Sunday, June 5, 2016

The Taj city : Agra

I have been to Agra once before in 1995, much before the digicams came. So funnily enough, we took all of 3 photos of the Taj Mahal:)! And at that time, I did not know much of Mughal history in detail either. So I could not appreciate many of the sites I had visited then. Since then, for many years I had been planning to visit it again and the opportunity finally arose this year.

I with two of my girlfriends from college decided to go there for a weekend road trip, driving from Delhi. We started early on a Sunday with me driving, and were there within 3 hours. The new Yamuna expressway from Delhi to Agra is impressive. Its a great road where you can drive very fast.  We were mostly driving above 100 which was fun. The landscape around was quite boring though, it felt all dried up when we drove. That's the thing with highways na, so bland and without character!

On the way, there are enough services to stop at, for food etc.. We had an interesting experience at the petrol station though. The guy said he had filled the amount we had asked for which was incorrect. Then when he started refilling, he did not start the meter from 0. But asked up to pay the total of both the amounts!! We were quite insistent that he did not start from 0, so we should not and he finally agreed. But I learnt later that this is a standard way the petrol station workers fool customers!

We stayed in Agra for two days, visiting the Agra fort and Taj Mahal the first day and then Fatehpur Sikri the second. The Agra fort is a beautiful complex with many buildings of marble and red sandstone still standing. Apparently a lot is there no more, but what is left is mesmerising too! It felt a lot smaller now though from what it would have initially been.

Mosque in Agra fort
There were many different mahals and gardens to explore. The mosque, diwan-i-khas and the location of the peacock throne were some of the key spots. The other highlight of the fort is that you can see the Taj Mahal from there, especially from the mahal Shah Jahan was kept prisoner in, for the last few years of his life. And the first view of Taj is as fascinating as all the later views.

Diwan-i-Khas in Agra fort
First view of the Taj from Agra fort
Another view of the Taj from Agra fort

After the fort we went towards the Taj Mahal and got lost in the Agra galiyan. We followed directions to the East gate which took us through the narrow roads of Agra. It was quite a nightmare to drive there and I am very proud that I was able to:). There was two-way traffic with barely enough space for one car to pass!

Finally we got out of that maze and went through the North gate. You need to drop your car outside in the parking space, and then take an electric tuk-tuk to the ticket office. Tickets are quite cheap, about Rs. 20 for Indian citizens. You will need to show your ID though before getting the tickets. We took a guide to show us around and spent about 2 hours just admiring the beauty and intricacy of the Taj.

First view from entrance gate
Second view when inside
the entrance gate
The Taj Mahal

The Taj complex is not just the Taj. It starts with the grand entrance followed by the first peek at the beautiful mausoleum. And then you see the well laid gardens and fountains in front, the seat where celebrities get their photos taken:), the Taj with its four minarets built on a raised floor, and the identical mosque and rest house next to it. As you come close to the Taj, you start to notice the exquisite handiwork in the stones.

Images of the Taj
And then you realise, the flower patterns, the urdu ayats written on the walls and the geometrical designs are not painted! The shapes were carved into the building, coloured stones were cut to shape and fitted into those gaps, giving it the perfect illusion of being painted! As the guide took us around, he also showed some of the illusions built into the Taj - the size of the urdu verses is bigger on top than the bottom, to make the text appear as the same size; some of the geometrical designs were crafted so as to give it a 3-D feeling even when it wasn't and so on.

Images of the Taj
The minarets were being renovated when we were there. But even with that, the place looked fascinating, especially during sunset. We went inside the Taj for a tour, but it was a bit dark and crowded, so we did not spend much time there. We did see both Shah Jahan and Mumtaz Mahal's tombs inside, next to each other with an exquisite lamp above it and intricate carvings all around. And then I suddenly remembered an interesting saying I had read sometime - 'all you need when you die is enough space to bury you. And what a joke life played on Shah Jahan. Even after being an emperor in life, he didn't even get his own burial space! He was buried in what space was left next to his wife's tomb!'

Images of the Taj
I don't have any words which can describe the Taj's beauty and what you feel when you see it. The whole experience was so surreal, we were all lost in the place for long. It was very tough for me to leave it. The fact that it was closing made me;-). Otherwise I could have sat there for hours, just lost in its beauty and perfection! It's said that during full moon nights, the Taj looks even more magnificient. And watching the Taj during sunset from the garden across Yamuna is also an experience to be had. Maybe for next time:) (as I am sure there will be more visits!).

Images of the Taj

View from Sheraton's Taj-e-Jharokha
After this surreal experience, we checked in to the ITC Sheraton hotel located nearby. It was quite a foreigner focused hotel, grand but did not feel too authentic. We crashed after the long day but the next morning we realised, there is a terrace there called the Taj-e-jharokha from where you can see the Taj far off - a gleaming white against the chaos of the city in between. It left quite a lasting impression on me- the gardens of the hotel juxtaposed onto the chaos of the city, crowned by the Taj. Will always remember this view...

Buland Darwaza
After checking out from the hotel, we went to Fatehpur Sikri, again through small lanes of Agra where driving was an interesting experience. The place felt quite out of Agra, with its own small little town next to it. The palace complex is on a raised ground and split into two parts. The first is the Buland Darwaza and Salim Chisti's mosque. The second is the royal palace.

Poetry in red sandstone
We first went to the Buland Darwaza which as the name suggests, is grand. Inside, it is a beautiful square complex made of red sandstone and beautiful paintings and carvings adorning the walls and roofs. In the centre was Salim Chisti's white marble dargah, a poetry in white again. The whole area was very fascinating - the coolness inside the red sandstone structures, the light playing games with the carvings and so on.

Salim Chisti's dargah
But the whole experience was marred byall the ruckus created by people all around. There were too many people picnicing around, eating food, throwing stuff around and so on. The whole area was very dirty and not maintained at all. Maybe because it was free? I really wish it was better maintained, you could see the potential for it to be a place of such calm and peace; it felt the opposite of that when we went there!

Fatehpur Sikri
The palace complex next to the Buland Darwaza felt relatively small. There were a couple of mahals here - Jodha Mahal (the harem and not Jodha's mahal), King's mahal, the stage where Tansen performed, set amongst fountains, the multi-layered bhavan for watching dance performances, the kitchen, the Portuguese wife's mahal, the diwan-i-khas and the diwan-i-aam. All the places were pretty but it was too hot and we couldn't enjoy for long:(. We did enjoy reading up on all the stories though.

Fatehpur Sikri - Tansen's stage

Our drive back was a bit off the Yamuna expressway which in hindsight was not a great idea. We drove through Mathura and Bharatpur, through some quite narrow roads (Google Maps still has some way to go in India) and then we were back from the Mughal town to the hustle and bustle in Gurugram.

Other than the places we visited, I'timād-ud-Daulah's mousaleum, known as Mini-Taj is also worth visiting. And the park across the Yamuna overlooking the Taj, where Shah Jahan was planning to build another Taj in black marble. The platform where it was supposed to be built still exists and provides a good view of the Taj. The Yamuna, though a major river felt very lacklustre in Agra. It didn't have much water to be considered a full river even.

Overall, the tourist arrangements were convenient in Agra, and it was easy to visit these places. Traffic as expected was random. But everytime we would drive through the Cantonment areas, the road got fun to drive on. The only irritant in the whole trip though was the constant harassment by the guides. Young children and adults alike kept paining us to get them as a guide, even for as less at Rs. 10! And I don't think they are taught to accept no, they just go on pestering you. This is something that the authorities really need to sort.

Other than this, I absolutely loved the trip - spending time with old friends and visiting a place of beauty and history. And all for 80 pounds:). Given how much we spend on vacations in Europe, this felt unreal and more than value for money!

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