It’s 0730 and the sun is slowly trying to push through the cold, hazy air of Agra. From our bedroom you can slowly start to see the silhouette of the greatest monument to love that I have every seen - the Taj Mahal. From a greyish white it has now turned to a soft pink, and the hues will continue to change over the next few hours as the sun continues to rise. To add to the atmosphere, you can hear the morning prayers coming from the nearby mosques.
At about 1030 we will be standing in front of the gates to this most awe-inspiring monument. It truly deserves to be one of the 7 wonders of the world. When I saw it for the first time 9 years ago, the second I walked through the gates of the compound and got a glimpse of the Taj Mahal, I got tears in my eyes. To understand that this was built by Shah Jahan as a symbol of love for his most favourite wife Mumtaz Mahal, who had died giving birth to their 14th child, one can not but hope that you will one day meet someone who’s love for you will be expressed in such a monumental way!
For decades there have been stories that Shah Jahan was to build for himself a black replica of the Taj, on the other side of the Yamuna river. However, nowadays there seems to be a belief that that is a fabricated story that has been passed on through the decades.
After seeing the Taj, Robin asked me what is it that makes this building so special? My answer is simple: the shear size is impressive, the architecture and the materials used are beautiful, the story behind it is romantic, the setting is unique and it has been standing there for more than 350 years!
Other than the Taj, Agra is also known for the Agra Fort, and that is about it. There is really not much more to do in Agra other than visit these two spectacular monuments, so 2 nights here should suffice.
HOW TO GET THERE
> Train: There is an excellent morning train service called the Shatabdi Express that leaves Delhi at 0625 and arrives to Agra sometime around 0830. The train departs so early for it’s intended to give people an option to do a day-trip to Agra. We took the first class cabin and were impressed. Although the train had seen better days, the seats were wide and comfortable and a full-breakfast was served. We were also told that the train that we had taken on that Friday is an old one, for the Taj is closed on Friday. If you’re to take the train on any other given day, the equipment (along with the first class cabin) is new.
When you arrive to Agra train station, or for that matter when you take any train trip in India, it pays to have booked your ticket through an agency. Otherwise you arrive at the station with a million locals trying to sell you rickshaws, hotels, breakfast, bangles, trying to snatch your luggage to carry it somewhere, etc. Instead, the agency will organize a pick-up and whisk you away comfortably to your hotel. Of course one could say, like I would have 9 years ago when I was back-packing around India, that this is not the true Indian experience. However, when you’re there only for 10 days, one does not need to experience all the hustle and bustle of this grand country all at once.
> Air: The Agra airport is connected by discount airlines to several destinations within India.
WHAT TO SEE
> Taj Mahal: It is truly everything you would expect it to be: magnanimous, stunning and powerful. Even though I saw it before, walking through the archway and catching your first glimpse of this monument is very touching. And although there are throngs of people there to witness it with you, you’re somehow oblivious to their presence, for your sole focus is on the Taj. Completed it 1653, it took 22 years and 20,000 workers to build. The building was designed in complete symmetry and incorporates Muslim and Hindu architectural features. The onion domes are a Muslim feature, yet the inverted lotus on the main dome is Hindu. I also found out that the 4 minarets flanking the 4 corners of the Taj are built at 2 degrees of centre (away from the Taj), so that if an earthquake was to occur, the minarets would fall outwards and not onto the main dome. The symmetry of the Taj was finally broken when Shah Jahan died, for the son that imprisoned him did not want to spend additional resources on a new mausoleum for him, and instead decided to bury him next to his beloved wife to whom the mausoleum was dedicated. Thus, although in the initial design Mumtaz Mahal was to be buried under the middle of the dome, where she can be found, the symmetry has been broken by Shah Jahal’s off-centre positioned tombstone right beside hers. The Taj Mahal is something to be admired at anytime of the day, and changes colour and feel depending on the lighting and time of day. You can also see it during full-moon evenings, where the mausoleum is also open at night. The only thing to beware, the Taj is closed on Fridays.
> Agra Fort: I like to see this fort prior to seeing the Taj Mahal. Emperor Akbar started to build this fort in 1565, with each successive ruler trying to build additions that would out-splendor the previous Emperor’s work. Shah Jahan, who constructed the Taj Mahal, added a lot of white marble extensions to the fort and converted it into a palace, the marble inlaid with beautiful and intricate patterns, in a way similar to what you will find on the Taj Mahal. The fort has many impressive grand rooms, courtyards and gardens, several with a great view of the Taj Mahal. After all, this is the fort where Shah Jahan was imprisoned by his son, and was kept in a so called ‘gilded cage’ from where he had a view of the Taj Mahal where his deceased wife Mumtaz Mahal was buried.
> Shopping: as any place in India, your shopping opportunities are endless. Although there are better places in India to shop other than Agra, there is something native to this city and that is inlaid marble work. After all this is how the Taj Mahal and parts of the Agra Fort are decorated. There are several shops that will show you how this intricate, precise and very time-consuming work is performed. And of course, afterwards you will be coaxed into buying tables large and small, but that’s part of the fun. Remember though, that the first room in the shop that they will take you contains all the expensive products. If you decide not to buy anything here, then they take you to the second and third room with smaller and cheaper products. So it pays not to buy the first things you see.
>Oberoi Amarvillas Hotel: This has got to be one of the best hotels in this world. For one, every room has a view of the Taj Mahal. You can’t beat that! Being able to see the Taj as it changes colours during the day from your own hotel room, or from the lobby, or from the lounge area located on the terrace above the pool, one cannot ask for a better backdrop than that! The hotel is small, 102 rooms they said, beautifully appointed, with all the luxuries and amenities that one needs. From the time you walk through their arched entryway and see the quadrant of reflection pools with fountains in them, while being greeted by staff wearing elaborate Raj regalia accompanied by a broad smile, you know that you have come to a special place. The pool in this hotel is also amazing. It is sunken into the garden in front of the hotel, flanked by terraces on each side. Water from the many fountains is running down carved marble pathways that are cut into the terraces, the water ultimately finding its way to the pool area at the bottom.
When you are ready to go view the Taj Mahal, the hotel has golf carts organized that will whisk you the 600 m to the front entrance. For an adventurous return back to the hotel, we decided to walk back. It was a ‘colourful’ trip back, shall I say!
The spas at all the Oberoi hotels are run by Banyan Tree and I highly recommend them. I had a Hawaiian massage in this hotel which was excellent.
> Mughal Sheraton: We didn’t stay in this hotel but walked through it when we went for dinner at their Peshawar restaurant. I have to say that it all looked a bit dated. There were some big and interesting spaces, but everything was outfitted in uniform white marble, in places covered with carpets that have seen better days. Or it’s simply that after staying at the Oberoi, nothing else compares to it!
WHERE TO EAT
> Peshawri (Mughal Sheraton): The concierge at the Oberoi hotel recommended this as a great Indian restaurant, that is of course if we had to eat outside the Oberoi premises. We weren’t disappointed. Although the décor was nothing special, and the service a bit on the slow side, the food was very tasty. And it is mandatory to eat with your hands, like Indians do. To assist you with this you get a big bib, that looks more like an apron, so that you don’t dirty your clothes. Makes for an interesting touch!