AGRA- Part IV of INDIA travel series
- When: 26 December – 27 December, 2018
- Where (accommodations): Courtyard by Marriott Agra
- Transportation: Drive from Khajuraho (~10hrs) with a stop at Orchha. Driver/car hired at the hotel in Khajuraho
- Sights/attractions: Taj Mahal, Agra Fort, Tomb of I’timād-ud-Daulah
- Food/drinks: Master Chef restaurant
After a long and at times bumpy ride, we entered Agra city and our driver got all confused. The man drove in pretty rough conditions for ten hours and had no issues, but when he reached the city he seemed completely lost. Kept asking us if it’s our hotel, when hotel was still at least twenty minutes away. Luckily Sean’s phone had a data plan, so we pulled up a GPS and helped guide our driver until we finally reached Courtyard Agra hotel. Here we will spend one night and tomorrow morning we’ll accomplish a long standing dream to see Taj Mahal at sunrise! We picked the hotel based on location and the fact that we had Marriott points to use, so it was essentially free. Location is everything in Agra though. The closer you can be to the Taj Mahal, the better. Traffic is not as bad as in Varanasi, but close enough. Hotel was comfortable (it was cold, we had to ask to fix the heater in our room), had plenty of dinner and breakfast options because of the restaurants located at the premises.
IMPORTANT info: Taj Mahal is closed on Fridays. Plan your visit accordingly. We had to rearrange our initial plans (luckily before we booked any flights or accomodations) once we found out that this monument is closed for tourists every Friday.
5.30 am wake up did not bother us whatsoever- this is the main goal of this trip. Many flights and car rides later, we are here!
Travel tip: Have a guide and go EARLY. We arranged one through our hotel and he picked us up a little after 6am and we drove only 5 minutes until cars are not allowed anymore. Then we took a rickshaw for another 5 min drive (or you can walk, but it was still dark and cold and we did not feel like walking).
There are two options to buy the tickets while you’re there- cash or credit card. There is a little discount to use credit cards (India is trying to incentivize that), but the line was longer, so we paid cash and got bottled waters and shoe covers with the ticket.
Afterwards you will have to walk to the line to enter the gates to the Taj. We were in this line by 6.30am, the gates opened at sunrise, which was at 7am. Line moved quick, despite it being maybe 150 people in front of us already. DO NOT bring any backpacks, no tripods, no food. Make your life easier and just bring camera/phone and money. If you buy the tickets online, then bring picture ID/passport. If you buy them at the counter, like we did- no ID was requested.
There are separate lines for men and women and mine moved faster than Sean’s so I got to see the magic a few minutes sooner. Then guide and Sean came and we started a photo session!
I am not kidding or exaggerating- it is MAGICAL. The fog before the sun came up created this mystical effect and it was overwhelmingly beautiful. You know how sometimes the place is all hyped up and you see it and you think it’s not all that great? Well, Taj Mahal was ALL that great and MORE. It was hard to believe we are experiencing such beauty with our own eyes.
The guide was amazing. Did you know that Shah Jahan built this mausoleum to his favorite wife Mumtaz Mahal, who died giving birth to their 14th child? Or that Shah Jahan planned on building a black marble mausoleum for his own tomb? Unfortunately before he could accomplish that plan, his son took over the empire, killed all of his brothers and kept the father on house arrest for 8 remaining years of his life! At least that’s what the guide told us, though there are various versions of the story behind this grand white marble tomb. Some say it was built as a symbol of undying love for his wife, while others claim that Shah Jahan wanted to show off his power and wealth by building this expensive and marvelous structure. We choose to believe the love story of course 🙂 .
Besides knowing many historical facts, our guide had some very good tips for the photos as well. If you come early (which is again the key in my opinion), the fountains are not turned on yet. If you hurry up, you’ll be able to take some amazing pictures of the Taj reflecting in the water. Do that first. Then take the obligatory photo on the bench (there will be a little line, which becomes a long line as the day progresses). And then go to the left side if you are facing Taj.
There are bushes and trees that obscure the people, but give you a nice shot of the mausoleum. And nobody was there! When we took these photos the place was already filled with tourists, but you can’t tell that from the pictures, can you 🙂 ?
Another tip: If you like being in the photos (guilty as charged)- wear colorful clothes. That’s where my scarves came in handy. Taj is white, so any bright color just pops! I had a jacket but took it off for pictures and then put it back on because it was freezing. But what won’t you do for the good picture, right?
We spent about three hours walking around, exploring, taking it all in. Don’t rush to the next monument, no other building after this one will look as good anyway! Sad truth 🙂 .
We went inside wearing shoe covers, but it’s not much to see there- tombs and no pictures allowed. All beauty is definitely from the outside of this building.
We were SO happy to have experienced Taj Mahal, that it did not really matter what came next 🙂 . We got back to the hotel for a quick breakfast and met up with the same guide to do the tour of the other Agra sights. Taj is by far the most spectacular, but if you have some time, spend a few hours checking out the other monuments as well. Agra Fort, also known as the Red Fort of Agra was our first stop.
It was around 11.30am and the place was packed- lots of tourists, beggars, vendors selling things at the entrance. We had to be quite firm in saying “no”. There was a separate line for foreigners, so we got in pretty quick and it was worth the visit. The fort was the main residence of the emperors of the Mughal Dynasty until 1638, when the capital was moved from Agra to Delhi. It has several structures and palaces inside and you could spend half a day there, which we did not have. We checked out Jahangir’s Hauz– huge tub that was used for bathing, Shahjani Mahal– white marble palace that looked so different from the predominant red walls.
We stopped at the room where Shah Jahan spent last 8 years of his life in captivity by his own son, who took over the empire. At least while on house arrest, he had the view of Taj Mahal- the tomb he build for his wife as the symbol of undying love.
Tomb of I’timād-ud-Daulah
Last monument in our Agra visit was the Tomb of I’timād-ud-Daulah. As it was super busy at the Fort, we expected same madness here and were pleasantly surprised. It was hardly anyone around! This Mughal mausoleum is sometimes called “Baby Taj” or described as a “jewel box”- it’s well preserved, clean and definitely worth the visit.
After this, we parted with our amazing guide, which was well worth 2250 INR (~32 USD). He spent with us from 6am until at least 3pm and was SO informative. The driver took us to Master Chef for lunch – definitely a restaurant catered to tourists, but we were hungry and the food was delicious, so we had no complaints 🙂 . 3.5 hr drive to Delhi was incredibly comfortable. No cows on the road, brand new highway- it was as if driving in the USA- what a difference from the drive from Orchha to Agra yesterday! We only spent a night in Delhi without leaving our hotel, because the flight to the blue city JODHPUR is scheduled tomorrow morning! We’ll return to Delhi in a few days.
We came to India to experience its culture, energy, and most importantly – the Taj Mahal. Our tour guide said something to us that still sticks with me, “there are two types of people in this world: those who have seen the Taj and those who won’t.” We are forever grateful to have witnessed such beauty and hope that you will too!