entering the land of the gods

a study abroad journey

Agra: from Dawn to Dusk

On our last leg of the trip we spent 20 hours in Agra. The way plans worked out, we hoped to see the city at sunrise, sunset, and in full moonlight!  Our train pulled in at 6am after the short 4 hour ride from Jaipur. We immediately found a guesthouse to drop our things and take a rest before eating breakfast amidst the peacocks 🙂

In general, I did not really like the city of Agra. You would think it would be more picturesque like Jaipur, being a prime tourist destination, but it is a filthy and smelly city. The area around the Taj is packed with cheap vendors and guesthouses with rooftop restaurants. At one point, we found ourselves walking down one alley towards one of the Taj gates. Both sides of the small street were lined with stalls selling cheap key chains and postcards. The vendors were like hawks calling out persistently, “Nice postcard, madame! Come take a look! This one for you!” Flies swarmed relentlessly around my head and a rancid smell hung in the air. I was surprised that as we walked around this area, there actually were not many Western tourists roaming about. We saw a few other people at restaurants we ate at, but not many. I think this is partly due to the bad condition of the city. As we visited the sites, most Western tourists travelled with large tour groups or with individual tour guides. These groups also tended to be groups of people older than 50 years old! Harper and I seemed to be the youngest pair traveling alone.

But besides the city, Agra does have a large array of amazing attractions to take in. It is recommended to hire an auto for the day to capture all of the sites effectively, and like I mentioned, most people travel with tour packages and such, but Harper and I created our own path. We didn’t see everything the city had to offer but we saw the aspects that we wanted to experience. After all, after living in Hyderabad for 2 months, you don’t really feel like you are a tourist anymore…but then you remember that you look like a tourist!

We began our day at Agra Fort. Building began in 1565 by Emperor Akbar and was finished by his grandson Shah Jahan. Most of the structure is red sandstone, giving it a beautiful color! It was built primarily as a military fort but was transformed into a palace and then a prison.  The walls that surround the fort rise over 20 meters. The entry gate called, Amar Singh Gate, faces south. Inside the fort there are various mosques, courtyards, and towers to be explored. What I loved best was the stone designs and carvings on the walls. This is also where I caught a glimpse of the Taj for the first time! Its outline was faint in the hazy sky creating a sense of magic.

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Do you see the Taj just faintly to the right?

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Next we headed to Itimad-up-Daulah, nicknamed the baby Taj. This is the tomb of Mizra Ghiyas Beg, a Persian nobleman who was Mumtaz Mahal’s grandfather. His daughter built the tomb for him in the 1620s in the same style as (Pakistani tomb). It was the first Mugal structure to be made completely of marble, and while not as majestic as the Taj, is so beautifully delicate. Marble lattice screens, floral painting, and pietra dura (marble inlay work).

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We sat at a rooftop restaurant for lunch with a full view of the Taj. As I stared at this monument, one of the 7 wonders of the world, and I was not impressed. The atmosphere of the city had brought me down and I felt tired in the humid air. After some rest and relaxation we finally entered the gates of the Taj Mahal. We later realized it was the perfect time to go. The humidity broke and there were just enough clouds for perfect pictures. Is this not gorgeous!

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The vicinity was teeming with tourists, as you can imagine but you stand in that first gateway with a perfect view of the structure and all you can do is smile. The walkway up to the Taj is composed of pools of water, walkways, and green lawns. Harper and I worked our way through the crowds, seeking out the best spots to snap photos.

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Finally we made it up to the front steps, ready to enter the Taj Mahal. The system of entry is very interesting. As a foreign tourist you pay 750 rupees to enter the Taj vicinity. Indians only pay 30 rupees! However, tourists have precedence to enter the Taj structure. With it being an Indian holiday, there were much more Indians on tour than foreigners. In fact, their line ran around all four walls of the Taj. But being a foreigner was like having a FastPass at Disney World and we jumped right into line. While the inside of the Taj is beautiful with its colorful marble walls, vast dome, and tombs at the center, the experience itself was not calm and respectful as I anticipated. In fact, it was more like cattle herding. We were packed into the small dome, trying to walk around the circle. One thing about Indians, they tend to be pushy. I literally felt like a cow being herded through the Taj. I was happy to make it back into the fresh air and explore the outside area of the Taj instead.

If you do not know the story of how the Taj Mahal was created, read about it here!

Then, in anticipation of the sunset we went to the other side of the river for a backside view of the Taj. The sunset was pretty hazy and created beautiful colors in the sky but did not have the radiance to reflect on the Taj. However, it was majestic as ever!

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But we still had one more view to see….the Taj at moonlight! Harper and I found a rooftop restaurant once more. As we shared conversation, a beer, and Indian curries we waited for the moon to appear. The full moon has been radiant the past two nights….but where was it tonight? We could see the dark outline of the Taj against the city, but the moon failed to rise out of the fog. Good thing we didn’t buy moonlight tickets!

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It was a long day and at 10pm we were ready to crash. I fought off sleep as we waited at the station for our 2am train back to Hyderabad. We were so ready to fall asleep and be home. But after getting on the train, we realized that our tickets were the last RAC tickets, meaning that while we had seats, they were “half” seats. So Harper and I shared a bed for the night (so we wouldn’t have to share with an Indian man!) Needless to say, it was not the quality of rest I would have liked, but hey, we made it home after a great journey!

As always, it feels good to be home in Hyderabad, home at Tagore. However, I can’t say that I missed the heat! I didn’t realize how much I was enjoying the cool northern mornings and nights- I have been sweating all day! 🙂

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