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Published: April 5th 2015
We were leaving Delhi and travelling south to Agra
, and we had a very early start. I’d set the alarm for 3.45am, as we needed to leave the hotel by 5am to catch our 6am train. However, we overslept and didn’t wake until 4.30am. We managed to shower, pack and be in the foyer by 4.55am – it’s the fastest we’ve ever moved in the morning.
We jumped into a taxi and made our way through the city’s thick morning fog to New Delhi station. We arrived at 5.30am, walked along the busy platform and waited for our train. When it arrived we clambered on board, found our seats and jostled for space to store our packs in the overhead racks. We lurched out of Delhi at 6am and travelled through thick fog for the entire three hour journey to Agra. Breakfast was included in the train fare, and it comprised tea, biscuits, vadais
(fried savoury lentils fritters), uppuma
(semolina cooked with onions, peas, cashews and raisins), sambar
(a dahl based thin vegetable curry), coconut chutney, bread and lemon water. It was surprisingly good. We also received a complimentary newspaper (the Hindustan Times), so I spent the first
part of the journey reading the ‘matrimonials’ section with headings such as ‘Brides Wanted’ and ‘Grooms Wanted’. It’s become the go-to section of every paper I’ve read since we’ve been in India.
We arrived in Agra at 9am. It was too early to check into our hotel, so we headed straight to Agra Fort. We arrived at 9.30am and wandered around the enormous structure for two hours. It was an amazing place. The Taj Mahal is normally visible from the Fort, but the fog was so thick that we could barely see 100 metres from the fortress walls.
We left at 11.30am and opted for an early lunch at Maya Restaurant. Ren had a dahl tadka
(cooked lentils topped with tempered spices) and plain naans
(leavened bread cooked in a wood fired oven), while I opted for a kabuli naan
(naan stuffed with dates and dry fruits and topped with butter). It was fantastic. We both needed a masala chai
(spiced sweet milky tea) to warm up, as our body temperatures had dropped considerably in the chilly morning air. We finished the meal with a lassi
(frothy yogurt and milk drink) and headed to Hotel Taj Resorts. Our
rooms were ready, so we checked in, organised a small day pack and made our way to the Taj Mahal. Visibility is best in the mid to late afternoon in Agra at this time of year, so that’s why we were visiting after lunch. If we had gone in the morning, we would hardly have seen a thing. Our fingers were crossed.
We arrived at the Taj Mahal at 3pm. It was overcast and raining, so photographic opportunities were scarce. I thought it was very crowded, but according to the locals it wasn’t crowded at all (due to the inclement weather). I quickly realised that I’d hate to be here on a crowded day! We managed to get a few iconic photos as we entered the main gate before the ruthless camera touts bullied us (and everyone else) out of the way to make room for tourists who had paid to have iconic photos taken of themselves. Bloody tourists! 😉
As we made our way towards the mausoleum itself, the sheer size and finesse of the structure began to sink in. I couldn’t help but wonder why so much money and time was invested into the memory of
a person. If the same amount of money and time had been invested into the emperor’s community, surely the memory of his wife would have had a higher (albeit shorter-lived) influence. However, the impact of this massive structure to India’s current economy can’t be played down, so maybe it was worthwhile after all.
We wandered around the grounds of the Taj Mahal taking pictures and watching other tourists take pictures. Every now and again the rain eased, and brief windows of opportunity opened for photos. We enjoyed capturing the mausoleum from different angles until Ren’s camera battery died. It didn’t really matter, because the late afternoon light was fading, the rain was increasing and the Taj Mahal was slowly being absorbed into the misty overcast sky. It was also getting cold, so after two hours of wandering we made our way through the eastern gate and grabbed a masala chai
in a small cafe to warm up. We then jumped into a public shuttle bus and made the short trip back to our hotel.
We headed out to the Silk Route Restaurant for dinner at 7pm. This was in the backstreets of Agra, and it was too cold
and too far to walk, so we organised a taxi to get there. We ordered handi gosht
(goat slow cooked in Indian spice in a traditional earthenware pot), kisani aloo
(large hand-picked potatoes filled with herbs and spices and grilled in a traditional clay oven), vegetable biryani
(dish of spiced rice and vegetables) and naan
. It was, quite simply, the best meal I’ve had so far in India. I needed a couple of extra strength Kingfisher beers to calm the green chillies we’d ordered on the side (or at least that was my excuse). What a sensational meal! We had a 7am start the next day, so we jumped into our taxi and headed back to the hotel around 9pm.
On the way I was sitting in the back seat of the taxi, so I couldn’t see the road. Ren was sitting in the middle seat, and she saw a puppy sitting on the side of the road near our hotel. The taxi driver ran straight over it without even attempting to brake. I heard Ren scream just before I heard the dog’s heart breaking yelp. From what Ren described, it didn’t stand a chance. I can’t believe our
driver had swerved at all costs to avoid cows on the road, yet he refused to swerve to miss this dog. Up until that point, the day had been fantastic, but this completely changed the tone of the day. SHE SAID...
It was still dark when we left at 5am for the New Delhi train station. We were catching the Shatabdi Express train to the Mughal city of Agra
, and we were leaving as early as possible to make the most of our single day there. We nearly didn't leave at all as the alarm didn't go off at 3:45am, and I woke to a frantic whisper from Andrew that it was already 4:30am. On the plus side we now know that we can both shower and pack and be ready in 25 minutes flat! 😊
We split into two groups for the 20 minute drive to the station. The traffic chaos was unbelievable, even at 5:30am! The station was already a hive of activity, but the front section sadly had about fifty or so people sleeping on the cold floor. I couldn't tell if they were camping overnight while waiting for trains, or if the
station becomes a default homeless shelter at night.
We were in Chair AC class. The train was possibly the most comfortable we’ve been on so far, and apparently it’s the fastest in India. We left right on time at 6am. The two hour trip turned into three, as the track was very foggy, but the journey still went quite quickly. The train attendant gave us a complimentary litre bottle of water, tea and biscuits, and breakfast. Breakfast was more edible than I thought it would be – brown bread, butter, two vadais
(fried savoury lentils fritters), coconut chutney, a palm sized cake of uppuma
(semolina cooked with onions, peas, cashews and raisins) and a sambar
(a dahl based thin vegetable curry). I didn't have the tub of lemon water, as I was on my usual dehydration routine that I employ for train travel. The landscape remained foggy and frosty for the whole trip, but I caught glimpses of villages and fields covered in a yellow flowering plant as we sped by (I later learnt it was mustard/rapeseed).
We had a quick tour of the city of Agra on the drive to the Agra Fort (also called the Red
Fort). What we saw of the city wasn't picturesque by any stretch of the imagination. I thought Delhi had a stray animal problem until we came to Agra. The number of street dogs, roaming cows, flea bitten donkeys and gangs of thuggish rhesus macaques was really heart wrenching. This was the India of documentaries on poverty – with rubbish heaps randomly scattered through streets, public defecation and rows of temporary shelters fashioned out of any materials at hand. The fog hadn't yet lifted, which added a further layer of grey and damp to everything.
Agra is a city with a rich Mughal history, and it is most famous for the iconic Taj Mahal. The Mughals brought two craft skills to Agra – hand knitted carpets and marble inlay work. I'm not so interested in the former but I was excited about the latter. Agra is an ancient city and doesn't just exist to service the Taj Mahal tourism, but sadly we didn’t get a chance to get to know the real city during our short visit.
We visited the Agra Red Fort, a UNESCO World Heritage site on the banks of the Yamuna River. Mohsin, our guide through
the fort, was from Agra. He was passionate about the history of the fort and the Mughals, and he managed to convey the details of life in the fort in a way that really brought it all to life. The fort was built by Akbar (son of Humayun) in 1573 for defence purposes, after he declared Agra as the capital. The fort is amazingly huge and built of giant red sandstone blocks. We walked in through the Amar Singh Gate. The four entrances to the fort had different levels of security, including a moat, drawbridge and multiple layers of entrances. The walkway we used was inclined and angled at 90 degrees so charging war elephants couldn’t get a run up before they hit the doors.
During the rule of Akbar’s grandson Shah Jahan (who built the Taj Mahal), white marble palaces were added within the fort walls. Ironically, one of them became Shah Jahan’s prison after he lost power to his son Aurangzeb in 1658. We saw the beautifully decorated rooms where Shah Jahan had spent his last days, gazing through barred windows towards the Taj Mahal.
The palaces inside the fort had beautiful carvings and sparkling coloured
stones inlaid in marble (they used to be precious stones). The palace designs displayed a skilful use of wind and water to keep the rooms cool in summer. There were large hooks for heavy curtains and rugs on the marble floor to keep the rooms warm in winter. Gold leaf and precious stones were used to reflect light in the internal rooms.
We only saw 15% of the Fort (the Indian Army occupy a large portion of it), but it took us over two hours to walk through it. This place totally grabbed me by the eyeballs. I really, really, really loved the architecture and design of most of the areas we visited. The vastness of the complex and the narrow and winding corridors that connected the different buildings were disorientating – which added to the mystique of the space. However, the additions to the fort and palace, which were in very different architectural styles (over extended periods of time), sometimes made it feel a bit disjointed. I really wished we had better light for our photographs so that I could have captured the depth of the beauty in the design here.
We had lunch at Maya Restaurant.
We started with masala chais
(spiced sweet milky tea) to warm up! I had a very ordinary dahl tadka
(cooked lentils topped with tempered spices), but the naans
(leavened bread cooked in a wood fired oven) were fabulous. Andrew ordered kabuli naan
(naan stuffed with dates and dry fruits and topped with butter) which he loved. We also ordered frothy yoghurt lassis
(salty for Andrew and mixed fruit for me) which were delicious. I noticed that the prices of everything were higher in Agra – possibly because there is a captive tourist market.
We headed to the Hotel Taj Resorts, which was one of the few hotels we've stayed at that was grander on the inside than outside. It was a super clean hotel and the room was smallish but very, very cosy and comfortable. Hot water systems (and their availability) have been hit and miss in most of the Indian hotels we've stayed in, but we had high pressure and scaldingly hot showers here – which was just as well, because we had our first rainy day and the temperature struggled to stay in the double digits. The hotel rooftop would have been quite lovely if the fog
had lifted and the rain had stopped. So for us, the view of the Taj Mahal from the hotel rooftop wasn’t a selling point.
I know the story of the Taj Mahal is well known, but here’s a brief overview of its history (...just in case). It’s a mausoleum built by Emperor Shah Jahan as a monument to his third wife Mumtaz who died after giving birth to their 14th child. He wanted the Taj Mahal to be constructed completely of marble but due to weight issues it had to be made from brick and clad in the stunning white marble which came from Varanasi. Building began in 1631 and took 20 years. Soon after the mausoleum was completed, Shah Jahan’s youngest son Aurangzeb (who is thought to have killed his brothers to secure succession) had Shah Jahan imprisoned for spending too much money on monuments (and to be honest, I would agree with this assessment). Shah Jahan was placed in the Agra Red Fort we had visited earlier, where he had a view of the Taj Mahal and supposedly stared at it for the rest of his days.
I had read that the best time to see
the Taj Mahal was at sunrise or at sunset, and it was late afternoon when we finally arrived at the gates by electric shuttle bus (petrol/diesel vehicles are not allowed within the vicinity of the Taj Mahal). Unfortunately, the sky was still a depressingly uniform cement grey and it had started to drizzle. As expected, before we even got to the entrance we had to fight our way through a scrum of touts and sellers of plastic crap. At the entrance it was a bit disconcerting to see two rows of riot police in full gear on either side of the road. I think they may have been stationed here for Obama’s visit, although the daily newspapers were carrying a story that he had cancelled his visit to the Taj Mahal.
We were given a free bottle of water and white plastic shoe covers to wear over our shoes (when we got to the white marble floors), and then we were pointed towards the outer east gate entrance. There was a gender segregated queue for security, which included body searches and bag scans – no food, hand cream, sanitisers, flammable or sharp objects were allowed in.
common at most Indian tourist sites, the fee for foreigners is much more than for local tourists (750 rupees vs 10 rupees). I think this is fair enough, but I have heard many mutterings from tourists that this shouldn’t be the case. However, none of these tourists seem to complain that as a result of this higher ticket price we were able to skip the very long entry lines the local tourists have to stand in.
The red sandstone walls that surround the Taj Mahal prevented it from being viewed from the road. Once inside the east gate, we walked towards the grand gate - which is a spectacular arch of red sandstone directly in front of the Taj Mahal. As we walked in we could see the top of the Taj Mahal behind the arch, but it was certainly a majestic and breathtaking sight when we finally stepped through the archway and were faced with the sheer size and beauty of it – a mass of white marble set amid beautiful formal gardens. It was quite apparent why it’s considered a masterpiece of architecture and design.
The thing with finally seeing an iconic ‘wonder of the world’
is that you get that strange feeling of matching the real thing in front of you with years of seeing photos and TV footage of it. It is quite surreal, but sometimes an anti-climax too. Luckily it wasn’t an anti-climax in this case.
I don’t normally get that excited about monuments, but for as long as I can remember I have wanted to see the Taj Mahal. And now that I was here, I was totally entranced by the way the light played off the marble (even in such overcast weather) and the meticulous setting of the whole complex. It has such a beautiful and magical atmosphere, and our photos just didn’t do this incredible complex any justice.
There were dozens of stern looking security guards sporting magnificent moustaches (which quite oddly, went very well with their berets). Even though crowd numbers were down due to the weather, there was still plenty of whistle blowing and yelling to try and keep queues orderly and the weird entrance systems flowing smoothly.
We walked down the central path which is flanked by formal gardens and water features. We spent some time circling the raised marble area at the base
of the mausoleum, taking in the geometric precision of the building up close and absorbing the atmosphere. We then walked back down to the red sandstone level to take in the mausoleum from all angles. Even though I have seen countless photos of this iconic building, I had never seen any pictures that showed the whole Taj Mahal complex. On one side of the main tomb is a red sandstone mosque, and on the other, a replica building for balance. The mosque is not open to the public, but the replica building is, and its archways provided the perfect frame for photos of the Taj Mahal. These are incredible buildings in their own right, but sadly overlooked by most visitors. Personally, I think the sum of the parts of the complex is far more beautiful in its symmetry and effect, rather than just the mausoleum on its own.
By now the muted foggy light was lower in the sky, and it provided a good opportunity for that classic photo of the mausoleum mirrored in the water fountains (taken from the raised platform that has the well-known ‘Diana bench’). It had been fascinating to watch the fading light change the
colour of the marble cladding from creamy white when we arrived, to creamy amber by the time we left. The Yamuna River snakes past the complex on one side, and I had planned to go to the gardens across the river for more photos. Unfortunately, that never eventuated because of the watery weather.
While walking around I saw a young couple holding hands at the end of an arched corridor, and it was very romantic; but it made me verbalise something that had been bugging me. This tomb that Shah Jahan built for his favourite wife has always symbolised a great romantic love that ended tragically – prompting many cliches like the whole ‘teardrop on the cheek of eternity’ thing. As true as the story may be, I can’t escape the fact that the love story is intertwined with jealousies and lusts for power within a highly dysfunctional family. Yes, it was built as a tomb for his favourite wife...but to me, the size and opulence of the structure screams ‘gigantic ego manic’ more than ‘true undying love’. Yes I know I’m cynical. 😊
Whenever we visit anything that has a lot of hype associated with it, I’m
a bit weary of how good it will really be. However, I think the Taj Mahal justifies the hype that brings millions of people to visit it. I enjoyed our visit to the Taj Mahal more than I thought I would, but it is a very popular tourist site and plenty of patience was definitely the key to a good experience (even though numbers were apparently down by 50% when we were there).
As much as I was impressed with the architecture of the Taj Mahal, I personally was far more impressed with the Agra Red Fort. That’s probably blasphemous to some people, but I have trouble with very, very expensive buildings that are built as show pieces with no functional purpose. I loved the practical aspects of the fort’s architecture and the clever and beautiful additions that converted parts of it into palaces. I love buildings and spaces that have a lived-in feeling – and quite strangely, the Agra Red Fort felt full of energy. The Taj Mahal, on the other hand, is primarily a tomb and a tourist attraction, and as beautiful as it was, there were no further layers to unravel.
We re-grouped at the
chain Cafe Coffee Day across from the Taj Mahal’s east gate. We ordered hot masala chais
to warm us up and then braved the rain and returned to the hotel.
Mohsin recommended The Silk Route for dinner, as they specialised in Mughal cuisine specific to this area. Andrew, Betty, Peter and I caught a taxi there and settled in for what was probably the best meal of this trip so far. On Mohsin's recommendation we shared kisani aloo
(potatoes filled with herbs and spices and grilled in a traditional clay oven), handi gosht
(goat slow cooked in Indian spice in a traditional earthenware pot), vegetable biryani
(dish of spiced rice and vegetables) and naan
. The biryani
came with a yogurt raita and the aloo
came with a green chutney of mint, coriander and green chilli.
We had asked for medium spiciness, so the waiter brought fried green chillies on the side in case we had meant 'Indian' spicy instead of 'western' spicy. Every single dish and side dish was outstanding. I hadn't realised that biryani
was a Mughal dish that has been adopted and varied by other regions. This was the best biryani
I have ever tasted!
It was a brilliant night, but it ended very sadly. On the taxi ride home, the driver hit a puppy on the road very close to the hotel. Betty and I were both shouting out that there was a puppy on the road, but either the driver had no idea what we were saying or he didn't give a damn. Given he didn't even try to brake; I'm guessing it was the latter. Andrew told me that I screamed at the point of impact, but I have no memory of that. I still keep seeing the back of that poor puppy's head just before he was hit. So much sadness. Needless to say, the driver didn’t get a tip from us. 😞
Apart from visiting the Agra Red Fort and Taj Mahal, we didn’t explore any other areas of Agra. I’m sure there are lovelier parts to it outside of the main tourist areas, but none that I could see on our very short 24 hour stay there.
Next we head west into Rajasthan to stay in the converted Madhogarh Fort.
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