Agra is the home of the Taj Mahal, and as such – would be unmissable in a holiday to India.
We were told that the Taj is best at sunrise and sunset, because of the way that the light hits the marble. We chose sunrise, and had a driver pick us up at six.
Our driver was actually the taxi driver that took us to our hotel from the train station the night before; he met us at the station entrance, so we hadn’t realised that he didn’t drive a car. He drove one of these:
The good thing was that it didn’t go all that fast. The bad news was that it was small enough to weave in and out between cars. Appreciate that it’s the way Indians drive – but still bloody terrifying.
Our driver offered to take us around the next day, to the Taj Mahal, to other points of interest in Agra and then back to the train station. We agreed – we hadn’t had the best experience the day before, but it was an undeniably easy way to explore a city, and this guy’s English was a lot better.
In my life, I’ve never seen anything as famous, as instantly recognisable as the Taj Mahal. It’s such an iconic building, it would be easy for it to be overestimated – for the visit to be a disappointment.
Needless to say, it wasn’t. It is beautiful.
The sheer amount of marble is impossible to contemplate, and the effect of the light on the stone – incomparable. We had to remove our shoes to walk on it, and the whole time I kept thinking – I’m walking on the Taj Mahal. At one point I dropped my scarf; I thought my scarf has touched the Taj Mahal. It’s like the proximity to such beauty must make a mark, an impression. It was an absolutely stunning experience.
The Taj Mahal is a mausoleum for the beloved wife of a Mughal emperor, Shah Jahan. Completed in 1653, it took over 20 years to build – and employed over 20,000 artisans.
There’s no solid stretches of wall; it’s all arches and curves and cut-out sections. Even the blank areas are studded with jewels, or inlaid with intricate designs or pictures. Islam prohibits anthropomorphically imagery, so lots of plants and vases. The whole effect is mesmerising, it feels like you could spend hours pouring over a single stretch of wall. It’s also overwhelmingly feminine. Something about all the curves, and the way it glows pearly pink in the early light. As a symbol of lasting devotion to a beloved wife, it’s perfect.
The inside – the mausoleum part – wasn’t as great as the rest. It was beautiful, but there was no sense of peace that there was with the rest of the building. Visitors weren’t required to keep quiet, and there wasn’t a restriction on the numbers. It didn’t feel very respectful – but I suppose, that’s a difficult feat with such a tourist attraction. Also – no photos allowed. Apologies.
After we’d walked around the top of the building, my mum suggested that she stand at the bottom, and take a photo of me standing on the Taj. I was posing for a photo, when a large Indian family showed up next to me. En masse, they were about 30 people with many children. For all intents and purposes, it looked like a family day out. They all wanted photos with me. They kept saying ‘last one, last one’, then someone else would whip out their phone, and jostle me into position. Parents were physically putting their children’s hands in mine. I’d experienced this before in Mumbai, but still such an odd experience. My mum theorises that it’s because a) I’m white, and b) I’m taller than most Indian women (and, actually, men). This apparently makes me exotic – people want a photo with the huge white person. It’s definitely flattering, but I will be glad when I go back to non-entity status.
Wandering through the rest of the grounds, my mother kept pointing out the gardens. This is one of the many reasons I love travelling with her – she makes me notice things that would otherwise pass me by. The trees were labelled with their species, which she really appreciated. Beautifully maintained, it manages to feel light and airy – despite the huge number of visitors.
We’d seen a monkey or two in Delhi, but in Agra – they were everywhere. Walking back from the Taj, we saw a few on the wall and stopped to take photos.
Cute, yeah? This was moments before this monkey joined a group of monkeys, who then got into a snarling, biting fight with the other pack of monkeys on the street. These monkeys were tough – they were size of a small dog, fast and with sores all over them from fights. Standing in the street, we were suddenly in the middle of a monkey gang fight. It was terrifying; we tried to move away, but a couple of them ran straight at us. Petrifying.
Thankfully, a shopkeeper pulled us into his store out of the way – another guy came out of his shop with a broom and beat at them to break up the fight. They were totally calm; just another everyday occurrence. Later from our hotel room, we could see the monkeys racing around the rooftops; so fast, and so nimble. They’re large, they’re clever and they have hands which can open things. As far as pests go – I prefer mice.
Colloquially known as ‘Baby Taj’, the Tomb of I’timād-ud-Daulah is another mausoleum in the city of Agra. Also Mughal, it contains the interred remains of some deeply important people.
Built before the Taj, it’s seen as a first draft – it’s also beautiful in its own right. Same marble, same detailed inlays of precious stone, same imagery of fruit and birds and vases. A lot of vases; we theorised, but never found out why.
The Black Taj – is a bit of a myth. As legend goes, after Shah Jahan had finished the Taj Mahal, he wanted to build one for himself. A black Taj, to look out over at his wife’s white mausoleum from across the river. His son was not too happy about this; the Taj Mahal was a wildly expensive project, and creating another one would have cut far too much into the country’s wealth (or, cynically, into his son’s inheritance). The son imprisoned the father before Shah Jahan could finish the Black Taj, leaving only the foundations.
Historians have largely disproven this story, but it’s still a good one.
Across the river, we were in much more rural territory. Less tourists, less permanent structures – and water buffalos.
Our driver declared (with much self-assurance) that the Agra Fort was a thousand times better than the Red Fort in Delhi. After visiting, I’d probably agree. The Red Fort was mainly broken outer structure; this had infinitely more to see.
Also built of red sandstone and also housing Mughal emperors, they look quite similar; lots of the same scrollwork on the stone, and cut-out arches. Honestly, English architecture is so boring by comparison.
After Shah Jahan was overthrown by his son, he was imprisoned here in the Agra Fort. Supposedly, he requested that he be allowed to stay in view of his wife’s Mausoleum. So, he remained here for the ten years until his death – looking out across the land to his beloved Taj.
Agra was our last stop in our beautiful India adventure. We took the train back to Delhi, stayed overnight in an airport hotel and flew home in the morning. Then – back to real life.
India in Summary: Stray Observations
- I am white. Like, deeply white. Also very tall.
- The price of labour is cheap in India; every ticket entry that we went through, every shop had about four people doing (what I would consider) one person’s job. So many waiters, so many staff standing around to attention.
- India really likes their bureaucracy. So much paperwork – especially at the airport. Stickers had to be placed on the bag, then stickers had to be checked, then stickers had to be taken off the bag, then checked again. All by about three people at each stage. It was interesting.
- Indian drivers know their vehicle dimensions exactly. There is no other way that they could zoom in between each other so seamlessly. Like water.
- India is poor. So many people, and so much poverty.
- Cows, just wandering in the street. Also lying down in the street. Cars literally go around. It’s a weirdest thing.
- Would 100% go back.