What to do in Agra

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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?

Agra fort

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.

Inside the fort, you walk along the spacious lawn, to Jehangir's Mahal or palace.

There is a feeling of calm security here, a feeling I imagine was shared by the fort's long ago residents, as it must have seemed impossible for anyone to breach the fort's formidable defenses. For me this feeling was comically accentuated by the fort's monkeys who patrol the high walks like sentinels.

The palace was built by Akbar as a residence for his son Jehangir. It is the largest private residence in the fort, elegantly blending Hindu and Central Asian architectural styles. Pass the white marble Khas Mahal, or Private Palace, and laze around, savoring a moment in the cool shade. Then keep walking and climb the tower called the Musamman Burj. A white marble gazebo gleams beneath the sun. This is where Shah Jahan was imprisoned for the last seven years of his life and where, from the intricately carved opening, you can share the same view as he had across the Yamuna River to his architectural masterpiece, the Taj Mahal.

One quick detour before you're done that is well worth it . . . if not imperative. Leave the fort through the main gate and circle around the massive wall to the south. Duck under the bobbed wired fence surrounding the fort and cross the street to the river. It will only take a few moments of kicking through the white sands along the river before you see it. There, behind the water buffalo bathing their massive shanks in green swirling pools, and shimmering in the distance like a mirage, is the backside Taj Mahal. This is a view most visitors to Agra never see.

Akabar's mausoleum

So with Agra Fort under your belt, now it's time to people watch and grab a delicious vegetarian puri-thali ($1) at the Chiman Lai Puri Wallah, just outside the fort's gates. The touts will descend on you here (as everywhere), but the best strategy is to completely ignore them. Merely making eye contact can induce them to hang around.

Next, hop in a motor rickshaw ($2-3) and head out a few miles northwest of town to the Sikandra, or Akbar's Tomb. Remember Akbar, the Mughal ruler who started construction of the Agra Fort? When he died in 1605, he'd already started construction of his tomb . . . but barely. However, his son, Jahangir, finished the tomb and moved his dad's body there for good.

The tomb is a marvel of Mughal architecture that blends Islamic, Hindu, Buddhist, Jain and Christian motifs into a poly-religious pleasing whole. The soaring minarets and luminous domes sit astride a broad green courtyard populated by troops of curious grey langur monkeys and spotted deer. As soon as you get to the tomb and enter the grounds through the aptly-named Gateway of Magnificence, you'll see why this is a requisite stop in Agra. Not only is the complex remarkable for its beauty and architecture, but as an escape from the bustle and the bleating taxis of Agra, this is a slice of heaven.

The key here is to find a spot in the shade, take out a book or magazine, and make like a Mughal five centuries ago, admiring the intricate mosaic work around you and indulging in the delicious breezes that waft through over the grass.

Then continue across the palm-lined courtyard towards the tomb building itself. Take off your shoes and stoop through dark entryway into the high-ceilinged chamber where Akbar's sarcophagus sits in the middle of the cold stone floor. Chances are a turbaned mullah will demonstrate the unusual acoustics of the tomb with a sonorous chant that will make you swear you've just gone back five hundred years.

Ending the day with a view

Chances are, it's late in the afternoon by now. So as the sun creeps behind the horizon, make a bee-line for the bar in the Oberoi Hotel. Located near the East Gate of the Taj Mahal, this is one of the best places in Agra to hang out, have a drink and see the Taj in all its dusky splendor. You might have to act like you belong, so leave your Tevas back in your hotel, but it's the way to go because the view of the Taj Mahal from here in the best in the city. It will be the perfect way to cap off a full day in Agra that should leave you feeling more fulfilled, more certain that despite the bad rep the city has, you've just done it right.

Getting there

The Taj Mahal is located in the city of Agra, in the Indian state of Utter Pradesh, about 125 miles southeast of Delhi, the Indian capitol, the city from which many visitors to India often arrive. While there are daily half-hour flights to Agra from Delhi (as well as from most other large Indian cities such as Mumbai and Bangalore), probably the best, or at least most interesting, way to arrive is by train. Train travel in India is remarkably cheap. Arriving from Delhi by air-conditioned car on the Taj Express (2-3 hours) will run you only about $10 a person. Not only is the scenery gorgeous, as the train chugs through miles of breathtaking Indian farmland where you will see more shades of green than seems earthly possible, but the train ride itself is one of the most comfortable in India. To do it right, leave Delhi early in the morning, secure a window seat, and be sure to grab a cup of hot chai from the ever-present Chai-wallahs who ply the train with their metal canisters (oh, when you notice the absence of trash bins and wonder to yourself where you're supposed to throw the empty plastic cup . . . well, you toss it out the window, otherwise one of the wallahs will pick it up and reuse it . . . the ultimate choice between public health and the environment).

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