MORE THAN TAJ IN AGRA
In a way to effectively utilize our mid-sem break, on 22nd March, at around 6:30 AM, Divas, Sohaib and I had left for Agra in a cab. Our start was terrible. Hardly had we reached Greater Noida when one of our cab’s tyres had a blowout. We anyway had to reach Agra by 10:00 AM as we had to get the tickets of night viewing of Taj Mahal from the ASI office, Agra. We were exasperated by the driver’s conduct as he was already late by thirty minutes to pick us up and lacked essential servicing of his car. He didn’t have a spare tyre either and took his own sweet time to repair the tyre. He took around an hour to get back the tyre and this only made us impatient as we had to reach Agra as early as possible. Once he was back, he promised us that we would reach Agra within an hour. Tension was still hovering over our mind but, we were slightly relieved.
By 11:00 AM we had reached the ASI office and we became jubilant when we saw a short queue waiting in the counter for the tickets of Night viewing of Taj Mahal where in fact, we expected a much longer queue. We immediately rushed to take a spot there and rapidly filled up the form. But, things took a serious unexpected turn. We all decided not to go for the Night Viewing and instead go for sightseeing of the city.
Reasons for this cancellation:
- The unhurried procedure of distributing the tickets coupled with the heat made us crabby. The ticketing officials literally took more than an hour to give out one ticket to a person. Only a very patient and tolerant person can bear this brunt.
- Few officials working there, few tourists waiting in the queue and one of Davis’s friends who had experienced this night viewing of Taj Mahal informed us that this wait for hours in the heat and spending 500 bucks for this night view is not at all worth it. The magnificent Taj Mahal becomes close to invisible despite the full moon, one has to view the structure from a certain distance making the view of the majestic monument hazy and moreover, photography is prohibited.
- Last but not the least, Divas’s persuasive and diplomatic skills worked to some extent.
Initially, I was adamant to go for the Night Viewing as I always believed, “Doing something and regretting is better than not doing something and regretting.” However, the wait in the queue easily made me irritable and I finally had to choose sightseeing over Night Viewing. Truly, it was a petty incident of “Grapes are sour.” If you still want to opt for Night Viewing then you need to be informed about certain things. Night Viewing of Taj Mahal is allowed during the Full Moon Night and two nights before and two nights after this day. This way, there will be roughly five days of Night Viewing of Taj Mahal in a month. It costs Rs. 510 for Adult Indians, Rs. 750 for Adult Foreigners and Rs. 500 for Children (3 – 15 years). To stay updated about the Night Viewing dates, you can get all the information at https://www.tajmahal.gov.in/nightview.html
And finally, our sightseeing begins. I have already been to Agra before but, the visit was only to see the Taj Mahal. This time, the rest of Agra deserves my dedication. Also, being a Friday we anyway would not have been able to visit Taj Mahal as it remains closed every Friday. We decided to begin our Agra diaries with Agra Fort. Certain items such as food and headphones (like, why?) are not allowed. I was neither very captivated nor very disappointed by this fort. Delhi’s Red Fort which is very much similar to this fort appears much grander to me. Agra fort was built in 1573 by Akbar. The fort remained the main residence of the Mughals till 1638. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and has impressive structures such as Khas Mahal, Diwan-i-Khas, Diwan-i-Aam, Jahangir Mahal, Machchhi Bhawan and Moti Masjid. It was in this fort where Shah Jahan was imprisoned for eight long years by his son, Aurangzeb.
After a delicious lunch, we were now on our way to the tomb of Itmad-ud-Daulah. Honestly, I was not expecting much from this site. As we crossed the polluted Yamuna River via one of the bridges and reached closer to this structure, I was not only astonished by its architecture but also by its management. It was far better managed than the world famous Taj Mahal and Agra Fort. It is nicknamed as Baby Taj and it is indeed very endearing. More specifically, the tomb of Itmad-ud-Daulah can be termed as one of the cutest structures in the world. It was built by a Persian nobleman, Mizra Ghiyas Beg who was the grandfather of Mumtaz Mahal and wazir (chief minister) of Jehangir. Doubtless, it cannot be compared to the Taj Mahal, yet it has its own charm that is worth visiting.
Not very far from this charming tomb is Mehtab Bagh and Chini ka Rauza. The driver told us that there is nothing in Chini ka Rauza that deserves our appreciation. And, since we were highly worn out and the nightfall was nearing, we dropped the plan of this barren (as described by the driver) Chini ka Rauza. So, it was time for Mehtab Bagh. This lush green garden can somewhat be comparable to Marine Drive of Mumbai. Both are places where tourists may end up spending hours doing nothing but, laze around. The difference is that in case of Marine Drive the sight to behold is the glistening Arabian Sea and in case of Mehtab Bagh, it’s the splendid Taj Mahal. The sensational breeze, the well maintained garden with refreshing shrubs and trees (do look out for the vast stretches of Mulberry trees) paired with the unparalleled beauty of Taj Mahal makes this place a perfect destination for couples as well as friends, who can spend hours chatting, gossiping, babbling and even flaunting about various topics of life. This sprawling garden was built by Emperor Babur.
I was immensely satisfied when we had left this place. It was time to relax our bodies which means set off to our hotel. As we took the cab to our hotel, we made another mistake which readily will make you question my planning skills. Our hotel was booked at a very reasonable price. I somewhat took pride in this fact. Since we had decided to dedicate our second day to Fatehpur Sikri, we planned to book a hotel near this place rather than in Agra. Our driver indirectly mocked us when we learned that no one stays in Fatehpur Sikri. All tourists stay in Agra and it’s only a few hours’ drive to Fatehpur Sikri from here. I was downhearted and upon reaching the hotel we realised that the hotel is far from the Agra City, which means the place is devoid of cab services like Uber and Ola and even Autos and it is not even near to Fatehpur Sikri. Also, it was difficult to get a cab from this place to Fatehpur Sikri although it’s nearer to Fatehpur Sikri than Agra. Finding no alternative, we immediately booked an expensive cab from the Make my Trip Application for the next day. The day ends with a fine dinner and a little bit of relief coupled with a chunk of regrets.
In an expensive cab, through those semi-avenues of Bikaner-Agra road, we arrived at Fatehpur Sikri by 10 AM. This UNESCO World Heritage Site is truly one of the best maintained destinations in India and has also received various tourism awards for its outstanding management. It is 40km from the city of Agra. It was the capital of Mughal Empire between 1572 and 1585. Fatehpur Sikri means the city of victory. Although the main construction of this historical city was headed by Akbar, the first to notice this city was Babur in the 16th century when he had defeated Rana Sangha, a ruler of Mewar. Unfortunately, the city had to be abandoned by Akbar. The reason for its abandonment is much debated. Some say, Akbar abandoned his campaign in Punjab. Others opine that the city ran out of water and Akbar had to leave this place immediately.
The architecture of the various structures present here is as interesting as the rich history of this place. One would easily be awed by the dynastic architecture of this fortified complex which sits on a rocky ridge. This complex can be divided into two sections. One includes the Buland Darwaza, Tomb of Salim Chisti and Jama Masjid. This one is free for the public. The others include Khwabgah Complex, Diwan-i-Aam, Diwan-i-Khas, Ibadat Khana, Anup Talao, Panch Mahal, Jodha Bai’s Palace, Naubat Khana, Birbal’s House and a few more. This section has an entry fee. There are other structures which lie outside the complex and can be viewed from the complex itself, such as Hiran Minar (Elephant Tower) and the fortified walls.
The complex begins with the largest wall in India, the mighty Buland Darwaza. As I entered this humongous gate, I was taken to a world of red sandstone. Barring the tomb of Salim Chisti every other structure was built with red sandstone. The white marble tomb of Salim Chisti is dedicated to the Sufi Saint, Salim Chisti who had predicted the birth of Akbar’s son, Jehangir who was born in this complex in 1569. The Jama Masjid of Fatehpur Sikri is smaller than the one in Delhi yet, it is considered as one of the largest mosques in India.
Moving further, we entered the other section of the complex which has much more to offer. My enchantment for this complex constantly ameliorated with every new structure that I came across. The Hall of Public Audience (Diwan-i-Aam) and the Hall of Private Audience (Diwan-i-Khas) have unique chhatris. It was in Diwan-i-Khas where Akbar had discussions with the representatives of other religions. Akbar laid the foundation of Din-e-Ilahi (Religion of God) in Ibadat Khana. The Khwabgah or Dream Palace is considered as the most beautiful building in this complex. In front of the Khwabgah Palace is the Anup Talao, which was one of the most endorsed tanks in Fatehpur Sikri. Naubat Khana which is also known as Nauqat Khana meaning drum house was the place where the musicians rolled drums as the Emperor had arrived. Birbal’s House, as the name suggests, was the house of Akbar’s favourite minister.
Every building has its own charm that distinguishes from the other. But, for me, Jodha Bai’s Palace and Panch Mahal stood out among the others. Jodha Bai’s Palace was the royal palace of Rajkumari Heer Kunwari, also known as Jodha Bai, wife of Emperor Akbar. She is now widely regarded in modern Indian History. This palace has a fusion of Gujarat, Mandu and Gwalior architectural styles along with Islamic designs. Panch Mahal is a five storied deluxe building which was supposedly used for recreation and relaxation. Apart from these, I also loved the lesser known and lesser visited Harem Sara which was used by the Emperor as a place for voluminous affairs of the ladies. Also, don’t miss to get a sight of the Elephant Tower which is a circular tower with stone projections in the shape of Elephant Tusks. Many believe that it was built as a memorial for Akbar’s dearest Elephant.
Covering this complex took a satisfying three hours. Now, we had to look for arrangements to return back to Agra where we had booked our hotel for the night and not somewhere in a lifeless location away from the city. We decided to take a Sumo from the highway (five minutes’ walk from the complex) back to Agra which costs only thirty bucks as opposed to 600 bucks for a cab from our previous hotel to Fatehpur Sikri. It was cheap but expectedly, we had a terrible ride. The driver compressed as many people he could in this small Sumo. It was a phase of distraught and the weather suddenly turned oppressive. Only after reaching the hotel could we breathe. You can try this to save your money but, at your own risk.
With lunch and some rest, we were ready for our next destination. It was Akbar’s Tomb. The tomb is not exactly in Agra. It is located in Sikandra on the Mathura National Highway Road, NH2. It is located forty five minutes away from the main city of Agra. Similar to various tombs, this tomb too has four gates, one being the entrance for the tourists. Tourists are permitted to enter the false mausoleum of Akbar which is in the ground floor of the building. The real mausoleum is in the basement which is out of bounds for the tourists. Look out for the person who gives you information about the tomb once you enter it. His chanting of ‘Allahu Akbar’ echoes and our auditory senses were relished by this. However, the tomb of Akbar which is showcased to the tourists is not as great as other tomb’s which I have come across previously such as Mumtaz Mahal’s Tomb (undoubtedly), Humanyun’s Tomb and Safdarjung’s Tomb. The tomb indeed doesn’t do justice to the incredible Islamic architecture of the buildings and the gate.
And, don’t you drop the plan of visiting this place. The place has much more to offer. The building is surrounded by Mughal-styled gardens where one can spot Peacocks, Spotted Deer and Blackbucks. Although we were done exploring the tomb within ten minutes, it was my decision to sit somewhere where we could get the sight of the lustrous blackbucks and embrace the serene atmosphere of the place.
We finally left the place after having a beautiful discussion about various aspects of life with each other, mostly politics. It may sound boring but, it truly wasn’t. I really enjoy it when our discussion gets heated. Once again, we were on our way to Mehtab Bagh to enjoy the sunset. We came to know that it closes thirty minutes prior to sunset and sadly, we couldn’t reach on time. But, our driver turned out to be a great one. He took us to a park very close to Mehtab Bagh from where you can get the view of Taj Mahal. It was not as great as Mehtab Bagh but, honestly it works. The park has various people that will draw your attention. Some were doing yoga, some jogging and my favourite, a bunch of boys boasting their B-boying moves. I always get fascinated by dancers and they were insanely talented. We spent more than an hour in this park and I enjoyed the calm and composed environment of this park.
The driver then took us to Sadar Bazaar which is the most popular market place in Agra. It seemed to me like an outlandish combination of Connaught Place and Chandni Chowk of Delhi. There are showrooms and street markets, restaurants and Dhabas, and street food and Pethas. I personally enjoyed the street food lane that sold pani-puris, chaap, parantha, tandoori chicken and so on. You can also find several Petha shops here, although I am not a fan of it. I was amazed by the uniqueness of the restaurants in this Bazaar. If you are looking for Non-Vegetarian food I was told that Mama Franky House is the best. For vegetarians, there are countless options to savour your tongue. Sadar Bazaar marked an end to our Day 2.
One must be wondering that we visited Agra and not Taj Mahal. How ridiculous can that be? We had kept this opulent and exceptional wonder of the World for the last day. Even though I had visited this structure previously with my parents, my elation to see it once again was really high, in fact much more than the last time. I guess that’s the beauty of Taj Mahal.
We left our hotel early in the morning at 6:00 AM, five hours before we had left the Agra City, to experience this majestic wonder at the crack of dawn. We took this decision as we have frequently heard that Taj Mahal looks even more stunning during the sunrise and the sunset. The history of this place needs no description. It is a symbol of love and romance, and it means ‘Crown Palace.’ Shah Jahan had built it for her loving wife, Mumtaz Mahal and therefore the name has been derived from her.
There are three gates for the entry – Eastern, Western and Southern. We had taken the Eastern gate and as soon we entered and gazed at the Taj Mahal, I was stupefied instantaneously. The dazzling aura of the white marble and the masterful architecture deported me to another world. It reminded me of Rabindranath Tagore who had described this monument as “a teardrop on the cheek of eternity.” Before getting on to clicking pictures to upload on Instagram, I spent a ten minutes to simply stand and adore the beauty of this structure. I have been to another wonder of the World, which is the Statue of Liberty in New York, which has its own extraordinary qualities but Taj Mahal appears far more beautiful, far more magnificent to me. The Taj Mahal pasted on the sky of the rising sun looked resplendent. Everyone ought to visit this incredible structure. In fact, I don’t mind visiting this world famous edifice again. The city of Agra is far from great. It is polluted, congested and a victim of haphazard development. Yet, I would be more than happy to visit this city only to give a glance at the Taj Mahal.
How well could we have ended this trip? It started off in not a very likeable way but, the conclusion surpassed the limits of satisfaction. Till the end of Day 2, I knew I wouldn’t miss Agra as much as I had missed the city of Jaipur but, the beauty of Taj Mahal will always attract me to this city. We took the 11:00 AM AC Bus from Agra ISBT and reached Delhi in less than four hours.
Best time to visit: October to March
How we reached: Cab
Other ways to reach: There are numerous buses that can take you to Agra from Delhi and other neighbouring towns and cities. Agra is very well connected by railways. It has five railway stations – Agra Cantt Station (the main station), Agra Fort Railway Station, Raja ki Mandi, Agra City and Idgah Railway Station. Kheria Airport in Agra is a seasonal commercial Airport which is only connected by Air India from New Delhi. Gwalior Airport is 100km and New Delhi Airport is 175km from Agra.
Travelling in and around Jaipur: Mostly Autos, Cabs
What we did and saw: Taj Mahal (obviously), Agra Fort, Itmad-ud-Daulah (Baby Taj), Mehtab Bagh, Fatehpur Sikri (Refer to Day 2 for details), Akbar’s Tomb, Sadar Bazaar
What else can you do and see: Chini ka Rauza, Elephant Conservation Centre, Esphahan (Only if you have enough money to spend on an expensive but, one of the finest restaurants), Taj Mahotsav (Every year in the month of February, a ten day event takes place in Taj Mahal), Night Viewing of Taj Mahal, Bharatpur Bird Sanctuary (1 hour drive from Agra)
Budget specifications (per head):
Cab (Delhi-Agra): 710 (booked from Make My Trip Application)
AC Bus (Agra-Delhi): 620
Cab (OYO Room-Fatehpur Sikri): 230
Sumo (FatehpurSikri-Agra): 30
OYO room for two nights: 1500
Extra expenditure (shopping excluded): 2000-2500
Total budget: 5090-5590
Few points to make your trip better/cheaper:
- There is no need to book a separate hotel for a visit to Fatehpur Sikri. It is easily accessible from Agra City and therefore, it is advisable to book the hotel in Agra.
- While booking your hotel, do verify its location. Try to book it near the Taj Mahal. This way you would save money as well as time. (This way the Cab booked from OYO Room to Fatehpur Sikri could have been avoided and instead public transport or cabs/auto could have been taken to Fatehpur Sikri at a much cheaper rate)
- You can also save some amount by booking normal buses or travelling via train.
- It is advisable that you take a guide in each of the tourist places. Audio Guides are also available in many of the places. This way you can learn a lot more about the places. However, beware of the touts masking as guides. Not all are authorised guides.
- Although there are many friendly and helpful people like our Auto Driver, not all areas in Agra are tourist-friendly. Therefore, it is advisable to not get into a fight with the locals. Also, that doesn’t mean you sacrifice your bargaining skills.
- Street shopping in Agra can be great. If you are interested in this, do carry an extra amount as you will be allured by the variety of products here. Look out for the leather products in various markets.
A Geography student from Kirori Mal College, DU. Apart from being an active traveller, he has always kept an interest in dance, languages and cinema.