the mosque’s large open square, we were instructed to remove our shoes before proceeding. This wouldn’t have been so bad if it hadn’t been an open-air structure with pigeon feces blanketing the ground. Though impressive on the outside, the place was a bit underwhelming inside, so our stay was brief. We left and walked across the street for lunch at Chimman Lal Puri Wale for one of its famous thalis. The food was very good but extremely spicy…Scott and I were total champs and cleaned our plates, though. J The only oddities about the restaurant were that we were seated upstairs in a grimy room away from all the local patrons, and there was a waiter who, while transporting items up and down the stairs, would stop and stare at us for long periods of time.

We spent the remainder of our day hanging out in the hotel room since we were exhausted and Scott wasn’t feeling very well. I took a three hour nap while Scott spent his time more productively and read (which seems to often be the case…). When I woke up, we headed up to the rooftop to try to catch the Taj at sunset, but we were a little late. Still, we ate dinner at the hotel and enjoyed the nighttime silhouette of the building before returning to our room to pack. Our plan for the next day was to wake up early and take a public bus to the ancient city ofFatehpur Sikri, about an hour and a half away, stay for a few hours, then catch another four-ish hour long bus to Jaipur. We ended up carrying this plan out successfully with only a few minor setbacks, such as our inability to wake up early…but you’ll hear more about that in the next post!

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