Updated: Sep 24, 2018
The next morning I checked out from my hotel and was on my to Agra on a Superfast Express Train, I arrived at Agra Cantt, one of the many stations to enter Agra, on schedule at 1400 hours. It was surprising how all my trains had been pretty much on time and didn't cause any trouble to my schedule. I took a rickshaw from the rickshaw stand outside straight to my hotel - Atulyaa Taj. The hotel had me sold when it said "600 metres away from Taj"
Let me warn you most hotels in Agra, from budget to 5-star boast about the "Taj View". If you look at the pictures, some of them look retouched. I would suggest you look at images by visitors on tripadvisor before you make your choice. I dropped my bags in my room and the first thing I did was to go rush to the roof and look for the view and I wasn't disappointed.
The view was amazing with the mighty monument of love standing tall at a distance. I was excited to be in Agra, this was one of the main reasons why I set out to travel. After all that contemplating and my Mother's fond memories of visiting Taj Mahal with my Father I knew I had to begin here. My visit to Taj Mahal was planned for the next day, I had asked the hotel reception to get me a ticket for Taj Mahal and a tour guide for the visit. For the evening I decided to go to Sikandra.
At Sikandra is Akbar's Tomb
Located at about 10 kms from Agra, it is definitely worth a visit even if you need to take a detour to reach this place.
The main complex of the tomb has distinct layers of construction marked in different colored sand stones. This is because Akbar started the construction of the tomb himself and it was later completed by his son Jehangir, who significantly modified the original plans of the tomb. Akbar was known for his religious tolerance and for promulgating Din-i-Ilahi, a syncretic creed derived mainly from Islam and Hinduism as well as some parts of Zoroastrianism and Christianity. This is evident on the Main Gate of the complex with various floral and geometric patterns dear to these religions and thus known as the Din-i-Ilahi Gate. There are three other red sandstone gates, one is Muslim, one is Hindu and One is Christian. The garden around the tomb houses many peacocks and black bucks, entering the garden is thus forbidden. The main structure houses the tomb of Akbar in the center and the tombs of his family members are in surrounding cubicles. The Entrance to Akbar's tomb is said to have been decorated with real gold paint. When India was looted of its many resources, these halls were set ablaze to melt the gold out of the walls and was taken away, what now remains is restoration work with golden paint. It's noteworthy how it's half done to remind people of that happened here. Wondering, how I remember all this in such detail? I hired a guide for this place and it was totally worth it.
On our way back to the hotel, we stopped at a local shop and I ate chaat. Agra is heaven for any chaat lover but you need to have an open mind if you've tasted chaat elsewhere especially Mumbai! Pani Puri, Aloo Tikki, Samosa, Paneer Tikki, Kachori and if that isn't enough you can also compliment your sweet tooth with "Agra ka Petha". After eating most of the items listed above I bought a box of petha for my Mother and then I stumbled upon a garment shop which had cool jackets on display. I bought a camel leather jacket lined with wool inside and I've worn it just twice ever since. I live in Mumbai, need I say more? Back to my hotel I had Chicken Peshawari Handi and Steamed Rice for dinner and went to bed early to make sure I am up at 0530 and ready to visit Taj Mahal when the gates open at Sunrise.
The next morning I was up early and at the reception just before sunrise, my tour guide and ticket arrived on a bike, we rode to the ticket counter at the east gate. He quickly parked and we made our way in, security here is strict, videography equipment isn't allowed so if you have a selfie stick with a stand they'll ask you to put away part of the stick at the baggage counter. It was early morning so the light was not as bright as I walked through the red sand stone alley and reached the massive gate inside. I was finally at
The Taj Mahal
As I entered through the massive gate the Taj Mahal appeared massive and close, as I was out on the other side it appeared smaller and farther. I guess I was in for a lot of optical illusions in the next few hours. Making my way through the crowd trying to click a picture of the marble mausoleum shimmering in the morning light. It needs no introduction but still, it was built between 1631 and 1648 by order of the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan in memory of his favourite wife, Mumtaz Mahal. It means Crown Palace and one can easily notice the octogonal shapes present everywhere. The lawns are massive and everyone was already queueing up at the famous Diana seat at the central podium. Yes, that's where Diana sat when she visited the Taj Mahal in 1992. My guide told me stories about Shah Jahan's life as we walked throught the garden, he later took me a spot which is said to be the place Shah Jahan would sit quaintly and watch the Taj.
Although known over the world as the "Monument of Love" it is important to remember that it is a tomb and one must respect that while visiting the main marble structure. You are requested to remove footwear or wear disposable covers over your shoes as you enter because of the same reason. When I visited the restoration work was in process with some parts on the yamuna-facing wall covered under a layer of Multani Mitti mix to undo the yellowness of the pollution, I guess we all need that occasionally! Most of the corners and surfaces are easily recogizable from the famous pictures, seeing them up close is awe-inspiring. You could spend hours here being inspired by every inch of this mammoth love monument. As per the tale, Shah Jahan had planned to build an exact copy in black marble on the other side of River Yamuna. This plan was sabotaged by his own son, who overthrew his father to acquire the throne, grounded him in the Agra Fort. Shah Jahan is now buried alongside his wife in the Taj Mahal. After spending about 4 hours in this complex clicking pictures and trying to get my John Lennon selfie right I headed out for my next destination.
This fort has a layout similar to the Red Fort in Delhi and is very well preserved. Constructed mainly from red sandstone, the defensive nature of the fort is evident from peripheral canal and garden which is believed to have aligators and other wild animals in the forts functional days. The multiple entrance gates that lead to a wide alley slanting up to the main area of the fort is also all strategically places to stop enemies at all corners.
A passageway that echoed horseshoes and large rocks tumbling down on enemies at the gate, that's some intruder alarm in its days. The fort is huge so its worth getting a guide or an audio guide. To me visiting this fort took me back to my history texts from school that told a tale of the great Maratha King and Warrior, Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj escaping from the fort in a box of fruits. There is a room where Aurangzeb imprisoned his Father in his last years, with a view of Taj Mahal, so he could look at his wife as he waited to become one with her for eternity.
This hall was decorated with colorful stones but some of it again has been wrecked by visitors, so most of this room is viewed from a distance now. There are two distinct rooms shaped like palanquins, although shaped alike one is made of marble and the other is bricked, this was because Shah Jahan loved one daughter more than the other as per my tour guide. There is a sound and light show at this fort after sunset if that is of interest. It takes place at a small podium with a view of the Diwan-i-am, the hall of the common people where Akbar would address his people. Overlooking the river and the distant Taj Mahal is Takhti-i-Jehangir, a huge slab of black rock with an inscription around the edge. The throne that stood here was made for Jehangir when he was Prince Salim.
Next I headed to Itmad-Ud-Daulah's Tomb
Often described as "Jewel Box" due to its sharp design and also knows as "Baby Taj". It is located on the banks of the river Yamuna. The mausoleum was commissioned by Nur Jahan, the wife of Jahangir, for her father Mirza Ghiya Beg, a Persian Amir in exile, who had been given the title of I'timad-ud-Daulah meaning "Pillar of the state" If you wish to spend some quality time on the banks of the river in style this is the place to be as it isn't usually too crowded and people don't spend too much time here as it's a small monument. It was another hour to sunset and I didn't realize how I spent so much time, to end the day I headed to.. Mehtab Bagh, directly across the Yamuna River from the Taj Mahal these botanical gardens give you a heavenly view of the Taj Mahal sans the crowd. It was almost sunset and I left this place as it shut and reached back to my hotel for a good dinner and sleep. In my opinion there aren't any other places in Taj that might be a need to go unless you are heavily into architecture and culture.
How to reach Agra?
Agra is accessible by Air, Rail and Road. The Airfares are higher and flights are limited. There are plenty of trains to Agra from any direction you wish to come from. It is well linked to Delhi by road with the Yamuna Expressway. A lot of people often make it a one day excursion to Agra from Delhi, you could do that if you are in a rush.
How many nights in Agra?
Ideally 1 night is enough you can arrive on one day visit a few places and the remaining places on the next day and head forward. Since I had time in hand I stayed two nights.
Where to stay in Agra?
For the royal experiences you can stay at ITC Mughal, Taj Gateway or Oberoi Amarvilas. There are a lot of budget hotels in close proximity to the Taj Mahal.
Next morning I was getting on another train for the last city of my itinerary - Delhi!
Delhi Via-Agra | You're in Agra