Agra and the Taj Mahal

The following is a trip report for a journey I took in October 2015.

When in India, it’s almost mandatory to visit the Taj Mahal, not to do so would be an unforgivable waste of an opportunity! With that in mind, I set out for the famous monument. The Taj Mahal is in the city of Agra, about 210 km south of Delhi. I was to catch the 06:00 Bhopal Shatabdi from New Delhi station to Agra Cant. I had pre-booked an English speaking tour guide and Driver at my hotel (no doubt the hotel took a tidy commission)

I left my hotel at 5:45 and walked the 5 minutes to New Delhi station. The all air-conditioned train was standing at the platform. I boarded my Executive Chair Car (1st class) and found my seat. The train was lightly loaded, and I was surprised to hear a group of people talking with Australian accents. I spoke to a couple of them, and it turned out that they were a Rotary group from Benalla, which is less than 200km from my home in Melbourne, Victoria! They sponsored a school in the Himalayan foothills, and had been on their annual visit before taking a side trip to Agra on the way home.

We departed New Delhi promptly at 6:00 and shortly after, a team of stewards brought a delicious complimentary hot breakfast to our seats. The journey was uneventful and passed quickly, making only 1 intermediate stop on the 195km journey, arriving in Agra just before 8am.

I stepped out onto the hot, dirty platform and found my tour guide anxiously waiting outside my carriage. He shook my hand firmly, and led me out of the station, through the throng of taxi touts and beggars to a waiting Toyota Camry. The car was cleaner than I had expected, and the Driver had left the air conditioner running, so it was mercifully cool inside. My guide introduced the Driver, and we drove smoothly out of the station car park and down a grimy, dusty road which was choked with traffic. We made our way sedately along the busy road and after about 15 minutes of weaving through people, motorbikes and trucks, we arrived at the Taj Mahal car park.

My guide asked if I wanted to wanted to walk or take a battery truck or camel cart for the 1km journey through the foreground of the Taj Mahal to the ticket gate. I decided to walk, as the locals were doing rather than hitch a ride with the lazy westerners in their tour groups. We walked through the wooded forecourt of the Taj Mahal, and soon arrived at the ticket gate. I was once again exposed to the practice of discriminatory ticket pricing, as I handed my guide the exorbitant amount of 750 (about A$15 – which has since increased to ₹1000 or A$20) whilst the locals were paying ₹40. My guide joined the queue to purchase my ticket, before returning and explaining the rules inside the walls; no food, no tobacco products, only water to drink…

After the mini-lecture, we made our way to the entrance gate. I found that my highly inflated foreigners’ entry ticket had some benefits as I was hustled past the long queues at the crowded general admissions gate, and through a side gate with virtually no wait.

Once inside, we entered a long stone lane way, and my guide went into a detailed history of Shah Jahan, the King who had built the Taj Mahal (Crown Palace) and the story of why it was constructed (a mausoleum for his favorite wife, Mumtaz Mahal). We were not yet in sight of the main building, and my guide explained the significance of all of the gates for various servants and other dignitaries. There were subtle Islamic references throughout, and great detail paid to symmetry.

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We came to an archway in the wall, and caught sight of the main building; it was breathtaking. No pictures or guide books can prepare for the first sight of the Taj Mahal; a brilliant white palace set amongst a beautiful garden and ornamental fountains. My guide took me around the gardens, pointing out the best spots for photography and going into detail about the history and construction of the Taj Mahal.

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Wall decorations at the Taj Mahal, made from inlaid semi-precious stones.

After taking me through the mausoleum and out onto the courtyard, he told me to take my time enjoying the gardens and taking photos and he would meet me near the archway. I spent about an hour wandering the gardens, revisiting the mausoleum and watching the monkeys playing before rejoining my guide, who was lounging in the shade. He greeted me, and made a phone call for the Driver to pick us up.

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After leaving the Taj Mahal, we visited a workshop where Iranian craftsmen were making ornaments and boxes out of the same type of marble used in the Taj Mahal. The manager explained the painstaking and precise process of carving out the marble and inlaying semi-precious stones, mostly done with hand tools. The tour was informative, but I was wary of what was coming next. Sure enough, he opened up a showroom door and invited me to browse the trinkets, confidently telling me that his prices were very affordable. This annoyed me, because I had specifically told my guide that I didn’t want to do any shopping (I was sure that he was receiving a kickback from the workshop manager). Not wanting to appear rude, I decided to browse for a few minutes. In spite of my misgivings, I found myself drawn to some small boxes; their unique designs and hand made finish making them beautiful gift ideas for family at home. After not intending to spend anything, I walked out of the showroom with 2 marble jewelry boxes and a small marble elephant (for a grand total of just under A$80).

After the unexpected shopping stop, my guide took me to a restaurant. The restaurant was higher class than I had previously dined in in India and prices were exorbitant by Indian standards (although at the lower end of what one would pay in Australia). I suspected that my guide also received a kickback from the restaurant, my suspicions further confirmed by the fact that there were only 2 other diners in the restaurant; a French lady and a Japanese lady (also both dining alone). I ate my reasonably tasty but overpriced meal and found my guide and Driver waiting outside. We drove from the restaurant, through the dirty, dusty centre of Agra to the Agra Fort.

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Agra Fort

Built by the Mughal Empire from red sandstone in the 11th century, The Agra Fort was more a walled city than a military installation. In the 16th century is was made the capital of India and was the home to the ruling Sultan as well as hosting government meetings. My guide explained the story about Emperor Shah Jahan (the man who commissioned the Taj Mahal) who became ill and abdicated his throne in 1658. His eldest son (Dara Shikoh) assumed power and became concerned with his father’s spending. Shah Jahan had planned to build a Black Taj Mahal on the opposite shore of the Yamuna River to be his final resting place so that he was within sight of his beloved third wife who was eternally resting in the white Taj Mahal.

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A black marble bench, where the Emperor would receive his parliament in Agra Fort. The crack is from the bench being hit by lightning. The Taj Mahal is just visible in the distance above the parapet wall.

When the foundations for the Black Taj Mahal were laid, Dara Shikoh was concerned that this would place too great a strain on the country’s finances for such an extravagant grave. He placed his father under house arrest in the Agra Fort, where he remained a prisoner until his death in 1666. From his gilded cage, Shah Jahan was able to see the Taj Mahal less than 2.5km along the Yamuna river, but never visit. Shah Jahan was interred at the Taj Mahal, next to Mumtaz Mahal.

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The Taj Mahal, as seen from the Agra Fort

After the detailed history lecture, my guide showed me the government seat, where the Emperor addressed his ministers, the fishing ponds (complete with balcony casting position), the market and the courtyard where the the Emperor would hear the grievances of the common people (presumably carefully picked by the Emperor’s minders). My guide gave me some time to explore the grounds, before we made our way back to the car.

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The hall within Agra Fort where the Emperor would hear the peoples’ grievances

 

I had seen all I had come to Agra to see and had had enough of this dirty, dusty, gritty city full of beggars and touts, and although my train was not for another 6 hours, I decided it was preferable to wait in the station and try to get a seat on an earlier train. I asked my guide to take me back to the station. He protested and said that he could take me to a cultural show or more shopping, but I was adamant and had him instruct the driver to take me to the station.

At the station, I paid my guide and driver a reasonably decent tip (₹500 each – about A$10). When I was handing the tip over to my Driver, a beggar on crutches approached and tried to take the tip out of his hand.

My guide took me to the ticket office in an attempt to change my booking to another train. The booking officer said that there were no tickets available and to go away. My guide protested and produced my Indian Railways pass. The ticket officer said to go to the platform and just board the first Delhi bound train that came along. I was pretty sure it was just to get rid of us.

My guide left me at the gate, and I thanked him for the tour. I made my way to the Delhi bound platform, just to see a train departing. The displays showed that the next train was in 45 minutes, so I found a seat on the platform and waited. A small boy, probably about 8 years old approached me. He looked well fed, clean and well presented. He held his hand out for some money. I shook my head, but he wouldn’t give up. He looked at me with what were supposed to be pleading eyes, but with the clean clothes and the chubby cheeks, it didn’t quite work. After about 10 minutes, I stood up menacingly and he ran away, laughing. This didn’t work for long, and he soon came back so I walked over and stood near some railway police who were standing chatting. The boy gave me a sideways glance as if to say “nicely played, foreigner” before wandering off.

The train arrived, and I decided to take my chances on finding a spot in a 2AC car. I expected the train to be full, but when I walked in, I found only 2 other people in the whole carriage! I selected a berth, and an attendant offered me pillows and sheets. I took the pillows, and propped myself up on the bed as we pulled out of Agra and started rumbling through the countryside. The Conductor came past and did a double take when he saw me sitting in the berth that he expected to be empty. He asked for my ticket and I handed him my Rail Pass. He looked confused and said that I needed a seat reservation. I told him that the booking clerk at Agra had told me just to board the train and find a seat. He repeated that I needed a seat reservation. I told him that my rail pass was a valid ticket, before gesturing around the near empty carriage, and said that if I was sitting in someone else’s berth, I’d move. I either convinced him, or he decided it wasn’t worth the argument. He made a notation on his clipboard and walked off in a huff. I didn’t see him again.

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A 2AC berth in daytime mode

 

We stopped and started frequently on our slow crawl from Agra to Delhi. I didn’t mind the slow trip as the train was comfortable and clean. The food vendors came around and I had some chai as I watched the countryside slip slowly by. I spoke to one of the other passengers in the car and asked him why there were so few people on the train. He told me that it was a new weekly service to some obscure destination. It had only run a couple of times and not many people knew about it yet. He said that the general (unreserved second class) cars were crowded, but no one had booked in the reserved cars (2AC & 3AC).

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The cramped corridor of a 2AC car

After a long, slow trip, we made it back to New Delhi station. I was pleased to note that although it had taken over 4 hours to get back, I had arrived in Delhi before I was due to depart Agra. I found a small restaurant for dinner, before walking back to my hotel.

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