We awoke at 5:00am in our Amritsar hotel and checked the status of our train; it was running over six hours late! Luckily the India railway app is reliable and overall awesome, so we went back to sleep and got on our train at around 12:30pm. After a twelve-hour train ride, and an amazing visit with a family from Delhi, we arrived at our hotel in Agra just before 2:00am. We were anxious to hit the sheets. The hotel manager checked us in and showed us to our room. Our top floor room was fairly dirty, smelly and home to a number of mosquitos, but it did afford us a spectacular view of the Taj Malhal. It cost us 850 rupees a night or $17 CAD. The breakfast we had was tasty, reasonably priced and we got to stare at the Taj while we ate. Here is a photo of our view, however it truly does an injustice to what our eyes were experiencing.
We ventured out and made our first stop at the Agra Fort railway station. After painlessly purchasing our onward tickets, we visited Agra Fort, a beautiful ninety-four acre collection of palaces and gardens surrounded by a large fortification. Historically, Agra had been an important city for a long time and a fortress existed here since the eleventh century. The fort’s interior as it is today was created mostly by the same man who built the Taj Mahal and the Red Fort in Delhi, Shah Jahan in the 1600’s. He destroyed many buildings inside the fort that were of Bengali and Gujarati design, which were made from sand stone and replaced them with marble structures. The loveliest view from the fort was that of the magnificent Yamuna River and the Taj Mahal resting peacefully at its side. (see more photos on our Facebook Page)
After walking throughout the Fort, we departed and got a tuktuk to drive us across the river to the Mehtab Bagh, which translates to Moonlight Garden. Though a couple of travellers have spread myths that a “Black Taj” was supposed to have been built here, these have since been dismissed. The site was planned and created by Mughal Emperor Babur as a symmetrical, square garden, the last of eleven along the Yamuna River. Over a hundred years later, Shah Jahan recognized the site as a perfect place to view the Taj Mahal. In its day, it had plaster walkways and many pools and fountains. Though the modern garden itself was somewhat of a disappointment, perhaps due to the time of year, we did receive a beautiful view of the Taj Mahal from across the Yamuna River. Since it cost us one hundred rupees each to get in and two eighty rupee tuktuk rides, I would suggest skipping this excursion, especially if you are short on time, money or both.
We headed back to the Taj Mahal and paid our entry fee. Still incredibly reasonable by western standards, the Taj is definitely the most expensive site to visit in India; the tourist entry ticket costs 750 rupees or $15.00CAD. To our annoyance, we learned that our Taj Mahal ticket gained us entry to Agra Fort, so we wasted four dollars on those tickets early. Another annoyance is the perpetual hounding from shop owners and tuktuk drivers trying to get money out of us. One fellow traveller said it best, it’s like we are coins with legs walking around the city. While we’ve experienced this throughout India, Agra had definitely been the most aggressive. Brushing that off, we entered the Taj Mahal complex.
I don’t want to come across overly cynical, but while I did enjoy seeing the world wonder from outside its gates, once you get inside the complex, the Taj Mahal is probably the least romantic place in the world and definitely ranks as one of my less favourable experiences in India. Aside from the mass of tourists, the annoying touts and salesmen and the high ticket price, it was was dispiriting to see the hundreds of couples spending countless minutes crafting the perfect intimate moment, uniquely theirs, to be immortalized on camera. Since I’m running down the beach, kicking everyone’s sandcastle, I’ll also mention that the romantic Taj Mahal was built for Shah Jahan’s favourite of three wives after her death. She died giving birth to their fourteenth child. While this kind of takes away the magic for me, it was moving knowing the two were buried there, side by side. Passages from the Qur’an can be found throughout the complex and the gate reads,
“O Soul, thou art at rest. Return to the Lord at peace with Him, and He at peace with you.”
Even though this wasn’t my favourite place, we took our own smiling selfies and truly enjoyed the delicate artistry and precise architecture. I marvelled at the feat it must have been, to take all that marble out of the earth’s belly and craft it into a such a large masterpiece, especially in the middle of the 1600’s. It has been estimated that 22,000 labourers, artists and stone cutters worked on creating the Taj Mahal. Interestingly, Islamic law states that burials are not to be elaborately decorated, so the couple’s actual sarcophagi are hidden below the false graves which are open to the public.
We went back to our room and although our hotel was friendly and accommodating, the staff smoked cigarettes day and night. The smoke made its way into our room easily and my asthma did not enjoy it. In addition to this, the city of Agra is fairly polluted and I became pretty sick, developing a chest infection or bronchitis that would stay with me for a week or more. None the less, our few days in Agra, though not the most enjoyable, were an adventure we would not have wanted to miss!