Seeking a vision of the sublime Taj Mahal, you find yourself in chaotic, colourful Agra. One of the seven wonders of the world, the last bastion of the Moghuls, Agra is a manifestation of their passion for beauty and hungering to immortalise it. Here mausoleums are symbols of love, gardens are pockets of heaven, and architecture is poetry in cool stone. Old world splendour will seduce you, packaged in the most efficient, time tested understanding of one basic impulse - ‘To India I shall go! The Taj I must see!’ This is obvious from the estimated 2.2 million visitors to India every year hungering to see the Taj, hence visiting Agra.
Yet Agra, convinces you that there is more to discover beyond the Taj Mahal. The bazaars are bountiful and their vendors discerning. A quick appraisal is all it takes. Souvenir hunter? Aesthete traveler? Or are you simply someone who desires a gawk and if inspired, an indulgent gamble? Brave the hawkers who believe persistence will win you over, look beyond their clamour and discover the sheer beauty of the offered wares - exquisite ‘chikan work’ garments, colourful leather sandals, blow glass objects that catch the sun in myriad pools of colour, marble work imitating the pietra dura work of the monuments, and the ultimate taste bud teasers – chaat !
Prepare to be flummoxed by the traffic, no prevalent traffic laws apply. Respectfully await a green light only to find you might be impatiently honked at – cars, auto rickshaws, cycle rickshaws, cycles, bullock carts, scooters, motorcycles, the occasional camel - all waiting, all impatient! Jump a light when you can, why don’t you? It’s the norm!
In the great Indian epics Agra was called Agravana or Arabana meaning paradise and in earlier sources Arya Griha or ‘the abode of the Aryans’. Ptolemy famed 2nd century AD geographer was the first to call Agra by its modern name. Even though the history and heritage of the city is attributed to the Mughal Empire, other rulers have also held sway in the city’s past. Agra originally a part of the Surasena Kingdom which had Mathura at its capital was founded by Sikandar Lodhi Sultan of Delhi in the 16th century. Agra was made capital with the advent of the Mughals in the 16th century up until the 18th century. The first infamous Mughal monarch Babar, introduced the breathtaking square Persian-styled garden that even today is so much a part of our mind’s eye impressions of Mughal aesthetics. In the era of his grandson Akbar the Great, the marvel of Fatehpur Sikri near Agra was built. Akbar planned intended to make this his capital, until a crippling water shortage forced him to return to Agra after 12 years. He also began building the Agra fort. His son Emperor Jehangir embellished Agra with palaces and gardens of such beauty though it was a confounding mystery that he spent a major part of his life in Kashmir. The reign of Shah Jahan, Akbar’s great grandson marked the golden age of Mughal architecture. He built the Taj Mahal over 22 long years in memory of his beloved Queen Mumtaz Mahal. Shah Jahan move his capital to Delhi in his later years, only to be imprisoned by his own son Aurangazeb in 1658, and held prisoner in Agra Fort until his death. In the period of time when Aurangazeb forcefully made himself monarch Agra was once again made capital. His death saw the decline of the Mughals – the great patrons of the arts and artists, science and architecture; equally flamboyant in the propensity for cruelty and justice, extravagance and subliminal refinement. Agra then came under the rule of the Jats, Marathas and finally the British.
Location and Climate
Situated 206 km south east of New Delhi, Agra a city of north-central India, in the state of Uttar Pradesh is situated on the banks of the Jamuna River.
The climate is extreme and tropical. Summers are extremely hot, temperature soaring to 45 degree Celsius. Winters are cold and foggy. Monsoon is charcterised by heavy rains and high humidity.
You can visit throughout the year though its preferable to avoid the summer months April – June and the monsoon July-September. Winters are ideal for a visit.
How to get there
Road : The Delhi – Agra highway ensures a 4 hour journey either by luxury taxis or bus, operational daily The main bus stands are Idgah and Agra Fort where buses run to and fro from Delhi, Jaipur, Mathura and Fatehpur-Sikrii.
Rail: The Shatabdi, Rajdhani, Taj Express and luxury trains like the Palace on Wheels connect Agra to Delhi. The main railway station is called Agra cantonment where trains to and from Varnasi and cities in Rajasthan are also accessible.
The Taj Mahal
It is said that on her death bed Mumtaz Mahal, Emperor Shah Jahan’s favourite queen asked him to build her an unforgettable monument the likeness of one the world had yet to see. She is said to have died birthing their 14th child. Overwhelmed by her loss Shah Jahan built the Taj Mahal.
More than 355 years later the Taj Mahal is transcendent, sublime, a vision to behold. In the moonlight, in the early morning light, from afar, up close, in its entirety, in parts- the Taj when beholden in simply unreal. Reaching skywards resting on the banks of the river Yamuna, contrasted by its red stone mosque, complemented by the identical minarets that flank its sides, magnified in stature by the lawns that carpet its surroundings and the mirrored ponds that hold its reflection the Taj is exactly what its myths and legends have conjured up for us. This symbol of love is manifest in absolute poetic reality even today.
Built over 22 years, 2000 labourers, artists, jewelers, craftsman and several architects were employed. Atop the gate are 22 small domes signifying the number of years taken for the completion of the Taj Mahal which has been built on a marble platform that stands on a sand stone one. The 60 ft wide dome of the Taj rises 80 feet. Under the dome lies the tomb of Mumtaz Mahal. Shah Jahan's tomb was erected next to hers by his son Aurangzeb.
Legend has it that Shah Jahan ordered that the hands of the workers to be cut off so that they may never be able to recreate the beauty of the Taj.
These details when recorded or recounted seem excessive. Yet the urge to memorise them becomes a reality as you walk the periphery of the tomb, gaze across the lawns, marvel at the still reflection on the face of the pond, and run your hands over the intricacy of the vegetative motifs, abstract geometric patterns and double inlay work on the marble. You will give into the compulsion to capture yourself in time in the presence of the Taj, the corny photographs you assured yourself you would not partake of. You might even relate to the Tagore quote ‘one solitary tear hanging on the cheek of time’, after all you are in the presence of one of the seven wonders.
In 1565 A.D. Emperor Akbar the Great commissioned the construction of the Agra Fort, though its completion was carried out by his grandson Shah Jahan. The crescent shaped fort is flattened on the east with a long wall facing the river. The Agra Fort boasts a total perimeter of 2.4 k.m., red sandstone ramparts, bastions at intervals and a surrounding moat.
The notable buildings within the precincts of the Fort are the white marble Moti Masjid, Diwan-e-Am, Diwan-e-Khaas, Jehangir's Palace, Khaas Mahal, Shish Mahal and Musamman or Samman Burj. The Musamman was where Shahjahan was held captive in 1666 A.D. It afforded him an exquisite view of his prized construction - the Taj Mahal.
6 km from Agra is Itmad-Ud-Daulah's Tomb built in 1622-25A.D.by Empress Noor Jahan in remembrance of her father, Ghias-ud-Din Beg. Records state that it was here that the pietra dura inlay work on marble celebrated by the Taj Mahal was first used.
Situated 12 km from Agra this is the tomb of Akbar the Great. The construction was begun by the Emperor himself and completed by his son Emperor Jehangir. Richly adorned the tomb displays a mixture of styles.
8 Km from Agra is breath taking example of a Mughal Persian style garden built by Emperor Babur first Emperor of the Mughal dynasty.
37km from Agra stands the Fatehpur Sikri - though deserted and conveying a sense of abandonment today it resounds with history. It is said that Akbar the Great came here in search of the Sufi mystic Sheikh Salim Chishti seeking his blessings to be bestowed with a son. When his son was born Akbar named him Salim in honour of the Sufi mystic vowing to create a new city. Hence Fatehpur Sikri was built.
Guides are a plenty at the site and will make their presence felt. Take the guided tour and enjoy the enthusiasm of his stories. Yes he will lead you to shops selling souvenirs and if you refuse may allow hawkers and worse still beggar children to hound you. Keep your feet firm, and adopt the stance of a weathered traveler. The guided tour offers insights into how stories are passed down the ages, and how monumental architecture is adapted by locals who endeavour to place Fatehpur Sikrias aa a heritage site at par with the best of the regions historic offerings.
Other excursions in and around Agra
Radhaswamy Samadhi, Dayalbagh
Bhartpur Bird Sanctuary
Sur Surover (Keeetham Lake)
Shopping in and around bazaars near the Taj Mahal is quite an experience. The bazaars of Agra are storehouses where artifacts and objects of functional beauty are a plenty.
Leather goods like bags, shoes, belts and jackets are available in vibrant designs as the leather industries in Agra are crucial revenue earners. Add to this attractive articles hand made in brass, silver and copper. Precious and semi-precious jewellery, glass ware and exotic Persian carpets are the other popular buys in Agra.
Take home a marble miniature, ironically, of the ‘inimitable’ Taj Mahal made by local artisans – a definite must buy for your table top!
Walk the streets even if you don’t want to shop. You definitely will be treated to roadside magic shows and folk dance performances. Delightful are the streets where you will find shops that sell primarily kites- ‘we still fly kites in Agra’ you will be told. Smile indulgently and encourage a retelling of the days gone by when no one hurried and there was time for kite flying!
Taj Mahaotsav - The Taj Festival
A carnival in India is spectacular and of these the Taj Festival is mesmerizing - folk music, shayari or poetry, classical dance performances, elephant and camel rides, local games and a food festival –sights sounds and tastes that you must give into!
The Taj Festival is held in February spanning 10 days celebrating traditional Indian art forms and crafts – you will be treated to classical dance performances by professional world renowned dancers and musicians.
Petha a sweet made of pumpkin is famous and worthy of an indulgence. Give to a further hedonistic taste bud trip and indulge in Gazak a sweet made of sesame, jaggery and condensed milk. Maybe something spicy? Dalmoth.
Bazaars to visit
Travel in Agra
In order to conserve the beauty of the Taj Mahal - one of the seven wonders and a UNESCO World Heritage Site no petrol or diesel vehicles are allowed in and around the Taj Mahal area. Battery operated buses, manually pedaled rickshaws, tongas, and bicycles for hire are your choicest form of transport. Away from the Taj Mahal area tempo, auto-rickshaw and cycle rickshaws are permitted. Prepaid taxi’s are also allowed and are the preferred mode for excursions outside of Agra
Where to Stay
Hotel Mughal Sheraton
Hotel Agra Ashok
Hotel Taj View
Howard Park Plaza International
Hotel Amar Vilas
Hotel Amar Yatri Niwas
Mayur Tourist Complex
Jaypee Palace Hotel and Convention Center
Welcomgroup Mughal Sheraton