There are many ways to get from Delhi to Agra (Uttar Pradesh). I love a good train journey though, and India is one of the places in the world where you can still enjoy long distance rail travel. After meeting our five fellow travellers, we catch the 8 am express train from Delhi to Agra. This train is very comfortable, and a simple breakfast is served shortly after departure. We arrive in Agra two hours later, and are picked up by a private minibus.
For those familiar with the seven wonders of the ancient world, only the Pyramids of Gizeh are still standing. The “new” seven wonders of the world were agreed on in 2007 by popular poll, and are in no particular order: Petra in Jordan, the Great Wall of China, the Collosseum in Rome, Machu Picchu in Peru, Christ the Redeemer statue in Rio, Chitzen Itza the Mayan city in Mexico and the Taj Mahal. We are heading to the last one on this list. I will now have seen them all!
Our first stop is the red sandstone fort of Agra. The current building was constructed by the Mughal emperor Akbar, from 1565-1573, but it has been the site of the rulers of India since the Lodi Dynasty (1504-1526). It is a large sprawling structure, and more of a walled city, surrounded by a moat, then an actual fortress.
Agra was the capital of the Mughal empire until the mid 17th century, and a range of rulers put their own stamp on the buildings inside the walls of this fort. We see here the first marble buildings with the gemstone inlay for which the Taj Mahal has been made famous. And a giant hall of public audience, where the ruler would hear from his people and decide on smaller matters in life. The majority of the buildings are very well preserved, and it takes us well over three hours to walk around with our guide.
From inside the fort we get our first glimpse of the Taj Mahal, built by Shah Jahan in memory of his favourite wife Mumtaz Mahal. Shah Jahan spent the last ten years of his life jailed in this fort, imprisoned by his son. He died here, and his body was taken by boat to the Taj Mahal where he is buried next to Mumtaz.
Part of the fort is still in use by the Indian military, so is off limits for tourists.
The walk around is great, and the guide very informative. As we wait for the mini bus to pick us up from the exit, we get harassed by vendors, trying to sell us souvenirs and carpets. Something we are getting used to at each attraction.
Intrepid, our tour company, actively supports local cooperatives and collectives instead. In Agra we visit a wool dying and carpet making factory. We enjoy a chai and a samosa while getting an explanation of carpet styles and techniques (double vs single knots etc). For those interested, there is an opportunity to buy. The prices here are less than what you would pay at home for the same carpet, but not as cheap as you would think. Mind you, a full sized carpet with a tiger or elephant design may be hard to source in Kensington, London or the Sydney CBD!
After checking into our hotel and a quick shower, we are off for sunset at the Taj Mahal. You can’t drive all the way, instead, after buying the entrance tickets, we hop on the back of a golf cart and get taken to the main gate. The golf cart weaves its way through the usual crowd of cows, guides, souvenir touts and fellow tourists.
You feel the excitement building as we hop off and walk the final section through the main gate (Darwaza). As everyone else, we come to stop at the first sight of the Taj Mahal. It is an amazing building, photo’s can’t really do it justice. It is delicate, larger than expected, ethereal beautiful, and becoming more tangible as the sun sets and the colours change.
The Taj Mahal is actually a mausoleum, commissioned in 1631 by Shah Jahan to bury his favourite wife Mumtaz Mahal, who died giving birth to their 14th child. It took twelve years to complete. Her tomb is squarely placed in the geometric centre of the building, with his (slightly larger) tomb, being off centre next to it.
The Taj Mahal is made of a white marble, which on the outside has vine and flower motives in inlaid stone. and on the inside delicate mosaics incorporating both precious and semi precious stones. As a Dutch girl I am surprised to see that the mosaics include lovely tulips. They reflect the link between the Mughals and Turkey, the original source of tulips. After four hundred years this place is still breath taking!
It is lovely to walk around the park lands, experience sitting on the famous “Lady Diana” bench, and just soaking up the atmosphere of both domestic and international visitors.
To get to the platform of the mausoleum, we have to put on protective footwear, slip on little covers over our shoes. We are free to walk around the platform.
We join the queue (there is a one way system) heading inside the mausoleum, and walk around the two tombs. We do this a number of times to really enjoy the serene atmosphere and the spectacular mosaics inside.
The marble is suffering from foot traffic, human sweat. as well as acid rain and air pollution. Scaffolding covers the Taj Mahal at regular intervals to let a mud pack clean the marble. So check on the government website for access! While we were there the mosque next door to the Taj Mahal was scaffolded and covered for deep cleaning.
I get cornered by a photographer, for US$25 he will take a large number of portrait photos of me at famous sites around the Taj. Ah well, why not. I pose, and indeed, the photos that I pick up after exiting the park look good. However, the DVD that comes with it just has stock photo’s, not the ones of my session.
We have a nice dinner in the top floor dining room of our hotel. Sometime between 2:30 and 3:30 am I lose my dinner, and my lunch, ……and then my breakfast. My stomach is not happy…..
The next morning we head out early to visit the third “big site” in Agra, Fatehpur Sikri, only 39 km due west from Agra. Often overlooked by travellers, I can highly recommend to include this in your visit to Agra. This city was build as a capital city by Akbar in 1571, but was completely abandoned only a short time later in 1610. The reason for its abandonment is not clear, possibly a lack of water. However, the city lay hidden for centuries and became overgrown and forgotten. As a subsequence, it was not torn down for building material is very well preserved. The entrance is very imposing, a 54 metre high victory gate called Burland Darwaza. Once inside you still see the points where the elephants used to be tethered.
The buildings here are lovely, with lots of architectural details. There are remnants of murals that used to cover most of the walls, there are mosques, ponds, and a number of palaces, including one each for each of the important wives of the king. And there is an interesting tower with spikes, the Hiran Minar, or elephant tower. Stories abound on its purpose, is it a way marker, a memorial to a favourite elephant, or a memorial to the number of victims trampled by Akbar’s war elephants.
Fatehpur Sikri has been a real surprise. It is just of the main road from Agra to Jaipur, a tiny village not even visible on the map below. We head back into our bus, and continue to drive towards Jaipur, our next stop.
Travel Details and Tips:
Accomodation: Agra is not a very interesting town, there are a range of hotels catering for overnight stays for those who want to visit the Taj Mahal at sunrise or sunset. A one night stay should allow for visits to the Taj, the fort and Fatehpur Sikri.
Tip 1: Note that, as with just about all tourist attractions, there are two price levels for entrance tickets to the Taj Mahal, one for Indian nationals, and one for tourists. The grounds are open from 06:00 am to 19:00 pm (basically, from sunrise to sunset). Slightly longer during full moon for night visits.
Tip 2: Just take it as a given that you will suffer a stomach upset during your stay in India. Avoiding tap water, ice, iced drinks, fresh salad etc will reduce the risk.
When using bottled water, check that the original seal still in place, it might otherwise have been refilled with tap water. Use bottled water for brushing your teeth. My sister swears by going vegetarian for the entire stay and avoiding dining in fancy restaurants!
I would recommend talking to your GP beforehand, and besides the usual recommended vaccinations, a pre-emptive couple of general one-use antibiotics might do the trick. We were lucky to have a medical professional on our trip, who shared the details of the most common antibiotic with me when my issues didn’t clear up. I managed to get them over the counter in India, and was back to normal in a day.