Tuesday, June 15, 2010

The World’s most Beautiful Tombstone: Agra, India

Destination:  Agra, India
Number of days spent:  one ‘day’ trip
Where we stayed:  N/A, but the Sidartha Hotel had an excellent view of the Taj and the staff seemed friendly enough.  We did Agra in transit.  Arrived from Varanasi at 7am, left on the Shatabdi Express to Delhi at 8:30pm.  We thought it was enough time.
Best Restaurant:  We only ate at one place, Joney’s Place (twice!).  The lassies & malai kofta were excellent and the falafel and hummus were adequate all things considered.
Best of:  Taj Mahal from any angle or view is a magical site, Agra Fort was also surprisingly nice
Worst of:  I firmly believe that taxi/rickshaw/tuk-tuk drivers are the worst lot of humans on earth.  Even when you ‘pre-pay’ from the stand (thank you Indian Government for at least making an attempt) the entire ride is filled with hassle unless of course you book the full day tour (everything in town + shopping stops where they get commission).
Most memorable:   Sipping on a hard earned beer from atop the roof top terrace as the sun dipped down behind the Taj and into the horizon – a magical time of day and far above the touts!
Useful Tip:  While we felt the Taj was worth the hefty price tag (750RP/around $17) you can have a similar ‘experience’ for far less.  The Baby Taj (250RP/ about $6) has the same, if not better, intricate lattice and tile work and the view from across the river of the Taj (free) is almost as nice.  If you are looking for the best Holiday photos, however, you have to fork out the dough as the lush green gardens and water works inside provide the proper striking contrast.
The city of Agra is home to India’s most famous landmark – the Taj Mahal.  The town itself is geared to tourists and mostly built on tourism dollars so don’t expect a typical Indian town.  With that bring said, it’s not as bad as everyone makes it out to be.  There is a small, older part of town that, despite being filled with hotels, trinket shops and restaurants, the buildings are charming on their own and climbing to the top for a roof top view is quite rewarding.  In addition to the Taj Mahal, the city also boasts an excellent Mogul Fort and the smaller, but equally as nice Baby Taj. 
Few buildings in the world can match the beauty of the magnificent Taj Mahal.  It’s creator wrote, “it makes the sun and the moon shed tears.”  When the Mogul Empire rose to prominence during the 16th and 17th centuries, they chose Agra to be their capital.  After several successful military conquests led to the capturing of most of present day India, the Islamic Moguls became a powerful and wealthy nation.  While his predecessors were excellent leaders and military commanders in their own rights, it was Shah Jahan who oversaw the greatest architectural achievements of the Mogul Empire.  The Taj Mahal is actually an elaborate mausoleum built for Jahan’s second wife who died in labor with their 14th child.  With his heart shattered, he set forth building the Taj in the same year of her death, taking 14 years to complete.  White Marble is used throughout the building and platform.  Various precious and semi-precious stones were used to create intricate patterns in the marble.  Spend some time and get up close to admire the workmanship of each stone hand cut and placed.  The complex is also home to a Mosque built at the same time and well worth a peak.  Alas, such extravagance could not be sustained and the Mogul Empire, with it’s coffers drying up and an ever increasing British presence, the Empire essentially collapsed less than a century later. 
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Not to be overlooked is the Agra fort, one of the finest of its era in all of India.  The fort never saw military action and during Jahan’s time, the fort was converted into a palace.  To make things a little more homely and less fort like, Jahan reached into those coffers and had a few more beautiful rooms added to the top in none other than white marble.  Shortly after the completion of the Taj Mahal, Jahan’s son Aurangzeb seized power and locked him away here in the top level of the fort.  With a view of the river, the Taj and living in a palace I don’t think he had it too bad.  Considering Jahan had all his competitors for the throne killed, I think his son let him off pretty easy.
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After the fort we made our way back to the train station to catch our afternoon train to Delhi.  When we arrived we noticed on the board that it was delayed by over 4 hours!  With the extra time, we haggled with the rickshaws again to take us to see a couple of more sites.
Predating the real Taj, Itmad Ud Daulah or “Baby Taj” is often skipped be huge tour groups leaving it to the intrepid independent traveler to explore.  The same inlay work is present here, if not better, and the lack of crowds makes it a pleasant detour from the other more well known sites. 
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Directly opposite the Taj on the other side of the ‘river’ is Mehtab Bagh park.  One can pay the entrance fee and see an exact copy of the gardens that are in the main complex.  We opted, however, to skip the park and walk down the end of the road for a free view. 
After a challenging day of train delays, rickshaw drivers and touts we headed for one of the many roof top views of the Taj.  Most places will happily get you a beer to enjoy and we had ours atop the Sidartha Hotel.  The lighting at this time of day is something magical and not to be missed if you have the time.
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After having a bite to eat we headed back to the train station only to see that our train was delayed…again.  Not sure if that train was ever going to arrive, we headed for the ticket window to see if they had any tourist tickets left for the express train.  After a short wait, they waved us over and presented us with a couple of tickets on the 8:30 express train.  Seeing how our original train only cost us 200RP (about $4.25) we were not out too much.
Checking off another of the world’s best buildings it was off to the capital of India, New Delhi!

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