It was almost embarrassing; I’ve traveled the world, been to India twice, but never been to the Taj Mahal. We had to correct that. And here’s a warning: it is every bit as beautiful as I’d heard. You’re going to see a lot of pictures here.
Beyond seeing the Taj Mahal I had a hope coming here. Compared to Delhi, I figured, with its teeming millions of people, Agra and its mere 1.6 million people I thought might be a little easier. Wrong! The streets are crazy crowded and busy; you can’t figure out if it’s more important to keep your eyes up on the traffic or down to avoid the cow, dog, and sheep shit. The constant harassment asking if you want a ride or to shop or whatever just grates on your nerves. And the air seemed at least as bad as in Delhi, to me at least. In other words no let up on the chaos and intensity.
Once you get past all that, though, the Taj Mahal is seriously beautiful. After taking the train down from Delhi – surprisingly comfortable and almost shockingly on time – we decided to hit the site first thing in the morning. As in getting there before sunrise. It meant an early alarm and a cold tuktuk ride in the dark. Then confusion as to just where we were supposed to get tickets and queue up and all that. A frustrating lack of accessible information. And then when going through security they confiscated my little flashlight, saying it was against the rules because someone flash light on the building. We get here in the dark but I can’t take a flashlight? And you’re afraid of this little three-inch flashlight? Have you noticed that cell phones pretty much all have flashlights these days too? They weren’t really into discussing the fine points of their policy so I lost a cool flashlight given to me by Mark’s brother in Bali. Sad.
This was all starting off on the wrong foot. I was perhaps more than a little crabby at that point. (And heading out before breakfast is never a good strategy for me….) But wow, once you see the Taj Mahal in that early morning light, you get over those annoyances really quickly. The main building was built between 1632 and 1643, commissioned by Shah Jahan – ruler of the Mughal Empire from 1628 to 1658, when he was overthrown by his son (kids these days!) – as a mausoleum for his favorite wife who died in childbirth. She survived the first 13 babies but that 14th did her in.
The building is constructed of white marble from Rajasthan (the neighboring Indian state where we’ll be spending most of our time in country) along with 28 types of precious and semi-precious stones from all across Asia. It is believed that some 20 thousand artisans worked on the project which, in today’s currency, cost something like $800 million or more. Alas, however, contrary to myths I’ve heard many times, there appears to be no truth to the rumors of the death or dismemberment of the thousands of people who worked on the monument. Just stories made up to make it seem a little more romantic, I guess.
There’s not much to add about our time there except that it was every bit as beautiful as I could have hoped. And seeing it near sunrise was ideal; the lighting and relative lack of crowds made it perfect. Our timing was fortunate, too; the next morning was much foggier and we likely wouldn’t have had an experience anything like we did. Late the next day, though, we went to the Agra Fort, from which there is a fabulous view of the Taj, and where Shah Jahan was imprisoned by his son for the last eight years of his life. Jahan had a perfect few of the Taj Mahal and one can just imagine his son saying “There – look at how you wasted my inheritance!” At any rate, Mark remembered the incredible view from the Agra Fort from his visit here in 1993 and couldn’t wait to see it again. He’ll have to keep waiting, though – the fog/smog was so intense you could only see the very faintest of outlines of the building. So not everything worked perfectly for us.
If you have the time – and we have lots of time – there’s more to see in Agra than just the Taj Mahal. As noted above, we spent one afternoon at the Agra Fort, home of the Mughal emperors from 1556 to 1658 when they shifted the capital to Delhi. While it’s called a fort it is really a walled city with palaces and mosques and towers and gardens and all that kind of stuff. Definitely worth a stop, particularly – I can only presume – if the air is clear enough to see across to the Taj Mahal. Even without that it is interesting, as we saw in the Red Fort in Delhi, the wealth and power of the Mughal dynasty.
And we made a day trip out of Agra as well, some 25 miles southwest to Fatehpur Sikri, capital of the Mughal Empire from 1571 to 1585. Built by Akbar the Great, son of the Humayun whose tomb we saw in Delhi (and grandfather to Shah Jahan who built the Taj Mahal), who ruled the empire from 1556 to 1605, it was abandoned soon after it was finished due to exhaustion of the water supply. One might expect he’d have thought of that earlier.
At any rate, the ruins are impressive. There’s a great and massive mosque complex and then the remains of the imperial city, all of which are fun to poke around in. After, of course, you work your way past the constant barrage of locals telling you to go here, to come with them, to look at their shop or goods, to buy stuff. After you’re done with that, though – and when you think you’re done, you’re not; there are more – it is all just more evidence that this empire about which I knew little (and still know little) was a big deal.
Thus we made good use of our three-night stop in Agra. I can finally check off that big item on my to-do list (really only the Pyramids are left) and we can move on to Rajasthan.