Although I visited Taj Mahal when I was too young to understand what I was beholding, I was awestruck by the enormity of the tomb. I carried the image of the huge, almost white dome, the intricate designs and the graves of Shah Jahan and Mumtaz Mahal with me. I somehow knew at that time that I will go there again someday; go there to absorb the city, to walk alongside the ghosts of the Mughal Emperors.
Almost 15 years later, I was back in Agra, this time with Geet – all romantic and ready to gaze at Taj Mahal turning pale orange while the Sun bow to the night. The first thing that struck me about Agra was how much the city has changed. I remembered it as a disorganized city, sprouting with rickshaws and horse carts, beggars and tour guides, Petha (an Agra delicacy) and souvenir shops. It was less disorganized. Urbanization has touched it.
We checked-in in a hotel which was at a walking distance from the eastern gate of Taj Mahal. In the hotel the water was salty and Dal Makhni was conspicuous by its absence but that is another post. There was an Agra tourism building right next to the hotel from where you could buy tickets for Taj Mahal. It was a clean building with foreign exchange counters, a restaurant/bar and numerous souvenir shops. There were battery operated cars, horse carts, camel carts and rickshaws to take you to the eastern gate. We got a guide from the tourism building and he introduced us to a photographer who was to take our pictures as we circle the white mausoleum.
A tip – It is a good idea to take a photographer with you and the quality of the pictures is great. Make sure you ask him the rate of each photo and then let him know the number of pictures you want him to take. Otherwise you will end up with a big album and a big dent in your pocket.
Needless to say that Taj is a beauty. You will end up staring at the magnificence for a long time. An image of it on television or a postcard can not come close to the experience of seeing it with your own eyes. It’s breathtaking. There is a legend that Shah Jahan wanted to build a black marble replica on the other side of Yamuna with a silver bridge connecting the two. What a sight it would have been.
Fatehpur Sikri was our first stop the next day. It is a city which was built by Akbar and have courts, royal palaces, private quarters etc all carved in red stone. It contains famous structures like Jodha Bai’s palace, Buland Darwaza, Tomb of Salim Chisti, Diwan-i-khas and Panch Mahal. As you move through these structures, you get an incredible feeling of moving back in time. Remind yourself that this was the place where Birbal made everyone laugh with his humor, Tansen sang his spell binding ragas, Jodha Bai and Akbar lived together and Faizi wrote his poems and you will get Goosebumps as you walk through the city.
A tip – Fatehpur Sikri is located around 50 kms from Agra and can be reached by a cab (~1400 Rs for a round trip). Guides, hawkers and small children will run after you all the time but try to avoid them if you know how to read. Learn to say “No” 100 times in 60 seconds.
Agra Fort was our next stop in the evening. The Fort was primarily used by Shah Jahan as his court. He was finally imprisoned and kept there by his son Aurangzeb and died there looking at the Taj Mahal from the southern walls of the fort. There is a sound and light show in the evening which is worth watching. By the time it will be over, you will never forget the bloodline of the Mughal Emperors or the fact that Babur gifted the Kohinoor to Humayun or Noor Jahan invented perfumes.
Next day, we took an autorikshaw from our hotel and reached Sikandra, location of the Tomb of the Mughal Emperor Akbar. It is a beautiful structure and the entrance is carved with beautiful, colorful patterns. On seeing the long, cold tunnel that takes you to the grave, I realized that I have been to this place earlier. It’s strange how I do not remember anything about the beautiful mausoleum but only that I was scared crazy while passing though that dark tunnel into an equally dark dome with a tomb in the center. We roamed on the pathway surrounding the tomb watching herds of deer laze in the gardens and then moved on to our next destination – Itmad-ud-daulah, which is the tomb of Noor Jahan’s father Mirza Ghiyas Beg and is one of the most intricately crafted mausoleums in Agra. With its geometrical decorations on the outside and fruits and flowers encrusted white marble inside, it is a beautifully created building. It might have been peaceful outside the mausoleum earlier, but now it is cramped with shops and blaring music. It’s a shame.
We were back to Taj in the evening, to have a look at it a last time as the sun fades away.
A tip– Try taking an autorikshaw to roam around in Agra if the weather is good. They are cheaper and we found the drivers very polite, even helpful. Day 3 cost us Rs 300 for the whole trip from East gate of Taj Mahal to Sikandra to Itmad-ud-daulah and back.
A recurring pattern which was disturbing was that many mausoleums require some urgent restoration. I really wish they are restored before they end up as irrevocable ruins. There were patched on the domes and walls which were missing. Elaborate craftsmanship lost forever.
The city left us in a flux of emotions. Although there are pockets of Agra which are underdeveloped and poor (You will encounter them while going to Fatehpur Sikri and Sikandra), urbanization and the remains of the Mughal era stand side by side as a reminder of how times have changed. In that way, the city is very similar to Delhi. It was the city of kings and looking at those proud structures made me wonder if we have an equally powerful legacy of our own times to leave behind.
[all the pictures are taken by me]