What to do in Agra
Despite India's vast size and incredible complexity of culture, when most people think of traveling there, the first thing that comes to mind is usually the Taj Mahal. After all, what slideshow of a trip to India would be complete without at least one shot of you and your traveling companion(s) in front of one of the most impressive works of architecture in the world? You have to do it. But depending on who you talk to, seeing the Taj has its drawbacks because it requires visiting the red-headed stepchild of Indian cities: Agra.
Agra's bad rep comes from the oft-stated perception that the city has little to offer other than the Taj, and that it is a loud, polluted, frustrating place teeming with aggressive touts. Well, there's some truth to this. Agra does have its, shall we say, infrastructure problems, and the touts can be, well, they ARE, an annoyance. It is not the most pleasant city to visit in India (an understatement), but there is also a great deal available to the adventuresome traveler who is willing to look past Agra's shortcomings.
First things first. The Taj Mahal is wickedly impressive. Even if you do blow through all those rolls of film while you are there, and even if you project your slideshow on the side of the Hollywood Bowl, nothing will compare with actually being there. I was just there. I know. I'd seen the slideshows, read the travel guides, saw a documentary or two. I thought I was ready. But then I rounded the corner, passed through the arch of the Darwaza or main gateway where visitors enter, shouldered past several slow-footed tourists, and then looming there before me, aglow in the cool azure blaze of early dusk was one of the most impressive man-made sights I've ever laid eyes on. Yes, it is THAT amazing.
First of all, the scale of the complex is far grander than I imagined it would be, and the elegant simplicity in which it is laid out gives you great admiration for the architect's restraint. There is no trace of the gaudiness here so common to other famous monuments. The key is to catch the Taj at several different times of day to observe its mood swings as the white marble seems to transubstantiate with the changing light. Shadows slowly creep over the swollen domes creating a dual effect that somehow makes the building seem alive. You will use plenty of film here so bring a few extra rolls. By the way a video camera will cost you extra ($5) at the entrance, but it's probably worth it.
So, assume you are going to Agra and visiting the Taj Mahal. Assume you will pay the Taj entry fee ($16) and that you will spend several rolls of film on and around the grounds. Fun? Sure it is. But now what do you do?
Despite its reputation for being a one trick pony, Agra has a deep and robust history. For more than two centuries it was the capitol of the Mughal empire, and the seat of power for two of the greatest Mughal leaders, Akbar the Great and Shah Jahan. As a result, Agra is home to some of the finest examples of Mughal architecture in India, of which the Taj is simply the most famous. But among those Mughal structures that also impress is the Agra Fort. A World Heritage Site since 1983, this is the first place to head.
Stretching for more than a mile along the west bank of the Yamuna River, and just a mile or so from the Taj Mahal, the Agra Fort makes an easy side trip before or after visiting the Taj. Touring the fort will take several hours, but it is worth the effort. There is a $5 entrance fee at the main gate, with an additional 25 rupee (50 cents) per camera fee for a video camera.
Made from world-famous sandstone known as "Agra Red" that is quarried from over 200 miles away, the Agra Fort seems to smolder under the mid-day sun. The wall around the fort stretches off in each direction encircling the fort complex like massive forearms. Fronted by a monstrous gate called the Amar Singh Pol where you enter, the fort is at the center of several of India's most famous tales of betrayal and intrigue.
Construction of the fort was started by Akbar the Great in 1565 and lasted almost 20 years. The fort served as a stronghold for the empire, and was improved upon by Akbar's grandson the infamous Shah Jahan, who added several elaborate structures and who, by the way, built the Taj Mahal. For over a century, the fort served as the main administration center for war campaigns launched from Agra.
The Fort's usefulness did not end there (cue sinister music). When Shah Jahan became ill, a brutal war of succession began between his sons. In the end, Jahan's third son, Aurangzeb, seized power in 1658 and declared himself emperor. In a final act of filial defiance, he put his father under house arrest in the fort, allegedly for corruption, but more likely for having not favored Aurangzeb's succession.
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