I have been visiting Agra my whole life. It is the city where my grandparents, my maternal aunt’s family as well as my now married cousin’s extended family reside. Long story short, Agra is home away from home and I was returning to it after five long years! My husband and I were going to the city of love and the landmarks to be ticked off our bucket-list during this visit – Fatehpur Sikri and the mighty Taj Mahal.
The family reunion as expected, was a riot of emotions, excitement, shrieks and squeals. Collectively as a family, we are larger than life, quirky and more often than not, a noisy lot to be around in the distinguished social gatherings. We are crazy, we are fun and I cannot imagine where I would be without my delightful, loving family. It felt remarkable to meet everyone after such a prolonged period.
This was the first vacation where we had to divide our three days fairly between family time and sightseeing. As the weather got unbearably hot by noon in Agra during our month of visit, we decided to set aside the first half of each day for sightseeing and to keep the second half free for spending quality time with everybody. It was a good plan and next three days were looking up to be pretty eventful.
The city of Agra made its mark on the global map as being home to one of the seven wonders of the world- The Taj Mahal. This Mughal capital is not only littered with various monuments which speak grandiosely of the Indian architecture during the medieval times but also has ample of other flavors to amuse, entertain and amaze every kind of traveler. What I discovered on this visit to Agra was that while it is a little hard to fall in love with this city the first time, it is a fascinating place which has far more to offer than we give it credit for.
It was just 8:30 am when we arrived at Fatehpur Sikri with a guide in tow. Fatehpur Sikri lies around 45 kms south-west of Agra and it bears exceptional testimony to the Mughal civilization. It was built by the renowned Mughal emperor Akbar in the 16th century as a result of his enthusiasm for the Sufi divine Sheikh Salim Chishti, though the move away from Agra may also have something to do with his desire to create a new capital that was an appropriate symbol of imperial power. The city remained Akbar’s capital for 14 years after which sadly, it was abandoned. This was apparently due to the acute shortage of water in the region.
We had been warned by everyone to steer clear of the pestering guides, road-side sellers and vendors lurking around the famous landmarks of the city and sure enough as we stepped out of the car, a group of aggressive touts surrounded us and proved to be very difficult to shake off. It can be an extremely off-putting beginning to your sight-seeing day but we noticed that once you catch hold of a suitable guide (licensed ones are a bit expensive but they make the tour worthwhile), he takes care of shooing off these unwanted moths for you. Sure, foreigners would have a more difficult experience than ours but luckily we had a relatively easy visit.
The first glimpse of majestic Buland Darwaza standing proudly amid the clear blue skies was catalyst enough to take me back in time. As we stepped inside, I marveled at the sheer lyrical atmosphere the place seemed to possess. Even the air inside the fort seems to be melodic.
The ‘Jama masjid’ or the grand mosque was the first structure to be created with the rest of the city built around it. The main sight at Fatehpur Sikri is the stunning imperial complex of pavilions and palaces spread amongst a large area peppered with Mughal masterpieces: courtyards, intricate carvings, servants’ quarters, vast gateways and ornamental pools. With the exception of Salim Chisti’s Dargah which was converted into a white marble structure by Akbar’s son Jahangir during his reign, the whole of this ghost-town has been created using the red sandstone. The fusion of hindu and muslim tradition in its architecture says a lot about the religious and cultural tolerance during Akbar’s reign. Such splendid architecture, intricate ‘jaali’ work in sandstone all around, attention to detail to make each space unique and exquisite….It’s all simply mind-boggling.
As we meandered through the arches, the courtyards, the passages and the rooms, I thought it to be the city just waiting for all of us to leave to become alive again. How magnificent it must look at night bathed in silvery moonlight, the roseate sandstone gleaming and glowing over the phenomenal complex of carved pavilions, encompassed by distant echos of the time during which it was at the peak of its excellence.
I closed my eyes and imagined life in the bygone era.
I imagined glittery nights organized by the king for his esteemed guests, with Tansen, the legendary court musician of Akbar, singing at the center of Anup Talao.
I imagined Akbar giving audience to his subjects and dispense judgements at ‘Diwan-ae-aam’ and him discussing religious and cultural campaigns with his royal aides at ‘Diwan-ae-Khas’.
I imagined the sound of jhumkas, bangles and heavy anklets ringing through the passages as royal women made their way across the palace.
These moments of time-travel were so surreal. Hundred visits won’t be enough for me to have my fill of this magical place. The poetry of sandstone and blue skies, Fatehpur Sikri.
Coming back to the real world, there was one thing which we witnessed in Sikri that just blew our minds away. Even today when I think back on it, I get goosebumps. As we removed our shoes to head towards the fort, my feet instantly began burning on the scorching marble floor. It was around a minute’s walk until we got to the shady part of the entrance and there was no way I could make it there without blistering my feet.
“Aap apne joote aage jaake hee utaar lijiye beti. Wahan bhi jagah hai” said a voice behind me.
I turned around to look at an aged, dark-complexed man smiling kindly at me. Looking at his traditional attire, we could make out that he obviously belonged to the nearby village. He wore an extremely tattered white set of dhoti-kurta with less than ordinary ‘chappals’ and sat leaning back on one of the entrance walls lazily looking over the surroundings. His hair was dusty and rough, face severely lined with age and teeth stained with tobacco but he had warm, twinkling eyes. Maybe he was a vendor or a road-side seller who had finished his shift. Returned his smile, I thanked him. We decided to retrieve our footwears and to remove them right outside the main gate, as the helpful villager had suggested. Abhay and I were slipping our shoes back on just as a bunch of chattering tourists made their way past us to the fort. They were scanning a huge map and seemed confused about where to head first. Judging from their accent, they were clearly from the USA. I gestured to hubby that he help them with the information they need. Before we could even speak with the large group, I heard another voice guiding them precisely in English, that too in their own accent. It couldn’t be! I swirled around and my jaw hit the floor seeing the elderly villager give them directions and help them just as he had helped us, the huge difference being- he was speaking fluently in English IN AN AMERICAN ACCENT!!!!
“If you just go around that wall theeere, you would come across a ticket office where they will help you with everything. If you guys aren’t interested in seeking help of these guides, make sure you grab your audio-books from the adjoining office for a better experience. They are preetty good!”
I stood gaping and to my right, hubby seemed to be doing the same. Take a moment and imagine the scene. I was seeing it with my own eyes but I simply couldn’t believe it. The words and the dialect coming out of this seasoned villager’s mouth was light-years away from his quintessential rural personality. We had never seen anything like this and it just didn’t end there.
During the course of our visit, we came across many teens and children speaking numerous languages ranging from Italian, spanish and French to Persian and Arabic. There were a no. of men monitoring the area and any trainee guide (as young as 9-10 years of age) who had trouble with their allotted language or accent would run to these superiors to clear their doubts.
This whole group was clearly illiterate. We even asked a couple of children if they attended school to which they shyly shook their heads and replied- “School jayega to kaam kaun karega?” These rowdy children and men from a faraway village of Uttar-Pradesh had picked up these languages and accents solely from the tourists who visit Fatehpur Sikri all year long. Isn’t it incredible? We regret not getting this on video. To say that we were stunned, would be an understatement.
The main area where you enter after buying a ticket is today equipped with R.O drinking water, reasonably good toilet facilities, soft foot-mats lined up for the visitors around the floor which burns hot in the searing afternoon sun and what surprised us the most- the audio-books. There are even mini buses which pick and drop you from the bottom of the hill to the main site for a meager price. It was all very impressive and to be honest, a little unexpected.
Day 1 of sight-seeing at Agra had come to an end and next, it was time to visit the spectacular Taj Mahal.
The bewitching story behind TajMahal’s conception and creation has mesmerized millions of people across the globe since many centuries now. History is that the grand mausoleum was built by Shahjahan, grandson of the great Mughal emperor Akbar, in memory of his favorite wife- Mumtaz Mahal. When she died, a monumental structure, all of marble, was built around her grave. This monument was named as TajMahal and it took the best artisans from all over the world around 22 daunting years to complete its construction. Later on when Shahjahan passed away, he too was buried next to his beloved wife under the same structure.
There was a strange excitement in our hearts to see the Taj Mahal as soon as we reached Agra. Even though I had visited it many times in the past, I think I was too young back then to appreciate this master-piece of love. The huge advantage with Taj for us was that it is just a 10 minute drive from my grandparents’ place. We set off quite early and comfortably reached Taj-Mahal at seven in the morning, an hour after it opens for the visitors.
We got a shared ride in an electric bus from where we left our car to reach the main entrance. Already there was considerable crowd inspite of it still being early morning. We grabbed hold of an official guide and proceeded towards the ticket office, wary of the long waiting queues and the security procedures which we had heard so much about. Again, we were in for a surprise. There were administrators monitoring the queues and our guide was handy in getting us through the security checks in no time. Our handbags and camera bag were scanned quickly in the professional electronic scanners with absolutely no fuss and within 10 minutes of arriving, we entered the transcendent gate to catch our first glimpse of the Taj.
From the clever way that the inner gate was built, it creates an illusion that Taj-Mahal looks bigger as you go through it. The beauty of that site is beyond the limit of my words. Taj-Mahal was completely basked by the delicate rays of morning sun. Sprawling beautiful Mughal gardens between us and the main building, a narrow canal of reflecting waters in the middle of them, functioning fountains and tall trees adorning the landscape and at the end of this scene stood the mighty Taj, exquisite and considered to be the symbol of love world-wide. It was an electrifying sensation.
The gardens were teeming with tourists but with it being such an expansive place, it did not feel over-crowded at all. Our guide knew his subject matter well and answered all of our questions in impressive detail and with great patience. He was also over-enthusiastic to click our pictures in all the favorite angles and positions with Taj in the background and that too in super romantic poses. I found it hilarious! Those who know my husband well can imagine where all this resulted and the guide reluctantly gave up on all the photo-taking as Abhay got grumpier and grumpier with each session.
The scale of the main complex itself is humongous. One has to remove their shoes before embarking on the main platform where Taj-Mahal stands but we appreciated the fact that there were covers for visitors’ feet so that the marble platform doesn’t get disfigured or damaged with time.
Taj-Mahal is surrounded by four minarets at each corner. These minarets are constructed slightly outwards so that if they fall down due to an earth-quake or a storm, the main structure remains safe from them. The mausoleum itself is one of the finest example of Mughal architecture with styles that combine elements from Persian, Islamic, Indian and Turkish architecture. In my opinion, the structure is an ode to symmetry and perfection. The decorative elements applied on the walls consist mainly of stone inlays and most important of all, breath-taking intricate carvings. Throughout the complex, passages from Quran have been used to adorn the beauty of this ornate mausoleum. The colors which one sees in many places inside and on the walls of Taj-Mahal are actually all precious and semi-precious stones many of which shine radiantly in the moonlight. The level of detail and again, symmetry is utterly astonishing. It speaks volume of the proficiency of the architects instrumental in designing the great structure. You will come across numerous artisans around the Taj who claim to be the descendants of engineers who were involved in the construction of taj-mahal and their services are hired even today whenever Taj is restored or repaired of its minor damages.
It was now time to admire the Taj-Mahal from inside. As a resting place for a beloved wife, there is something to be said for the peaceful simplicity here with the impressively hollow domed ceiling. The inner room is an octagon where cenotaphs of Shahjahan and his queen mumtaz have been placed in two levels. The ones we are able to see are the copies of the original ones which are situated in the cellar below the building. Entry to the real cenotaphs is now prohibited for public to see. The bigger cenotaph on the upper level is that of the emperor and the smaller one in the center of the chamber belongs to queen Mumtaz. Photography is not allowed inside this chamber.
After paying tribute to the soul of two legendary lovers, we made our way back from the mausoleum and strolled in the gardens, seeping in our guide’s commentary about them. The facilities at the Taj were pretty much the same as Fatehpur Sikri but unfortunately, number of guides, touts, photographers and rickshaw & cab drivers pestering you are much more in number than at other landmarks of the city. My advice- look through them and ignore.
The sheer beauty and magnificence of Taj-Mahal continues to attract millions of people each year and it is India’s gift to the world: a tribute to the power of love across the globe. Needless to say, its glory will resonate until the end of time.
The remaining time spent in Agra was pretty action-packed. The city seemed much more cleaner and organized than I remembered from my past visits and the local food as always, was simply mouth-watering. For those who are unaware, Agra offers the most delicious variety of ‘chaats’ and all sorts of sweet and savoury delicacies. Visit to the ‘Sadar Market’ is a must for an evening of street-side food and footwear & handbag shopping. It is fun to watch various groups of foreigners visiting this market as a part of their guided tours and trying out ‘panipuris’ and ‘tikkis’ for the very first time in their lives. ‘Petha’ is a staple sweetmeat Agra is especially famous for and the variety of this crystallized pumpkin sweet you will find at the local shops here is just astounding.
Though Agra is “most famous for being famous” it has lot more to offer than just the great Taj-Mahal. The culture, the colors, the leather footwear industry, the immaculate gardens, the grace and glory of the past, the camel rides, the food..How can one be disappointed? Yes it’s crowded, yes the roads are narrow, yes it’s either unbelievably hot or unbelievably cold and yes it is quite unconventional than your textbook holiday destinations but as far as the romance and the history go, you can’t go wrong with Agra. This place holds me forever spell-bound with its regal bearings and charming allure.
Visit this city of everlasting love. Afterall, everything is fair in love and Agra.