Our journey to Agra started with us being ready for breakfast with plenty of time to eat and get to the station for our train. So we sat in the garden of our guest house in Jaipur and ordered some food. The staff in the kitchen, all 4 of them, then proceeded to take almost 40 minutes to fry two eggs which left us with no option but to take the first auto-rickshaw we could find otherwise we’d miss our train. Being two tourists with huge packs on our backs (and fronts), asking to be taken to the station and looking like we were in a rush, we were prime targets for an absolute ripping off. We decided to take this one on the chin and pass on our frustration with a bad review of the kitchen staff at the hotel on Trip Advisor!
After a problem free train journey, we actually arrived in Agra half an hour early and almost missed getting off at our stop. We got to our guest house to find our room was damp, full of mosquitos and had no hot shower! After finding out that we wouldn’t be able to upgrade to a decent room until the following morning we decided to relax in the lovely communal garden and then head out into the small city to find ourselves some dinner. We ended up having one of the best thalis in India so far at a little place called Taj Cafe, a family run small restaurant which is set up on the two balconies of the family’s house. Two amazing veg thalis, a lovely masala dosa and teas all for about £2.40. Such good value, that we decided to come back on our last evening in Agra. After that meal we headed back to the room, charged the camera batteries, set up our mosquito net and had an early night to make sure we’d be ready to be up well before dawn for the main event, the Taj Mahal!
We had intentionally booked ourselves a room at a guest house that is situated right next door to the east gate of the grounds of the Taj Mahal. It’s apparently the least busy of the three gates and we intended to be at the front of the queue before 6am to be able to get inside the grounds first. We were up at 5.30am and everything went to plan, except for two things. Firstly, we arrived at the gate to find 6 people already queueing. Secondly, we joined the queue at positions 7 and 8 and were promptly told that the ticket office was a kilometre away – even further up the road than our guest house was! It had been moved there from just outside the gate since the publication of our guide book so we had no idea about the new position. I had a nice 2km morning jog to wake me up and by the time I returned with the tickets the queue of 6 had turned to about 60. Shit.
It didn’t matter too much, we realised that by the time we turned the corner to see the Taj in all of its glory, we wouldn’t have got that elusive photograph that’s completely void of people anyway. It was very busy with tourists, but it didn’t matter. There’s just something about walking around the grounds while the sun is rising with the beautiful Taj always in view that just makes everyone that little bit more relaxed. Except around one little spot… that single bench where Diana had her photo taken in front of the Taj. Now that was a spot with a queue and there were certainly a few people getting pissed off with tour guides who seemed to love taking photos of every single member of their tour group, one at a time, in various positions, sitting on that bench. We moved on.
The Taj Mahal is simply awe inspiring and is by far the most impressive building I’ve ever seen, not only for its skilful level of construction but for its sheer artistic quality. It was a pleasure to wander around it as the sun rose and appreciate how the sunlight bounced around and lit up areas of its surface to made them look almost unreal. The way the light is scattered within the milky marble makes the mausoleum’s interior feel appropriately ghostly and beautiful. I’m sure everyone thinks this, but the building is much bigger than I thought and its scale makes it so much more impressive as a structure when you try and comprehend the techniques that must’ve been employed to build it using marble, such a heavy and expensive material for the time. Once you get up close you can see the amount of intricate detail that adorns its surfaces all around. It was built by the Mughal emporer Shah Jahan as a memorial to his 2nd wife Mumtaz. As a building at that time its scale serves to highlight how obsessively in love he must’ve been with her to have ordered its construction when she died giving birth to their 14th child in 1631, and to see it through to completion in 1653.
After our morning hanging out at the Taj, we headed back to our guest house for breakfast and to upgrade to a non mosquito infested room. Once we’d moved, we left for the 2km walk through Shah Jahan Park to Agra Fort, one of the finest Mughal forts in India. Including the section, built by Shah Jahan, in which he was imprisoned by his own son Aurangzeb and left to gaze out at his own creation, the Taj Mahal, for the rest of his life.
The following morning after breakfast we hired an auto-rickshaw for the day (which was such an easy haggle after Delhi!) to take us to some of the more distant but less visited sights in Agra. We spent the next few hours at Mehtab Bagh – the lovely floral park across the river from the back of the Taj Mahal, Chini-Ka-Rauza – a Persian-style riverside tomb, and Itimad-Ud-Daulah – a marble tomb known as ‘The Baby Taj’ which, while not as impressive as its big brother in terms of scale, is arguably more delicate in appearance thanks to its intricatly carved marble lattice screens and colourful inlays.
That evening we chilled out at a rooftop restaurant with a beer and some pakoras while we wrote a few cheesy Taj postcards that we picked up earlier in the day and watched the shadows climb up the Taj as the sun set over Agra. The kite flyers came out in force to fly their little paper kites from the rooftops of their homes which was pretty entertaining, especially when they flew close by and the string threatened to knock over a beer or two. We had the best seat on the rooftop with nothing blocking our view to the Taj, which was beautiful. After that we moved restaurants to return to Taj Cafe for our final thali in Agra, and to watch the Taj finally disappear into the darkness.
Later that night, we caught our 11.30pm sleeper train for the 12 hour journey to Varanasi.
Here are a few pictures from our time in Agra.