The Wonders of Agra

We feel great about our time travelling in India, partly because we have seen some obscure sights and overlooked experiences as well as really amazing things that make every must-do list, including staying on a houseboat on the backwaters of Kerala and walking the promenade at sunset in Pondicherry. The one thing that everyone around the world wants to see but people in India often don’t quite get to is the Taj Mahal. Melissa went to Agra with her aunties Linda and Sue the month before our visit with Julie and Meagan, but Tom had yet to make the trip. It is really unbelievable that something that has that much hype and sets that high of expectations can actually surpass it all, even on a second visit.

It’s a famous story, but indulge us as we set a little context. The Taj Mahal was built in the years 1632 to 1653 by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan. Its primary purpose is a mausoleum and memorial to his favorite wife Mumtaz Mahal. As we are to learn in the next few days, he took cues from previous mausoleums built in Agra and in Delhi. He took all of the most awe-inspiring designs from those buildings and cranked them up. In order to do so, he employed great craftsmen from throughout Asia and built it completely out of marble mined just west of Jaipur, where we started this adventure. He also indulged his seeming OCD-inspired love of symmetry, giving every angle, every detail, every element a partner on the other side of the building. As a result, viewing the building is a different experience from every angle, and those experiences change by the moment as the sun moves through the day.

We started the day wishing each other “Happy Taj Mahal Day”, but we really had no idea how true that would be. The Taj would work its way into every thing we did all day long, starting, of course, with our visit to the Taj itself. We had read a lot of advice, confirmed by Melissa’s visit there earlier, that we should get there first thing in the morning for two important reasons: You get the colors of the rising sun on the iridescent marble, and the crowds are more manageable. We bought our tickets online months in advance for the earliest hour available, 6:00 am. In very un-Indian fashion, the website and purchasing process was remarkably smooth, and we got exactly what we were after — until we got to Agra and were told that they didn’t start letting people in until there was actual light, which meant that we wouldn’t be let in until 7:30. In other words, in a very Indian fashion, they were selling tickets for entry times that weren’t actually available.

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None-the-less, the “get there as early as possible” advice was spot on. The place is incredible. Even though they do a masterful job of controlling the number of people on-site, there are some impressive crowds all jockeying for the iconic photos. Those crowds in no way detract from the appreciation of one of the most beautiful objects in the world. The gardens are large and beautiful, allowing people to spread out and do their own thing. We’re not sure what to say about the Taj Mahal itself that hasn’t been written, except that everything that’s been written is true. Every detail is intentional and gorgeous. Even though it is beyond ostentatious, Shah Jahan didn’t cover every inch with something ridiculously beautiful; he balanced those things with the simple beauty of the stone itself. Those gardens are underappreciated, too. They are serene and beautifully cared for and serve to frame the Taj Mahal in breathtaking ways. What a start to a great day.

From there we went back to our hotel for breakfast. We decided that after having slightly more rustic lodgings in Ranthambore and Bundi we would spring for the ITC for Julie’s and Meagan’s last major stop in India. It was beautiful and restful and the food was delicious. It was nice to have a rest before our packed afternoon.

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Our driver Arvind picked us up to take us to the less famous sites around Agra. Agra Fort was originally built in the early 16th century, but as with all of the forts we visited on this vacation, it was destroyed, rebuilt, added to, and conquered any number of times. What exists now is part of the fort as it was when the Mughal capital was shifted from Agra to Delhi in 1638. It contains halls for public audience, a few mosques, and a bazaar in which the women did their shopping. The most remarkable piece is the portion of the fort in which Shah Jahan was “imprisoned” by his son Aurangzeb after Aurangzeb usurped him for draining the treasury in order to build the Taj Mahal. There are stories that part of what inspired the usurping was that Shah Jahan was planning to build a replica of the Taj Mahal in black marble across the river to serve as his own mausoleum. We have also read that those stories are apocryphal. If one has to be in prison, this is the way to be. We had heard that Shah Jahan had a view of his beloved Taj Mahal, and we pictured that meaning that being in prison in a fort looking at the monument to his wife was some form of torture. Not so. He had the run of a good amount of the fort, and the space set aside for his personal space is beautiful, made of similar marble to the Taj Mahal, with much ornamentation that is reflective of the work the craftsmen Shah Jahan hired did on the Taj Mahal. It’s not prison as we would think of as prison.

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From there we visited a couple of other mausoleums. Itimad-ud-Daula’s Tomb is just up river from the Taj Mahal and Agra fort. It is called the Baby Taj for a reason. It has many details that would serve as inspiration for the Taj as we know it. It’s beautiful, and maybe a little over the top in terms of decoration. Every inch seems covered in decorations. Shah Jahan seems to have learned that sometimes less is more in terms of decoration, but he also learned that more is more in terms of size.

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We asked Arvind to help us find Chini ka Rauza, the tomb of Afzal Khan, Shah Jahan’s vizier. Neglected but found on the banks of the River Yamuna, the grounds are a peaceful refuge from the tourist choked sites around town. The remnants of the ceiling paintings are beautiful.

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Finally, we watched the sunset over the Taj Mahal from across the River Yamuna at Mehtab Bagh. Wow. What an end to an amazing day of appreciating the most beautiful building any of us will ever see. We all agreed that we pretty much did Agra right.

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Our fabulous travel companions Meagan and Julie at our farewell dinner.

Dinner was back at the hotel at Peshawri, the sister restaurant to both where we celebrated Melissa’s father’s birthday in Jaipur and one of our favorite restaurants in Bangalore, The Royal Afghan. As expected, it was delicious. It was an amazing end to a spectacular day, and particularly poignant because the next day we were off to Delhi for our sad farewell to Julie and Meagan and our quick tour of a few of the many sites Delhi has to offer.