A June 2000 trip
to Agra by actonsteve
Quote: No other attraction in the world beats the Taj Mahal. You cannot come to India without seeing this luminous building. But there is more to Agra then just the Taj. As you will discover, the history of Agra is the history of India....
But Agra has other attractions to entrench its place on the tourist 'Golden Triangle' route including the magnificent fort. There is no denying that the place is tough, even for experienced travellers and the street level hassle and problems can be incredible. But give yourself a day or two, an afternoon or evening to see the Taj or the Fort, and you will get into the swing of things.
Once you know your way around and are confident in taking the cycle-rickshaws then it makes a good base for seeing Fatehpur Sikri or Bharatpur. And south from here are the great Madhya Pradesh heartlands where you can see the great fort at Gwalior or the erotic temples at Khajuraho. But nothing can compare with the Taj Mahal. And it is many peoples reason for visiting India. And when you stand on that marble platform underneath the bulbous dome and watch the sun set on the Yamuna river, you too may agree that it is the most beautiful building in the world.....
Most famous for the muslim Moghul monuments built by the Shah Jahan and Aurangzeb - the city you see around you still has the layout from medieval times. It follows the west bank of the Yamuna river, a river that 200 miles upstream also flows through the centre of Delhi.
The tourist sights are squeezed between the Agra Fort in the north and Taj Ganj to the south. Great swathes of parkland seperate the two monuments giving Agra the impression it is as pristine as it was in Moghul times. It has ugly spots but on the whole much more spacious than I expected.
The exception to this is of course - Taj Ganj. The backpackerland grouped in the narrow streets south of the Taj Mahal. Here the persistence of the hawkers, rickshaw-drivers, beggars and salesmen reaches fever pitch and you may find yourself feeling very vulnerable. But the compensations speak for themselves - an easy walk to the Taj Mahal and often a hotel restaurant on the rooftop where you can watch the sun set on the dome while tucking into your coconut lassi.
Most of all they now have upped the entrance fee to the Taj Mahal. It has now risen to 500 rupees for foreigners (though still only 20 rupees for Indians. One of the most striking things is the gauntlet of vendors, souvenir sellers, restaurants and post-card boys near the Taj. Obviously used to the brush-off they mimicked us as we walked through, "No, go away! We don't want!"
My friend shot back.
"If you already know the answer, why ask the bloody question?"
Hotel | "Amar Yatri Niwas - a touch of Indian luxury"
Not used to such luxury we were caught out as bell-boys took our backpacks up to our rooms and the staff were so kind and courteous. The rooms themselves were marvelous with television, shower, killer-airconditioning and room service. The restaurant was good and the lobby inlaid with marble. There was a fine portrait of Shah Jahan gazing wistfully at the Taj Mahal on the wall.
But outside was the chaos of Agra. Along our road were most of the tourist luxury hotels (next door was a Pizza Hut). The predatations of the rickshaw drivers was just as persistant here and they prowl up and down the road looking for followers. We took one up on an evening trip to Taj Ganj where we wanted to take a look at the backpacker scene there. How very different, the streets were very narrow and the hotels very frequent. But the street-hassle was intense - people trying to sell us carpets, drugs, tickets, postcards. And autorickshaw drivers following us up onto the pavement eager to get the fare. It was the most intense we experienced since leaving Connaught Place in Delhi.
But as with most of India you weather it or go mad. And we found a terrific hotel with a rooftop restaurant giving us amazing views of the Taj Mahal. Night had fallen and the great dome and minarets were illuminated. And we could sit down with a biryani and lassi and watch the great building in the moonlight.
Member Rating 4 out of 5 on August 2, 2001
Amar Yatri Niwas
Fatehpur Sikri Marg
Like all great buildings, there is a story behind it. And it cannot get any more romantic than the Taj Mahal. Shah Jahan was the most charismatic and cultured of the Moghuls. He spent vast revenues on building projects all over northern India. And when his favourite wife, Mumtaz Mahal, died, he was so devastated that his beard turned white overnight. He set out to create an unsurpassed eternal monument to her memory, and construction commenced in 1632. It took 20,000 men, until 1652, to create what you see before you. Shah Jahan did not have long to enjoy his wife's mausoleum, as he was deposed by his austere son Aurangzeb and locked away in the Agra Fort. There he stood at the pavilions, gazing sadly at the Taj in the distance.
All tourists make their way to the Taj sooner or later, and there are plenty of ways to get there, including walking from Taj Ganj. The best way I feel is by cycle-rickshaws, which are often pedalled by some of the poor in Agra, and your fare is very welcome. From ground level you cannot see the Taj, as it is surrounded by high red walls, but after you have paid your admittance you can enter the first courtyard, the Chowk-I-Kilo Kham. These courtyards are full of green lawns and towering archways. You almost unobtrusively pass through the last archway, and then you see the Taj Mahal...
What is immediately striking is its graceful symmetry--geometric lines run through formal gardens, ending in a white marble platform. Atop this platform is a great white bulbous dome complemented by four towering minarets in each corner. The whole image shimmers in a reflecting pool flanked by beautiful gardens--the whole effect is magical. The first stretch by the reflecting pool is where most people pose for their photos. But we were impressed by the fresh green gardens and how Muslim the Taj looked. Doesn't the Koran say that paradise is a verdant garden? As you approach through the gardens, two mosques come into view flanking the Taj, both exqusitely carved and built of red sandstone. But everybody wants to find the famous spot where the east-west pool crosses the the north-south watercourse in a small pool surrounded by benches. This was the spot Princess Diana famously posed to show the sham of her marriage in front of the world's greatest monument to love...
We strolled up to the plinth and joined the tourists climbing the stairs to the platform. Shoes have to be removed upon entrance to the mausoleom and your bare feet bake when touching the hot white marble. We had chosen our visit carefully--the sun was setting and the light that washed over the Taj was golden in colour. The minarets were now stark against the setting sun (see photo). The actual dome was a surprise; it is not yellow-white but blue-white and covered in inscriptions and detail. From below it looked like something out of "Arabian Nights." But inside were the tombs of Mumtaz Mahal and Shah Jahan. The central tomb is a lofty chamber with light streaming through fine latticework, and hanging above was an elaborate Cairene lamp.
We came back the next day and spent more time at the Taj; we ended up spending 4 hours there altogether. And we know that when we return to India, we will go back again. Words cannot describe its beauty when you stand on that marble platform overlooking the Yamuna, with the setting sun turning it into a golden ribbon. You may also agree that this is the most beautiful building in the world.
Attraction | "The Agra Fort: The greatest palace in India.."
The Agra Fort was already a castle at the time of Babur, the first moghul, as it's strategic position at a shallow point of the Yamuna was much sought after. Successive Moghuls expanded the place but it really took off with Akbar the Great, who despite having attempts at having his court at Lahore or Fatehpur Sikri, spent most of his forty-five year reign there. But the Fort is most famous for Shah Jahan - who was THE great Moghul builder. But his building follies such as the Taj Mahal were not always popular with the nobles and when he fell ill in 1648 his place was usurped by his son Aurangzeb and the old man awoke to find himself a prisoner in the Agra Fort. Aurangzeb used to think up ways of tormenting his father. The only pleasure the old man had at the end of his days was to gaze across to the Taj Mahal, tomb of his beloved wife Mumtaz Mahal.
Save at least a morning or afternoon to see the Agra Fort. Not surprisingly Agra Fort railway station is beneath the north-western walls so if you arrive at this one from Varanasi or Gwalior it is just a short walk. But most people see it after they have seen the Taj Mahal - and I think it runs a very close second. An autorickshaw from Taj Ganj or the international hotels down Fatehpur Sikri marg will cost no more then 50 rupees, and a cycle-rickshaw even less. As you approach the scarlet walls of the Fort soar 40ft above you and I was amazed at their thickness. After a while in India you begin to steel yourself for the gamut of hawkers and beggars that wait at the entrance. One of the beggars was so deformed that he scuttled around like a crab on his arms while his legs were over his shoulders. You should try not to give any money as it will end up in the hands of a mafia who control the beggars.
But when you are through and paid your 400 rupees at the ticket kiosk you can walk up to the towering red Yamar Singh Gate. Beyond is a great courtyard flanked by redstone walls and covered in green lawns and hedges. It was dominated by the biggest Diwan-I-am (hall of public audience) that I had yet seen in India. It was a vast marble platform overlooking the gardens held up by arched pillars each exotically carved. This was where the Moghul Emperor partook of his daily audiences. Marble corridors led deeper into the palace, some were occupied by sleeping chowdikars (old men) or pi dogs, and they eventually spilled me out into another huge courtyard.
This one marked the start of the royal pavilions and was constructed with gleaming white marble and bright flowerbeds. The pavilions overlooked the eastern wall of the Fort and from there it was a fifty foot drop into a dry moat (see photo). The imperial pavilions had walls of fine latticework and domes and walls of fine marble. But the views from the pavilions were framed by arched columns - and stretched across the Yamuna to the Taj Mahal. This was one of the most exotic views I had ever seen - and took in the swathe of Agra's green parks, the curve of the river and the bulbous dome and minarets of the Taj looming above the green canopy.
Accompanied by the sound of weaver-birds I strolled through the rest of the pavilions and the views got better and better. My favourite was Musamann Burj, a turret with cupola extending from the fort walls. Surrounded by a marble verandah the octagonal chambed was surported by columns and had a lattice balaustrade with ornamental niches. This was where Shah Jahan used to come and gaze across to the Taj. Personally, I felt I was on the film set of "Octopussy".
I bumped into another British backpacker while wandering around the pavilions. "Isn't it amazing!" he grinned at me. I enthusiastically agreed. I defy anyone to visit the Agra Fort and not come out on a massive high - the place is unforgettable.
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