For the first time in our trip we were taking a comfortable train, from Jaipur to Agra. As usual we woke up early in the morning to catch the 7 am train, which was delayed anyway because of the fog. But this time it didn’t matter, because the seats were very comfortable and we even got breakfast on board. I was a bit hesitant so I chose the vegetarian option, due to the fact that in my last trip to India, the chicken I had on the train made me so sick that I ended up in the airport’s hospital and I almost missed my flight back to Europe.
We arrived in Agra at around noon and a bus was waiting for us to take us to our hotel. By this time the weather has cleared up so our guide decided that it would be best to visit Taj Mahal in the afternoon. The guidebooks says that the best time to see the Taj Mahal is early morning, at sunrise, but because the weather is very unpredictable in January in the North of India, we didn’t take the risk of not seeing it because of the thick fog.
We got a half an hour rest to the hotel and then we headed back to the bus and up to the Taj.
Taj Mahal is probably the most known architectural monument of India and has a very beautiful love story behind it. It’s protected under Unesco so in the past years the traffic has been banned near it because it’s been proven that the fumes of the cars are affecting the marble Taj Mahal has been built out of.
The story says that Taj Mahal was built by Shah Jahan for his beloved wife Mumtaz Mahal (Chosen One of the Palace). She died giving birth to their fourteenth child, while accompanying her husband in a battle campaign. Shah Jahan mourned her for a year; then he decided to build the monument so that it illustrates their love story. It took more than 22 years for the building to be completed. It’s been built with ivory-white marble, gold and semi-precious stones, on the bank of Yamuna River. Inside, in the main chamber, there is a false sarcophagus of Mumtaz Mahal and Shah Jahan, their actual tombs being a level lower.
Shah Jahan died in 1666, after he has been exiled in one of the rooms of the Agra Fort by his third son. His body was then taken to the Taj Mahal, and he was reunited with his only love.
When you arrive at the entrance, you have to go through security. The rules are strict and you are not allowed to get in with almost anything (as a foreigner you actually receive a small bottle of water and a pair of plastic slippers to put over your shoes when you enter inside the Taj). Our guide advised us to leave everything in the bus and take just our cameras inside. Some visitors had food with them, which was a treat for the monkeys nearby, that were jumping down the trees to steal apples and bananas.
There are two types of tickets that you can buy: general admission or VIP tickets. As a foreigner, you will pay almost £8 for the VIP ticket, while locals will pay as little as 2p. As a result, the queues for locals always look like they are infinite. I managed to get through security in a matter of minutes though, and reunite with the rest of the group and the guide. He warned us that once inside, we are on our own and that we will meet back at the entrance at a certain time.
We made our way through the crows, went through the red gates and… there it was, at the end of a stretch of blue pools, shining in the afternoon light, the real Taj Mahal, the symbol of such a strong love story. White, surrounded by four minarets and reflecting in the calm water in front of it, the Taj Mahal is like a dream.
Is it impressive? Yes! But I felt that the whole experience was somehow spoiled by the huge number of people visiting in the same place and also by the security guards, who treated everybody like criminals. To get inside the Taj Mahal, the VIP ticket holders go through a special queue and don’t really have to wait. I also have to mention that it’s not allowed to take pictures inside and you have to be quiet, which is very reasonable. All good until here, we got in and tried to admire the architecture. But we were only given about 5 minutes to enjoy, as the security guards let the other ticket holders to get in. I can’t describe the chaos that followed: people yelling at each other, taking flash pictures, security guards pushing them around, hitting them with their sticks… and we were trapped inside, as you can’t get out until another security guard opens the door. I understand that it is an amazing place to visit, I understand that is one of the new Seven Wonders of the World, but there should be taken measures to control the number of people allowed inside each day. Same as it happens to all the other important monuments in the world, only a certain number of tickets should be available to purchase daily.
It felt much better to be outside than inside. It was wonderful to see the color of the marble change in the sunrise light. With it the, the crowds of people started to disperse and the atmosphere got much quieter. It felt very peaceful.
We had dinner in the evening on the terrace of a hotel, surrounded by monkeys jumping from tree to tree. I remember not being that hungry and ordering lime and sugar pancakes. I have to say that I absolutely love pancakes, especially because I can never make them. And India offered me so many occasions to indulge myself with my favorite dessert.
Back to our hotel, in the evening, we had a party, celebrating our guide’s birthday. We gathered in his tiny room, we played charades, drank beer and even had cake. It was a very enjoyable night with lots of laughter.
The next day, after a wonderful big breakfast, we had half a day of exploring Agra, due to the fact that the Taj Mahal ticket should have given us free entrance to the other sites in the city. It didn’t however. Firstly we decided to go and see the “Baby Taj”, which is the Tomb of I’timād-ud-Daulah, also believed to be the inspiration for the construction of Taj Mahal. The day was beautiful and the white marble was shining in the sunshine.
The place was very quiet, very few tourists being around. We could easily see why “Baby Taj” was the inspiration of the Taj Mahal: the white marble encrusted with semi-precious stones, the shape of the building together with the towers, the garden with the small water fountain (which was dry) and the position, on the Yamuna river.
After the visit to the “Baby Taj” we split into small groups, depending on what each of us wanted to see. My group decided to go to The Mehtab Bagh garden, situated in the North part of Agra, opposite the Taj Mahal. The road to there was very interesting, as the main bridge was in renovation so we had to go around a lot. We negotiated hard for the tuk tuk ride there and when we saw that we got out of the city, into a village and then into a forest we panicked a bit. Where were we going? The road transformed from pavement to dirt, but soon we found ourselves in front of a fence and a ticket booth. We were there!
The gardens are beautiful and the view over the Taj Mahal is breath-taking. The morning fog was lifting and the Taj was still surrounded by a shallow mist. A legend says that Shah Jahan was planning to build his own black marble Taj Mahal on this side of the river, to be his tomb, but he was imprisoned before he could manage to start the work. However, this legend has never been proven to be true and the black ruins found in the garden proved to be the remaining of an old pond. The garden was thought to be part of the Taj Mahal complex , both their width being identical. This place was created to be “a moonlit pleasure garden called Mehtab Bagh” and it’s populated with fruit trees and narcissus, along walkaways, pavilions and fountains.
We walked around the garden and then stopped on an old wall, on the shore of the river. The Taj looked wonderful on the other side, while on our side, people with animals were passing by in the sand of the shore. Somehow it reminded me of a scene from “Slumdog millionaire”. It had a certain kind of… magic, if I could say that. All of a sudden, an orange big butterfly found its home on my finger and accompanied us in our gaze around the garden, didn’t wanting to let go. It was cute. Unfortunately our time wondering around had to come to an end. We had to meet our guide back to the hotel, to get our bags and head towards the Agra Fort. After that we had to leave towards the train station and see if we were lucky enough to have a train taking us to Varanasi. Because of the fog, the trains were having huge delays – the day before, a group in the same hotel was telling us that they had to hire a minibus because the train they were supposed to take was over 12 hours late. And not only that, but all the trains in the past 5 days had the same fate. As a note, from Agra to Varanasi is not a short trip, but an over 12 hours one! Back to the hotel, we noticed that not all of us were there. But we were very hungry so we took advantage of the Pizza Hut downstairs, to go and try and Indian pizza. And what an experience! The employees even put on a dancing show for us! It was amazing! The food was all right also, what you would expect from an Indian pizza – very spicy.
Once all of us arrived, we headed towards the Agra Fort, the second most important building in Agra. The story of this fort is fascinating, as this fort was the home of all the mistresses of the Maharajah, the 5000 women harem. The women were very well organized, each of them had their own apartment in the Palace and they were also receiving a salary for their services. In front of the Palace there is a big round stone tank with stairs on each side. The guide asked us if we can guess what the purpose of it was. After all our tries were wrong, we found out the answer: an ancient Jacuzzi, for the Maharajah to bathe with his women. 🙂
The legend also says that the Fort used to be surrounded by a moat full with crocodiles, around a small forest populated by Bengali tigers. Pretty scary if you were thinking of conquering it, right?
During the time of Shah Jahan, the fort’s red buildings were destroyed and rebuilt with while marble, the Maharajah’s favorite stone. In fact, he died in one of these white rooms, exiled by his own son. His oldest daughter was the one that took care of him in the last years of his life and she made sure that his room in the Fort was facing the Taj Mahal, so that he can see all the time the grave of his beloved wife.
The details on the marble are extraordinary, and at a closer look you can notice that they are not painted but created by semi-precious stones blended into the white stone.
By the time we finished our tour of the Agra Fort, the sun was setting down. It was time for us to leave to the train station situated 2 hours away from Agra and see if our train was on time or not.