I’ve spent my first three weeks in Thailand in the…
I had really low expectations for Agra. All the travellers that I had chatted with seemed to agree that Agra was the worst place they’d been to in the whole of India. I was told that I shouldn’t stay for any longer than one night. Just get in, see the sights, and get out again. I think having built up such a bad image of the city in my head I was actually able to appreciate it better. Because, good or bad, most things rarely fulfil your expectations. I stayed in Agra for two nights and actually quite enjoyed it. Yes, there were touts. Yes, the auto rickshaw drivers could be quite insistent. But, overall it wasn’t as bad as everyone made it out to be.
I arrived in Agra by train. Since I was coming from Delhi it was only a short trip. I had visited one of the tourist board shops in Delhi and was recommended to catch the train from H. Nizamuddin instead of the New Delhi railway station. Nizamuddin is much smaller and is less touristy so there aren’t as many people trying to scam you there and it’s easier to find your way around. It was also much closer to my hostel so it made more sense to book a train from there anyway. I booked a seat in the AC Chair class which was quite pleasant and mostly full of business men and upperclass families. I was sitting next to a lovely lady that had been visiting her son in Delhi, her english wasn’t amazing but we managed to have a nice conversation and she let me know when we had reached our stop. Agra Cantt. railway station is a little bit crazy but I managed to find my way out and locate the prepaid taxi stand. I even managed to find a taxi driver that knew how to get to my hostel. I probably overpaid but when it’s only a matter of a dollar or two I find it hard to get worked up about it. I was very relieved to make it to the hostel and be allowed to check in early. I stayed at Zostel Agra which is conveniently located within walking distance of the East Gate of the Taj Mahal. You have to buy your ticket from the Shilpgram before you visit the Taj Mahal and since I was planning to go for the sunrise in the morning I thought I’d do the smart thing and buy the ticket in advance. After that it was time for a nap.
The next morning I was up bright and early at 5:30. It took about 15 minutes to reach the East Gate of the Taj Mahal complex on foot so I arrived just as they were opening the gates at 6am. There was a bit of a line already but it moved quite quickly. I was glad that I had doused myself in mosquito repellent before I left because we were surrounded by clouds of the little bloodsuckers while we waited. You have to go through a security check before you enter the complex. I would advise that you only bring your camera, wallet, a bottle of water and maybe your phone. Don’t bring anything else because you may be forced to check it in. Things like food, pens and even books aren’t allowed inside. It is apparently not unheard of for tourists to try and dig the gemstones out of the marble. I was stunned by this, but then I remembered that there are people dumb enough to scratch their name into the stone of the Colosseum in Rome. The rules are in place to preserve the beauty of the Taj Mahal so don’t get annoyed with the guards please.
Once I was through security I quickly made my way to the main garden entrance. I was hoping that I’d be early enough to beat the crowds and capture that classic shot of the Taj in the distance with the pool leading to it. Alas there was already a line of people waiting to do the same. I took a few photos from the side and went for a closer look instead. The garden area is a lot larger than I had expected, probably a couple of hundred metres wide. The grass is fenced off so that you have to stay on the paths which at that time of the morning was fine but I imagine it can get quite congested during high season. I went straight up to the mausoleum to get some close up photos instead. You have to take your shoes off to go inside and also if you go into the mosque. I went for a walk around the outside first since the morning light was so pretty.
I didn’t spend a long time inside the mausoleum. It’s very dark inside so it’s hard to make out the detailed designs on the walls. You’re also not allowed to take photos inside which I think is fair enough. It is a grave after all. Inside you can see the two marble crypts representing Mughal emperor Shah Jahan and his beloved wife for whom he built the Taj Mahal, Mumtaz Mahal. Their actual tombs are below ground level and not open for public viewing. I found it quite loud inside the mausoleum because of the tour guides. Their voices echo and it is very difficult to understand what they are saying. Personally I find that it ruins the ambience. A tomb should be a place of silence and respect. I guess that’s hard to achieve when you have 3 million people pass through every year.
I wanted to hang around and wait for the light to change so I found a seat along one of the paths in the garden to sit and rest a while. I spent about an hour just hanging out watching the people stroll by and also watching the squirrels. On the next bench along an indian man in fatigues (so I’m guessing he was in the military) was sitting eating breakfast. It didn’t take long for the squirrels to surround him and start stealing crumbs. He began to feed them, holding out the little bits of food for them to grab with their tiny paws. He even had them eating on his knee at one point. It was very cute to watch.
After taking a few more photos once the sun had risen a little it was time to head back to the hostel and find some breakfast. There was a little restaurant right in front of the hostel so I just had breakfast there. It was pretty good, Aloo Paratha, a bit spicy but very tasty. While I was eating breakfast the young guy working there gave me updates on the cricket. I really don’t care about cricket but as soon as I mention that I’m Australian I hear about it. Australia was playing India that day so perhaps that was why but I’m considering pretending to be American now anyway. Shortly after breakfast I was sitting in the common area in the hostel with a couple of other travellers when one guy put an open invitation to us to visit the other attractions in Agra. Myself and a young American guy took up the invitation since between the three of us the cost for the auto rickshaw was quite low. For three of us it was 850 rupees including visiting the “Baby Taj”, the garden across the river from the Taj Mahal, and Agra Fort.
We began at the “Baby Taj” which is the Tomb of I’tmād-ud-Daulah. It was built before the Taj Mahal and is generally thought to be inspiration for it. It is much smaller than the Taj but it is also very detailed. We did a quick tour of the mausoleum and the outbuilding beside the river. You have to take your shoes off to enter the mausoleum. We left our shoes with all of the others. It wasn’t until we got back that we realised that the indian man we had seen there was actually “looking after” our shoes and expected a tip for the trouble. I gave him 20 rupees and we continued on.
Our next stop was the garden across the river from the Taj Mahal. Our driver told us that we could either pay the 100 rupees to go into the garden or we could walk down the path to the river and see the Taj Mahal from there. We figured that it wouldn’t hurt to try the free option first; we could always go into the garden afterwards. So we walked down and had a look. We all agreed that it wasn’t really worth it so we went back to the rickshaw. Our driver was a nice guy and liked to have a bit of fun. Martin, the Argentinian guy that had invited us along, expressed an interest in the rickshaw so our driver gave him the handlebars for a bit. The road was very quiet but Jacob and I still held onto our seat a little tighter while Martin was driving.
The traffic in Agra is a pretty crazy. Road rules seem to be non-existent and it’s pretty common to have to dodge cows. Poor Martin got a bit of a shock from another rickshaw that came too close and accidentally bit a chunk out of his lip. It was possibly a cow’s fault. It takes a bit to wrap your head around giving way to cows. But they will stand in the middle of the road or walk out into traffic as they please. You need good reflexes to drive in India. We made it to Agra Fort after about 20 minutes. Agra Fort is massive. It’s also very hot inside. The red sandstone really absorbs the heat. We walked around for a bit, not really very interested in the place. The highlight of Agra Fort was actually getting to feed a squirrel breadcrumbs out of my hand. I had to give the guy with the breadcrumbs a 10 rupee tip to do it but it was worth it. Such adorable creatures.
Once we had finished at Agra Fort we went back to the rickshaw. Martin had told us earlier that the trip would include visiting a bazaar. It turns out that it was actually a marble shop. Probably owned by a friend or relative of the driver. First they sat us down in the little workshop and showed us how they made the pieces and how they calculate the value of each piece. Then we were ushered into the showroom where the salesman made his pitch. I’ve read about this online. We were probably pretty lucky because the salesman didn’t try too hard with us. I stood back while the boys were shown around to make it very clear that I wouldn’t be buying anything. We all managed to get out of the shop without being talked into opening our wallets, thankfully.
We were all starving by this point so we had our driver drop us at the McDonalds near our hostel. Ok I know, McDonalds isn’t very Indian or healthy. But it was a real novelty going to a maccas with a largely vegetarian menu! And it had an indian flare to it too. There really is a Maharaja Mac and spicy paneer wraps too. So it’s not so bad really. That was the end of my day sightseeing in Agra. All in all it was a good day and I wasn’t as turned off by Agra as most people seem to be.
Things to remember
The Taj Mahal is open everyday, except Friday, from sunrise to sunset. Foreigners pay 750 rupees for entry into the complex. This ticket is only valid for a single entry. If you want to leave and then come back you’ll need to buy another ticket. Hold onto your ticket because if you visit the Agra Fort you can get in for 250 rupees instead of 300. It will also give you a 10 rupee discount at the Baby Taj, which is negligible but it’s a bit less hassle paying 100 rupees rather than 110.