Agra was our second base and was actually somewhere I wasn’t initially planning to visit. I couldn’t fathom how one building could justify a 3 hour drive. But the drive was of course worthwhile, and there’s more than one thing to see!
Agra wasn’t our favourite place. Mainly due to us visiting beautiful Jaipur straight afterwards. Agra in comparison is pretty grubby and chaotic and during winter has smoggy morning skies. Notwithstanding, it has an lot to offer – not just the Taj Mahal.
We arrived in Agra at lunchtime, having been driven over from Delhi and were there for the best part of 24 hours. Again we were in the safe hands of our driver BD and a local guide whose name I can’t for the life of me remember. He was a particularly great guide and he took a shine to my new camera and set it all up impeccably for me!
Tomb of Itimad-ud-Daulah
Driving to this tomb we knew we were in for a treat – it’s called the jewel box or baby-taj! Before we even arrived, we’d driven over a river and seen the infamous commercial laundry service on the sand banks in the middle. I’d heard about it but never expected to see it. We hadn’t even got to our first stop and we were impressed. Then comes the jewel box – it’s beautiful. It doesn’t seem to be as well known as other sites – it was quiet, peaceful and the most intricate place.
It was the first tomb in India made entirely of marble, it took a while to get our heads round this being more than a kitchen work top amount of marble. We loved the story of rags to riches. The tomb was built to honour his father in law by the then Mughal Emperor. The jewel encrusting and marble work is exquisite and we took our time and enjoyed the location and afternoon sun.
Sunset at the Mehtab Bagh gardens
Visiting in winter we knew that a sunrise tour of the Taj Mahal wasn’t going to be possible. The area gets terrible fog (smog) and for most of the morning there is a thick mist in Agra. We were offered two options for sunset. The first was to beat our way through the tens of thousands of people teeming around the Taj Mahal. The second was to go the Mehtab Bagh gardens. We obviously chose the latter. Strangely very few others did, happy days!
The gardens are just over the river from the Taj Mahal. Whilst incredibly peaceful gardens themselves, we could clearly hear the hubbub of 30,000 people across the river! Simple gardens with the perfect aspect for sunset with the mist starting to form. We were 50 metres away I would guess, so the building was visible in all its glory, the marble glinting magnificently in the golden hour sunshine. There’s not much else to say really – one enjoys the view and takes in the magnificence.
The next morning in a deep fog we got to visit the Taj Mahal near on privately. OK, so we didn’t see the top half of it, but we pick our battles and hate busy places! We did instead get to mooch around the site slowly and in the interior we were not hurried on by the porters. It isn’t possible to take pictures inside, but the marble screens that shield the tomb replicas are something else. They are so intricate, each taking a year to make and are completely symmetrical. If a mistake was made then the screen was restarted, from another 5 inch thick slab of marble. The accuracy and intricacy is such that the full site took over 20 years to make.
A particularly interesting fact is that the 4 pillars surrounding the palace all have a 3 degree outwards lean on them. From a distance the building and its surroundings look completely symmetrical. Perfection.
We would have loved to have been in Agra on a quiet afternoon and visit in clear-daylight, but that’s travel. The sunset was our breath-taking moment at the Taj Mahal.
With the day slowly starting to clear we headed on to see the red sandstone fort that dominates the landscape. We’d also seen it at sunset and it looked like a serious place. When we arrived it was still being highly guarded, by monkeys. They have cute faces, but all they’re looking for is food. The fort exterior is made of sandstone, which turns to as marble the further one goes. Interesting facts here were about the fortifications: winding entrance paths to slow down elephants; spiked doors to put off elephants; and then boiling hot oil from above if uninvited guests got past all that!
We were also introduced to the need for a Mughal Emperor to have a harem. As well as eunuchs, India’s third gender. The eunuchs guarded the royal harem as they didn’t have mens ‘bits’ and so were deemed safe. We also saw the most magnificent prison. Made from marble with an unbroken view of the Taj Mahal, the new Emperor imprisoned his father who agreed to it, so long as he had the view.
This is near to Agra and en route to Jaipur. It is out in the countryside and of course, we liked it here – quiet and with clearer sky. This served as the capital of the Mughal empire for all of 14 years before it was abandoned and the capital shifted again. This was a fascinating place to explore – as well as the meeting places and audience areas there was also the residences. The emperor had wives of different faiths and each had a different style of residence aligned to their faith. He also had what looked a little like a four poster bed, but made out of sandstone, and apparently one of the first indoor loos!
Those are my 5 recommendations for a visit to Agra, what are yours?
Where we stayed and ate
We stayed at the ITC Mughal Agra and I wasn’t a big fan, it did the job but it was tired and didn’t live up to many of its apparent 5 stars. But we weren’t too bothered, we were there to sleep and we slept well. It wasn’t a stop off we’d chosen on any other basis than price! It’s my least favourite type of hotel – big and impersonal, so it was never going to set the world on fire. One needs SPG gold to get free WIFI, we did have that of course, but it was that sort of place! I suspect the wing of ‘royal’ rooms is nicer and they also had a pool that looks nice. The staff however were friendly and chatty. The restaurant called Peshwar was also a highlight with good fresh food cooked to order, and no cutlery which meant extra scrummy naan.
The hotel could have taken better credit for things it does well. Like the fact it has its own mineral water making facility. They fill old plastic water bottles for the room water and so when you open the bottle the reassuring crack of fresh plastic isn’t there. It also leaves you wondering if the bottle was in fact clean. We had fresh bottles delivered. It was only at breakfast in the morning that we realised they sanitised the water as they had glass bottles branded with this. Far better to have left that in the rooms.
For the sunset views of the Taj Mahal alone us I am incredibly glad we visited. I never believed a building could leave one spell-bound but it really can. It is an absolute bucket list essential!
Onwards to Jaipur…