When one speaks of Agra, people will usually not know what you are talking of before you mention the Taj Mahal, although it is one of the biggest cities of India.
The town itself is not very appealing, with lots of traffic, industries and… the pollution that goes with it.
But the grandeur of the Taj Mahal and the prestige of the Red Fort is what you’re coming for.
World famous and pictured everywhere, the Taj Mahal is still overwhelming when you finally get to see it with your own eyes.
As many will know, the building is a shrine devoted by a Shah (Jahan) to his wife. It is therefore a monument designed to represent his loving memory of her.
When visiting, you’ll first have to go through the red outer wall through the main gate. It is itself astonishing, and the arrival inside the lush symmetrical gardens with the Taj in the back make for a peaceful and refreshing scenery.
When you’ll get closer to it, you’ll see the 4 sides of the building are symmetrically identical, as well as the 4 minarets surronding it. You’ll notice these minarets are slightly leaning outwards, so that, from ground level, they’ll seem straight, and not leaning inwards.
There are also two mosques on each side of the building, symmetrically facing each other. Therefore, only one is functional, the other one… facing in the wrong direction. As you’ll have guessed by now, the Shah didn’t forego any expenses to respect the symmetrical beauty of the design.
Of course, everybody wants to see the main point of this huge construction: the stellar itself. You’ll access it through a small door at the front of the building. Depending on the time you get there (read My Advice section below), the queue can get pretty long to get in. And, no spoiler intended, it’s not that interesting. You will have to notice, though, that the Shah was also burried there, in the smaller tomb, next to his wife.
Unfortunately, due to pollution, the white marble is slowly turning yellow. The city decided to have a 500m-square no car zone around the Taj Mahal and restricted any new industrial plant installation near the compound, but you can guess it doesn’t make big of a difference. Also, the tuk-tuks are not concerned by this rule, and are an annoying nuisance with their speed, noise, smoke and honking.
Arrive the evening before and sleep in Taj Ganj at a hotel with a rooftop. You’ll get to wander around the labyrinthic streets of Taj Ganj, hear the many speakers belch out music and prayers all at once at random hours, and probably spot a wedding procession walking down the streets.
Rise early in the morning and go to the Taj as close as you can to opening time, in order to avoid the crowds. Indeed, most people arrive by 4pm, when the train from Delhi comes in transporting its many, many tourists (see picture).
Don’t go to the other side of the river, as it is a tricky ride to obtain from a tuk-tuk driver. Plus, the pollution doesn’t make it such a great panorama anymore.
Another must do of Agra, the Fort is mostly impressive by its size and the size of its surronding walls, which run for around 2.5km around the compound.
While visiting, you will get to walk around several well kept courtyards, beautifully carved pavilions, harem room, ponds, everything palace life could bring you at the time.
Rumor has it that the Shah actually ended his life here, locked up by his own son, and could glimpse at the Taj from the wall windows.
Close to Agra, Fatehpur Sikri is mostly visited for its ghost town and palace, but also for it’s impressively big mosque. As I was unfortunately sick, I only got to see the mosque. Surprisingly, our hotel was behind it, and we needed to pass through… the city dump, lying right there. Another part of India, which musn’t be forgotten to the beautiful attraction we go to as tourists.
How to get there
About a 2 hour train ride from New Delhi Rail Station (there are many train stations in Delhi).
If you wish to book your seat, go a day or two in advance at the tourist counter, hidden somewhere in the station (don’t follow the touts or anyone else).
But, as experience tought us later on, for such a short ride, you can easily go in the second seating class, which doesn’t need a reservation, but for which you don’t have a designated seat. It’s a great way to meet indian’s, and they are so nice they’ll even try to find you a seat. Your call to accept or not.
When arriving in Agra Cant., simply grab a rickshaw from the station to Taj Ganj. You’ll notice many of them are not motorized, and driven by old people. Somewhat heart breaking, but it is often their subsistance money, and they’ll fight to have you as their customer! You can also tell yourself you don’t add to the pollution, this way.
After that, in order to get to Fatehpur Sikri, get back to the train station, and hop on the next train towards the west. The leg is quick, so take an unreserved ticket, and the price is ridiculous, something like 7 Rs/-. You’ll get your first experience of traveling with the everyday citizen. Like I said a few lines before, the people are great, will start talking to you very very fast, and you’ll get such an interesting time out of it that you’ll definitely consider going unreserved more often.