Close Encounter of the Taj Kinds
A trip to the Taj Mahal is a lifetime experience. But a word of caution - the road is fraught with many obstacles, a heavy bag and unreasonable bureaucratic procedures being the lesser evils. It's the popularity of the greatest monument of love that spells the doom, as Shweta Singh Bawal found out......
An official trip took my colleague, Jayita and me to Agra, the city known world over for the exquisite Taj Mahal. My last tryst with the Taj had been on a school trip at the age of 8. Needless to say, I was in awe of this World Heritage Monument due to its looming presence, if not for the intricate carvings, gem-studded inlay work and its significant romantic and historical importance (all of which I did not understand back then).
Anyway, we arrived in Agra and got to work, trying to wrap up our official work ASAP in order to spare sometime for sightseeing, so to say. Of course, the only place I was keen on visiting was the Taj Mahal. At last, on the second day of our trip, we wrapped up by late afternoon so we could reach the Taj in the early evening to capture the sunset (through our camera, of course). Even though the internet has photographs of the Taj from all possible angles and taken at every possible time of day, to be able to capture the perfect shot on your own camera is another high altogether.
After two days of admiring it from various parts of the city, we were ready to experience it at close quarters. Efficiently planning our day, we reached just in time to catch the sunset effect. Having heard stories about how the last rays of the sun slide off the pristine white marble, giving rise to a myriad hue of colours, we were awaiting the moment when we would be enthralled by the breathtaking splendour of the most glorious 'monument to love'. I don't want to reiterate the historical story about why & how the Taj was built, since every person who is able to read this, is definitely aware of the 'saga of love' (if not, you really need to go back to junior school).
Anyway, with bated breath, we waited for the moment when we would come face to face with the Taj. Running through the hotel corridor, paying extra fare to the auto-rickshaw, shifting on to a cycle rickshaw at the periphery of the Taj boundary, we did everything in our power to get there on time. Alas, to no avail! Our country's effort to become more organised and create a convenient tourism infrastructure is still a dream. Rather, a nightmare!
First of all, no polluting vehicles are allowed close to the Taj, which is a good move to preserve it, except the cops will probably not allow your cycle rickshaw(!) upto the entrance either (someone please inform them about the toxic levels of polluting smoke emitted by a cycle rickshaw). Nevertheless, after cribbing about it all and walking two hundred metres, when you finally reach the entrance, awaiting you is a long queue of people waiting for their turn to enter. That isn't all, you need to deposit your cell phone and bag (if it's bulky) at government counters where, as is the case with any government setup, stands a snake like queue of hassled people.
The security measure is understandable and of course, required, but the way it is handled leaves a lot to be desired. After much ado and many more security clearance procedures, when you finally reach the spectacular Taj, the teeming millions of our country are there to greet you. Having gone on a Saturday evening, we witnessed the monument in its full glory, complete with its hordes of admirers.
There is no doubt that the Taj is one of the most amazing monuments on the face of this planet, yet the hassles that one has to entail in order to witness its stunning beauty, could lead to second thoughts while contemplating another visit. For all those not very comfortable with crowds, a word of caution, do not repeat our mistake; avoid visiting over the weekend. It isn't guaranteed that the place will not be flooded with swarms of people, but you will surely have much more time and peace of mind to absorb the charismatic presence of this member of the Seven Wonders of the World.
Agra, as a whole, lives through the Taj. Each individual, at every waking moment, lives, breathes and feels the Taj because the entire economy of the city is based on the popularity of the Taj. Not to say that Agra doesn''t offer anything beyond the Taj because the city does have a lot more to offer in terms of ancient monuments, a fascinating history and an unparalleled cultural bonhomie but all that one knows or wants to know about Agra revolves around the Taj Mahal. It has become the one source of livelihood for most people in the city and will probably remain so for times to come.
About the author:
Shweta Singh Bawal is passionate about travelling and capturing her journeys on the camera. She thrives on good conversations.
Jayita Ekka goes On the Road in the most famous city of India - taking auto rickshaw joyrides through narrow lanes, discovering the stunning monument of love - and realises that there are more hotels than people in the city!
This was my first official trip to Agra or for that matter anywhere and my second trip to Agra after a classic 14 years! Having gone there as a child, I din't have a prominent recollection of the city but yes, the Taj Mahal was distinctly imprinted in my memory and my visit there only glorified it.
Since we (my colleague, Shweta and I) had only three days in hand, we had planned our schedule strategically so that we could combine ourofficial trip with a little sightseeing of our own. So we boarded the Taj Express from Nizammudin Railway station early in the morning (6.30). We settled ourselves (Shweta took the window seat!) comfortably and decided that we will not let the journey go waste and would click photographs on the way. Four hours later I opened my eyes with a jolt to realize that we had already reached our destination...Agra Cantt.! After haggling with the cab drivers, we settled on a pre-paid taxi and headed towards our hotel on Fatehabad road, our home for the next two days. The journey was short and we passed through a stretch of beautiful green patch. The internal roads are narrow and lands pretty empty. A few constructions, maybe houses or who knows hotels (I think there are more hotels in Agra than the population!!) were underway. Most of the houses there are big bungalows or small habitats of the lower working class. After checking in, (Mr Gomes the manager was really Nice and helpful) we started with our task - survey of the hotel. The next two hours were interspersed between jotting notes and taking photographs of the entire hotel. Then Shweta and I split and we decided to go our ways to other hotels for the survey.
As I passed by the Agra roads, I realized that most of the hotels were situated in one line next to each other. No matter how good the hotel, the outside was not that appealing. It did not matter to anyone that the premises outside was dirty and crowded, with stinking garbage and pot holes full of water. Apart from that, there is lots of greenery in Agra, perhaps a conscious effort to reduce pollution, especially near Taj Mahal, but the 'still developing' town probably makes it impossible for the authorities to focus on that aspect at the moment!! In the evening, we decided to see Fatehabad road as we had seen quite a few curio shops. Apart from the constant nagging of the rickshaw and auto drivers, we had a pleasant time.
Next morning we were again busy with the review of hotels. An unforeseen situation after I completed my last quota of hotels, actually led to a pleasurable experience. I was to meet up with Shweta in one the hotels she was surveying, so after completion of my work, I thought of hailing an auto and meeting her. But to my disappointment, there were no autos. A group of youths were whiling away their time in an abandoned auto and little kids were playing with the remnants of a discarded tyre. While I desperately hunted for an auto, I was told by a cycle mechanic that I could take a rickshaw to the nearest bus stand and take an auto from there. So I hailed one and started on my detour journey. We crossed vast stretches of agricultural land lying barren, and just as I was just about to revel in free space, I got a whiff of cow dung lined out On the Road. As we turned round the corner, I realized that we had entered into a colony inhabited by the lower Muslim community. The place had a charm of its own...old women and men were guarding the loitering children and goats sitting on a charpoy smoking tobacco, while some men were playing cards in front of a 'pan' shack. I didn't see any women on the roads though. Either they are not allowed to come out or were too busy with the household chores.
However, I reached a traffic light crossing and was lucky to get an auto. I jumped into it and asked him to take me to VIP road near the Taj Mahal. After a joyride through crowded meandering streets, and an old market of hardware stores, I reached the eastern gate of the Taj Mahal. So I took another detour and somehow managed to reach my desired destination/hotel. Come evening and we decided to go on an eventful trip to the Taj Mahal. The route to the Taj was not very exciting as we navigated again through crowded and dirty streets, and to add to our irritation the tourist guides really kept pestering us on how important it is for us to go on a guided tour. The entrance to the Taj Mahal was packed to the hilt and after a series of misadventures; we finally stood facing the monumental Taj Mahal. The view was spectacular against the setting sun.
On our third day in
We befriended a very friendly auto driver on our way back from Sadar Bazar who took us to the U.P state leather factory located in a corner of the town. We found leather goods ranging from belts, wallets, shoes, sandals to jackets. We couldn't help thanking our stars for meeting this sweet old man, but later got to know that he gets some commission for taking tourists to the factory outlet!! Anyways, another place that deserves mention is the U.P state handloom store (govt. outlet) located right on Fatehabad road. One must visit this place to avoid getting duped by the local artifact sellers. The handloom store houses marble work, silk sarees and kurtis made by the inmates of the Tihar jail, pashmina shawls etc.
Worn out, we retired for the night for we had to catch a train back to
About the author:
Jayita Ekka is a self proclaimed foodie. While travelling she scours recipes that she tries at home. She also likes reading and classic rock music.
Jayita Ekka adjusts to the laidback life and absorbs the transformations in the City of Love and mentally makes a note to visit all the historical sites, expecting to unearth more about this historic city.
So I'm here again, for the second time in two years. Nothing much has changed in Agra. The roads are still full of potholes, the heat is still unbearable and the auto and rickshaw drivers as irritating as ever! But I realize, as I zip to the hotel, the humid air sticking to my back, that the roads are lined with shady trees covered with beautiful flowers, the traffic signals are working and that there are cops at regular intervals to assist visitors. As I pass the red sandstone ruins now overgrown with plants, I am impressed with its unique beauty. I adjust to the laidback life and absorb the transformations in the City of Love and mentally make a note to visit all the historical sites, expecting to unearth more about this historic city.
The architectural splendour of the mausoleums, the fort and the palaces are overwhelming even the second time around, and a vivid reminder of the opulence of the legendary Mughal Empire, of which Agra was the capital in the 16th and early 17th centuries. It ceased to be the political centre when the capital was transferred to Delhi by Shah Jahan in 1634. However, the architectural wealth left in Agra by the Mughals makes it stand out on the international map, towering above most in terms of sheer scale, intricacy, and beauty. With all this in mind, I readied myself for yet another visit to the Taj Mahal.
The Taj MahalM is an elegy created in marble by Shah Jahan for his beloved wife Begum Arjumand Bano, and is also known as the Mumtaj Mahal. Built over 17 years, from 1631 to 1648, it was completed with an estimated strength of 20,000 workers who toiled day and night to build the enchanting mausoleum on the banks of the River Yamuna. It is said that the accommodation of the fellow workers near the Taj Mahal resulted in the birth of a new town, Mumtazabad, known as Taj Ganj today.
Part of a vast compound comprising of a main gate, and an exquisite garden in the front, the Taj Mahal has a mosque on its left, a guesthouse on the right, and the River Yamuna behind it. The Taj Mahal stands on a raised square platform with four truncated corners forming an unequal octagon. An interlocked arabesque concept has been applied here, whereby each spire stands integrated with the main structure. The central dome is 58 feet in diameter and rises to a height of 213 feet flanked by a four subsidised domed chamber on its sides.
The mausoleum that houses Mumtaz's grave is decorated with inlaid floral designs proposed by Ustad Ahmad Lahouri, and calligraphy by Amanat Khan Shiraji using precious gems like agate, jasper, jade, and crystal. The archway that is chiselled with passages from the Holy Quran renders a unique charisma.
My next stop is Akbar's Tomb at Sikandra. Akbar started the construction of this beautiful monument himself. Located on the outskirts of the city, the tomb is a perfect blend of Hindu, Christian, Islamic, Buddhist, and Jain motifs. The chamber where Akbar rests is simple, and made of white marble. The complex also houses the graves of Akbar's daughters. Flanked by a well manicured lawn bordering a reserved forest area, deer and peacock often saunter across.
Unfortunately, Akbar died before his mausoleum could be completed and the construction was taken over by his son, Jehangir. The tomb has three-storey-minarets on its four corners. These minarets are built in red sandstone with stunning inlay work of marble.
Another personification of the Mughal architecture is the Idmat-ud-Daula, built by the empress Noor Jehan as a memorial to her father Mirza Ghiyas Beg, who was honoured with the title 'Idmat-ud-Daula', which means Pillar of State. This beautifully ornamented memorial has 'parchin kadi', also known as pietra dura, which is exquisite stone inlay and lattice work marble screens.
It is interesting to know that the Idmat-ud-Daula is considered to be Taj Mahal's predecessor and it was here that the white marble tomb was created for the first time in1628. Located in a walled garden, the cypresses and the geometrical designs in the structure are worth noticing.
After my architectural overdoes, I decided to head towards Sadar Bazar, one of the city's popular shopping hubs. Shops selling inlay work in marble and soapstone, built by craftsmen who are supposed descendants of those who worked under the Mughals, caught my fancy. Although a bit overpriced, I ended up buying mini Tajs as gifts for friends. Also intriguing are the carpets, gold thread embroidery or 'zari' as its is known, leather goods, brassware, and semi precious stone jewellery, which might burn a hole in your pocket, but will still make you really happy!
So, the next time you are in Agra, a city with a million flaws, and a million impressive monuments; surrender to the heat, traffic congestion and opportunistic auto drivers and discover why it is called the City of Love.
About the author: Jayita Ekka is a self proclaimed foodie. While travelling she scours recipes that she tries at home. She also likes reading and classic rock music.
Witness to the glorious Mughal-era and considered the epitome of architectural splendour and magnificence, Agra's coveted monuments have changed over the centuries. Go on a journey of discovery with Shweta Singh Bawal as she explores the city's relics.
Magnificence, architectural brilliance, craftsmanship...Agra's monuments are often defined by these terms and for good reason too. Every Mughal-era structure, not just in the city but the region as well, is a masterpiece in itself. Be it the grandeur in design or the intricacy in the murals and lapis-lazuli work, every edifice has a distinct characteristic and yet they're all conjoined through their Mughal lineage.
Given its significant past, legends abound in Agra, giving a characteristic distinction to its monuments, gardens, even its pathways. Every nook and corner of the old city has a story to tell, making Agra an intriguing and enchanting city dotted with ruins of monuments that have buried within them, deep rooted parables.
On my recent visit to Agra, I undertook the agenda to explore and unearth some of its lesser known monuments from the fascinating Mughal era. Due to paucity of time, my last visit to Agra had been restricted to work and visiting the conspicuous Taj Mahal (click here to read about that experience). So, this time, I geared up in advance, with an extra day in hand to explore some of the remaining wonders of the city that houses one of the Seven Wonders of the World.
One day dedicated to visiting monuments in Agra! I really thought that would be more than enough, considering its size in comparison to Delhi, the city I currently call home. As I discovered later, I miscalculated. Disorganised traffic and increased two-wheeler and pedestrian population, these were hurdles that I'd already considered. The positives were of course that distances are much shorter. And trust me, after years of living in a metropolitan like Delhi, shorter distances are blessings from God himself. No kidding! But what I hadn't realised was that every monument that I intended to visit was not just a monument, it was a historical relic waiting to be explored, complete with its tantalising tales. So, even though I intended to visit six historically significant venues, including Agra Fort, Jama Masjid and Ram Bagh, I could actually cover just three - Taj Mahal, Akbar's Tomb at Sikandara and Itmad-Ud-Daulah's Tomb. Another lesson learnt for the future.
Anyway, so my last day in the city of the Taj, starts with a visit to Itmad-Ud-Daulah's Tomb, a white marble structure designed along the same lines as that of the Taj Mahal and often referred to as the "Mini Taj". While most people assume that it is a miniature imitation of the Taj Mahal, actually it was built much before the Taj by Empress Nur Jehan for her father, Ghias-ud-Din Beg, the Chief Minister in Emperor Jehangir's court. In fact, this tomb was probably the inspiration for certain design elements that were incorporated in the Taj Mahal later. Both monuments were constructed along river beds, have a similar garden-layout and use of white marble besides similar craftwork like latticework, pietra dura and marble inlay work.
Next is a visit to Akbar's Tomb at Sikandra, on the outskirts of the city (you actually need to cross a highway to get there). Much like the other tomb, Akbar's Tomb is also set in a garden layout, except it covers a larger area and has lush greenery surrounding it. As you step in through the main entrance, you notice the distinct Mughal architecture, but what takes you by surprise is the presence of a herd of deer roaming the gardens here. The sole black buck amongst the grazing brown coats stands out and you can't but be gleefully excited like a child at the unexpected good luck, and continue clicking away through the camera. Once inside the red sandstone structure, you notice the latticework and the beautifully crafted murals. It's amazing how such delicate works of art have survived over hundreds of years; in part at least if not completely. Done with admiring the colourful dome, I notice a passage leading further into the building and follow the damp enclosed path to emerge in a large room with a very high ceiling. From the centre of the ceiling hangs a metal urn, which was probably used as an incense dispenser (there wasn't anyone available to clear doubts). Right under it is the grave of the greatest Mughal ruler, Emperor Akbar. A sole grave with no adornments, it stands alone in that huge room, making you wonder, and in effect poignant, that one of the nation's greatest rulers has been reduced to this - a solitary marble edifice, covered with a thick layer of dirt and mud, standing ill maintained in a dark room.
Moving on, as the day comes to an end, I hurry across town to the monument that is the highlight of any tourist's visit to Agra, what else but obviously, to visit that very monument to love, the breathtakingly beautiful Taj Mahal. I must mention, for the benefit of those of you who have or will read my other travelogue on the Taj Mahal, my intuition that Taj Mahal would be less crowded on a weekday compared to the weekend (my previous visit was on a Sunday) actually turned out to be right. Not only was it less crowded because it was a working day, I guess the milling millions also decided to stay away due to the heat wave that hits Agra at this time of the year (May - July). Be prepared to get scorched, or hope for a cloud cover, which pretty much means that while you won't bake under the sun, you'll still have to bear the humidity. Anyway, weather conditions aside, it's definitely a good time to avoid the tourist rush.
Taj Mahal, in all its white splendour stands predominantly as the king ruling the state, dwarfing the adjoining red sandstone structures, making them look like attendants in waiting. Past experiences always teach me well, so this time I decide to actually visit the Taj Mahal and not just see it from afar, something that I did last time - watched it standing on the platform along the darwaja, the main entrance. As you move closer to the Taj, the white structure begins to tower over you and soon all you see is white, the smooth white marble, beckoning with its soothing coolness. All your misery and cribbing over the heat and pollution and what not, the universe probably, gets transformed to stunned silence as the magnificence of this pearl like enchanting monument seeps in. If you're so in awe that an immediate tour of the Taj seems a distant possibility, as in my case, sit on one of the benches around the platform, and observe from afar for a while.
Keeping in sync with Indian customs, take off your shoes at the designated booths, before climbing up the platform that forms the base of the Taj Mahal.
While much has been said and written about the architectural and decorative nuances of the monuments, very few have taken the time to observe the tranquillity that surrounds it. Obviously, human presence disrupts the peace, what with school children on a day trip (I presume) running helter-skelter beside the tomb on one side and on the other side, infants wailing while their mothers struggle along, tugging at the saree with one hand, holding the baby in another and keeping the siblings under control with a stern look and frequent instructions. This scene, being a norm at most tourist places within our country, is not enough to pull you away from the soothing sensation that the Taj Mahal induces.
For me, this visit to the Taj Mahal has been an overwhelming experience, quite contrary to expectation, since my last visit was an awful experience due to the disorganised security measures and the crowds that I usually like to avoid. The only noticeable flaw within the premises of the Taj Mahal is the lack of access points for the physically challenged tourists. I actually witnessed a foreign national's struggle to find a way down from the platform of the main darwaja, so that he could finally complete the last stage of visiting this World Heritage Site. Imagine the plight of someone who has travelled thousands of miles, possibly undertaking multiple journeys on flights, trains and buses, to finally reach the doorstep of that majestic monument and then not be able to find access because our infrastructure has not been created keeping in mind the needs of all. Tourism facilities in India, be it in service or infrastructure, have definitely improved but we still have a long way to go. Hopefully, we'll traverse and conquer that path soon.
PS - For those who are interested, the gentleman I mentioned earlier was finally helped by numerous tourists who helped him around the complex, picking up his wheelchair in unison each time he had to go up or down a platform. It is gestures like this one that sustain my belief in the overall goodness of our country's populace.
About the author:
Shweta Singh Bawal is passionate about travelling and capturing her journeys on the camera. She thrives on good conversations.
Main Languages: Hindi is widely spoken and understood besides basic English.
When to Go: Agra can get unbearably hot, so the best time to visit Agra is during winters between October and February.But during winters make sure to travel with proper woolen clothes as Agra is pretty chilling during winter.
Local Transport: Small as it is, Agra is pretty easily navigable. Fatehabad Road is a central road around which, most of the hotels are located. From there, rickshaws, autos and cabs are readily available. Walking might not be your favourite thing especially during summers, but in winters walking down the mist covered roads of Agra and surrounded by green leafy tress can turn out to be pretty romantic.
Currency: Indian Rupee (INR) 1 USD is approximately 48 INR
Voltage: 230V / 50Hz
Time Zone: Indian Standard Time (UTC +5:30)
Location: Located on the banks of Yamuna River, in Uttar Pradesh
Nearest Metropolis: New Delhi, 253 km away