Zoom in on… AGRA! One Day in the City of the Taj

Hey all! My day trip to Agra deserves its own post, I think, despite the fact that I only did a couple of things; I had an amazing day and there’s definitely a lot to talk about.

So, there’s pretty much one reason anyone goes to Agra, and that’s the Taj Mahal. The typical symbol of India, and one of the top tourist attractions in the world, the Taj Mahal really is something special. I mean, it’s famous for a reason, right? And it’s just one of those places that can’t be missed if you’re close. The “Golden Triangle” of Delhi, Agra and Jaipur if probably the area of India most frequented by tourists and travellers, and I am no exception.

Because Princess Diana has nothing on me...
Because Princess Diana has nothing on me…

I really wish I had more time in India to go south and see some other places, as the variation between regions in India in terms of language, culture, and of course food, if enormous. Another time, hopefully! I’m going off on a tangent again…

So, I’d booked my train tickets to and from Agra at the tourist booking office at the New Delhi Railway Station; this is a total lifesaver as it’s open 24/7, and the staff there don’t charge commission. The attendant who was booking my tickets seemed fairly exasperated with me from the word go, and remained churlish the entire time I was there. Some people…

My two tickets were only 240Rs combined; BARGAIN! On the way to Agra, around a three or four-hour journey depending on train and scheduling, I travelled in sleeper class for 140 Rs. As it wasn’t an overnight train, “sleeper class” was used as seating, and it was good enough to sit and read my guidebook and listen to music for a few hours despite being very basic and definitely not the cleanest train carriage I’ve ever experienced.

The way back cost 100 Rs for 2nd Class, and this seemed a bit of a step up from sleeper actually; the seating was a tiny bit more comfortable if quite a bit more crowded. And I wouldn’t have liked to be standing in that part. As yet, I haven’t tried a “general seating” ticket in India; not sure if I’ll get the chance, but that’s pretty much just a free-for-all for sitting on the floor. An experience I should try? Maybe.

My train left at around eight in the morning, and I got into Agra after midday. Only just managed to find the platform in time as the train wasn’t displaying on any of the boards and I had to ask several hassled-looking security guards… The weather was also totally grim; it was starting to rain as I left my hostel in the morning, and didn’t ease up until halfway to Agra. I was ecstatic when it did, as that would have dampened (literally!) the whole Taj Mahal sightseeing experience a good deal.

Agra is home to an amazing fort as well as the Taj, and a few other remnants of imposing Mughal architecture. I think it would be a shame to come to Agra, only see the Taj Mahal, and then leave again, as I have to say that I preferred the fort myself. The area away from the monuments and around the city, more of a town really, is something of a wreck and it seems a shame that somewhere which houses so many great sights is so run down in other parts of the city.

On another, more Western-consumer-trash note, I did see a Costa Coffee in Agra on the way back to the station in the evening! The first one I’ve seen here; wasn’t expecting it because it seems to be confined to England with Starbucks being the more international chain, but I guess Costa is spreading too?

After walking a short distance down the road from the station in order to acquaint myself with the area, I finally gave in to one of the auto-rickshaw drivers plying me for trade. I managed to get the rate down to 20 Rs for the 10km ride to the Taj Mahal main gate; not bad at all, if I do say so myself! I think I’m getting fairly good at this whole haggling thing… No joke though; those drivers are practically predatory.

As usual, there were different rates for foreigners and Indian nationals to see monuments, but at the Taj Mahal, this is taken to a whole new level. It’s daylight robbery. Foreigners pay 750 Rs entry whilst Indians pay… take a guess.

20 Rs! It’s really horrific, even though compared to British pricing, where you’d pay £20 to go to a Heritage or National Trust site, under £8 to see the Taj Mahal really isn’t bad. But being used to Indian pricing, it hurt the purse a little. I can sort of understand it, because tourists usually are in a position to pay more. Not everyone is though! It’s low season, so there weren’t many foreigners around at all, but still the number of Indian people coming to visit the monument too is amazing.

Just a bit of background; the Taj Mahal, probably the most famous Mughal monument, was built between 1631 and 1653, by the emperor, Shah Jahan (who built many other famous sites like the Red Fort in Delhi), in memory of his favourite wife, who was known as Mumtaz Mahal – the Chosen of the Palace. She died in childbirth with their fourteenth (?!?!) child in 1631, and the construction of her tomb began immediately after her death. The emperor was heartbroken and remained in mourning for many years. Workers and experts came from across the world to contribute to the building of the Taj Mahal, and the main architect was Isa Khan, from Iran; his tomb resides in the Lodi Gardens in New Delhi (which I hope I’ll be visiting before I leave!).

Emperor Shah Jahan was deposed in 1659 by his son, Aurangzeb. He spent the rest of his life imprisoned in the Agra Fort (more on this later), looking out over the Yamuna river to the Taj, the final resting place of his wife.

I also paid just over 100 Rs for an audio guide, because it is always a better experience to get a guide and some background rather than just wander around aimlessly. And I didn’t want to get ripped off by any of the guides offering to take me around.

There are fairly stringent security checks, and to my utter irritation, I had to trek out to the locker room and leave my laptop because they’re not allowed inside the Taj. Umm, okay? Anyway, at least is made my bag a bit lighter! I swear one of my shoulders is going to be permanently lower than the other… The hostel I was staying at doesn’t have any lockers, so I had to carry around anything I wanted to protect from possible theft, although the padlock I’d been given seemed reasonably secure. Sometimes I’m just reluctant to trust the staff.

As soon as I got in, began the whole “Just one picture?” thing again. UTTER NIGHTMARE. Leave me alone, people,  I’m just trying to live my life! No, I will not take “Just one picture” with you, your child, your pet monkey or anyone else. GOODBYE.

The “big reveal”, when I first saw the Taj Mahal through the main gate, was very impressive. It is a huge, marble affair which dwarfs its visitors, and it is impossibly white (although apparently being damaged by the high amount of air pollution in Agra which threatens to stain the pure white of the tomb). It is supposed to be a heaven on earth, and it lives up to its reputation.

As is typical of Mughal tombs, the Taj stands on a raised platform on the northern end of some ornamental gardens. A canal or watercourse runs down the middle of the perfectly symmetrical gardens, and it’s along this that you get the best distance-view of the Taj Mahal. I took some good photos, and despite the fact that at the best spots, photographers loiter around to take photos and charge you for digital prints, they’re also willing to take a few on your own camera for free. Plus, there’s always another helpful tourist around to take your picture for you!

The minarets – tall towers on each of the four corners of the Taj – are purely decorative. Thoug usually found on mosques, they do not function as a place for calling to prayer here, as the Taj is not a mosque but a tomb, and in fact faces the wrong way for Muslim prayer. There is in fact a mosque on one side, and an identical building on the east side which was used as a guest house for visitors to the tomb – it was made only for symmetry, as it faces away from Mecca and thus in the wrong direction to be used as a mosque unlike its counterpart west of the Taj.

Detail of the Taj dome and minarets
Detail of the Taj dome and minarets

Photography isn’t technically allowed inside the tomb – not that this stops anybody. Inside, the thoroughfare is so congested that you can hardly move as you walk in a circular route around the tombs of Mumtaz Mahal and Shah Jahan. The ornate marble tombs inlaid with carving and precious jewels which we seen in the intricately decorated tomb’s interior are not the actual tombs where the two are interred – these are in a basement tomb which is not accessible to the public. The Mughal tendency towards architectural symmetry is upset by the placement of Shah Jahan’s tomb; it is off-centre in the tomb next to the perfectly centred one of Mumtaz Mahal, suggesting he never intended for himself to be buried there.

The audio guide was very informative, and I’m glad I went for that rather than the guys trying to charge me stupid prices to take me around the grounds. I had a quick look around the small museum off to one side of the grounds, and then headed back out. At this point I was fairly tired from having been out in the sun in the the hottest part of the day, but I still wanted to see at least the Agra Fort. First off, I had to get an auto driver to take me to an ATM as the entry fee to the Taj had cleaned me out in terms of cash.

This turned from a 10-minute round trip to more than half an hour of driving around, as the first ATM was closed, the second wasn’t working, and the third wouldn’t accept my card, so we then went to two money exchange places – in the first of which the manager wasn’t around and the guy there couldn’t cope with an international money card, and FINALLY in the second one, I managed to get some cash out in the exchange shop – annoyingly with a bit of commission. I was so relieved!

We headed back and I gave him 100 Rs for his troubles, but the guy still grumbled at me for it not being enough! Tough luck, mate! I paid entry for the fort – only 250 Rs this time, and went on in. The Agra fort is huge – really a city within its walls, which stretch for 2.5km on the banks of the Yamuna not too far from the Taj Mahal. There are certainly some great views of the Taj from the Fort.

Not all of the Fort is open to visitors – unfortunately, the amazing Moti Masjid (Pearl Mosque) is only just visible over other buildings in the fort, and not open to the public. Construction of the fort began in 1565 by Shah Jahan’s grandfather, Emperor Akbar. It became a palace as opposed to a military structure in Shah Jahan’s time. There are the usual Diwan-i-Am and Diwan-i-Khas – the Halls to Public and Private Audience used by the emperor to receive officials and petitioners.

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There was also a Ladies Bazaar – here, female merchants would sell their goods to the ladies of the Mughal court. No males other than Akbar were allowed inside, but apparently he did still like to visit in female disguise. What larks? The Musamman Burj is the Octagonal Tower in which Shah Jahan died in 1666 after seven years of imprisonment, with views along the Yamuna to the Taj Mahal.

Lovely view of the Taj from the Agra Fort
Lovely view of the Taj from the Agra Fort

Other buildings in the fort include Jehangir’s palace, built by Akbar for his son; an enormous private residence, and the Khas Mahal, Shah Jahan’s private palace made wholly of beautiful white marble. The architecture of these places really is astounding. I’ve got to say, I much preferred the areas where there were hardly any visitors, and you could explore totally alone among the semi-ruins of the fort. Also, I went quite late in the afternoon, at around 5pm, when there weren’t that many people around; a nice contrast to my Taj visit! I always prefer exploring by myself – the hidden corners of the fort really appealed to me, and I’d definitely visit again to see more of it if I got a chance.

Late afternoon at the Agra Fort
Late afternoon at the Agra Fort

If I came to Agra again, I’d also want to make a point of visiting the deserted city of Fatepur Sikri, which isn’t too far from Agra and sounds right up my street. It would be cool to see the Taj at sunset or sunrise too, but sadly, just a day trip to Agra doesn’t allow for any of these things.

A few other sights in and around Agra which I didn’t have time for are Akbar’s Mausoleum at Sikandra, 10km north-west of Agra, and the Jama Masjid – another mosque built by Shah Jahan in the name of his daughter, Jahanara, who stayed with her father during his imprisonment at the fort, though not as impressive as the bigger mosque if the same name in Delhi. Also perhaps of interest is the Itmad-ud-daulah; this is the tomb of MIrza Ghiyas Beg, a Persian gentleman and chief minister to Jehangir, whose daughter later married the emperor. Her niece was Mumtaz Mahal. The design of the tomb foreshadows the Taj, built a few years later.

I just about had time to catch an auto to the train station and grab some puri (street food which may or may not have poisoned me – too early to tell), and then a samosa before getting to the platform to wait for my train, which was typically running late. When it didn’t turn up on time, I asked another couple of girls who looked like travellers from the west, and they happened to be going not only back to Delhi on the same train, but we were all sitting together!

Annie and Clare told me they were travelling after completing university, and were taking a flight to Bangkok the next day. In fact, they’re going to the Full Moon Party at the start of July, whereas I’m going a month later. We talked a lot on the journey back to Delhi in our 2nd class seats (mildly crushed by other passengers), where we also watched an argument over a seat nearly escalate to blows. Thrilling, really. Train arguments are great fun, when you’re not involved yourself!

We got an auto-rickshaw back to Main Bazaar in Paharganj – coincidentally the girls were only staying a few doors down from me in that road! It’s a small world… If you’re reading this, it was lovely to meet you girls and talk about our experiences in India so far!

Safe to say that I was absolutely worn out when I finally got back to my hostel, so I bedded down as soon as possible for a well-deserved sleep! Well, thus concludes my account of Agra – if you’ve got any questions, fire away! Anyone else been to Agra? What did you think?

X Bea

6 Replies to “Zoom in on… AGRA! One Day in the City of the Taj”

  1. Hahah, you seemed to have explored quite a bit! Glad you enjoyed the trip-and yeah you do seem to be quite good at haggling since foriegners are usually overcharged.

    1. Trying to see as much as I can without completely tiring myself out! Loving it! 🙂 Haha, I like to think I’ve improved a bit… I’ve heard awful stories from other travellers who have been taken in by the scams and ripped off terribly!

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