India Backpacking 2017-18

Agra and the Taj Mahal

28 Oct. Agra
I got up before the sun to catch the 7:05 a.m. Shatabdi train to Agra. Although I could have walked the 1.5 kilometers to the train station, the guesthouse manager drove me there. The train ride with aircraft-style seating was very pleasant—fast and smooth—and included tea and snacks. Plus I had a window seat to watch the dry countryside of fields and hills pass by. On arrival at Agra Cantonment train station, I easily got an autorickshaw ride to the cluster of inexpensive hotels in the Taj Ganj area just south of the Taj Mahal. I took a look at three places to stay then got a 600-rupee room at Shanti Lodge. This area has the advantage of being an easy walk to the south entrance of the Taj Mahal, and lots of rooftop restaurants offer a view of the Taj.
The autorickshaw driver was keen for more business and we agreed to meet at 2 p.m. for a tour of historic sites on the far shore of the sacred Yamuna River that curves along the north side of town. We first went to the ‘Baby Taj’ or Itimad-ud-Daulah, built 1622-28 and famed for its beauty and as the first Mughal tomb made entirely of white marble, the first to extensively use pietra-dura (inlays of semi-precious stones), and the first tomb on the banks of the Yamuna. It’s very beautifully proportioned and decorated, including finely carved marble lattice screens. Paintings inside have faded, but still give an idea of how pretty the chambers must have been when new. The tomb has a setting in a formal garden with four elaborate gates on each side of the enclosing wall and four pavilions on the corners—all with fine stonework and symmetry. The Persian nobleman entombed within was the grandfather of Mumtaz Mahal—for whom the later Taj Mahal was later built—and a chief minister for Emperor Jehangir. Across the Yamuna I could see smokestacks of industries that once polluted the air and threatened to corrode the Taj Mahal, but all have been shut down.
A little farther north we turned down a lane to the much less visited Chini-ka-Rauza, a large Persian-style tomb constructed from 1628-39 for a poet and chief minister of Shah Jahan.
Next we headed for Mehtab Bag, the last in a series of 11 parks on this side of the Yamuna. The park itself isn’t the big attraction; rather it’s the location directly across the river from the Taj Mahal. Remnants of a large pool would have given a fine reflection of the Taj.
Back in Taj Ganj I had a disappointing thali at one of the many travelers’ restaurants. Food and accommodation have been a big step down from what I enjoyed in Jaipur.
29 Oct. Agra
Last night got noisy due to bouts of barking dogs, music, and traffic, so I stuffed my ears with earplugs, then I had a good night’s sleep. However I didn’t hear the early-morning alarm, intended so that I could head to the Taj Mahal around first light, said to be the best time to arrive. Instead I went out for a leisurely breakfast and decided to try again for a Taj visit tomorrow morning.
India is full of abandoned ancient cities, and one of the best lies about 40 kilometers west at Fatehpur Sikri. Emperor Akbar built this magnificent capital from 1571 to 1585, but his successors abandoned the site, perhaps in part due to water shortages. First I got an autorickshaw for the long ride to Idgah Bus Stand on Agra’s western outskirts, then caught a basic bus (with rock-hard suspension) for about an hour’s journey. At the end of the ride I climbed up to the enormously imposing 54-meter-high Buland Darwaza (Victory Gate) and entered Jama Masjid. A colonnaded cloister wraps around a vast courtyard with the main mosque—still in use—on the west. A white marble tomb of Sufi saint Shaikh Salim Chishti on the north side of the courtyard attracted a steady stream of people paying respects. Light beautifully enters its latticed walls. Just to the east stands the large red-sandstone tomb of Islam Khan, Shaikh Salim Chishti’s grandson. Many other graves cluster nearby.
After the Jama Masjid visit, I retrieved my shoes and headed out the east gate to the palace complex, full of grand palaces, halls, courtyards, gateways, gardens, and servants’ quarters—all with elaborately carved stone decorations.
Back at the bus stop, I grabbed a snack of vegetable pakora (fried battered vegetable balls) and tea before getting on another rough-riding bus back to Agra. Tonight I hoped to have a good dinner, so took an autorickshaw to Dasaprakash (Meher Theater Complex on Gwalior Rd.) for a super-tasty South Indian thali, then finished with one of the many fancy ice cream deserts.
Back at the guesthouse, the room lights didn’t work, so I moved across the hall. This room seemed quieter, though clambering monkeys just outside the window made a ruckus before settling down. The night turned out relatively quiet.
30 Oct. Agra
This morning I got an early start to see the Taj Mahal, said to be at its best in the morning light before the big crowds arrive. Unfortunately everybody knows this and I found the Taj just as crowded early morning as later on, but the light had a wonderful soft quality as the red sun rose into the hazy sky.
The Taj has three entrances, and I headed to the south one as it’s closest, but a shopkeeper told me that this one doesn’t open until 8 a.m. He led me to the west gate, which already had a long line. I bought the pricey 1000-rupee ticket, then headed to the back of the line. A ‘guide’ offered to usher me in without waiting for the fee of 2,000 rupees, which quickly dropped to 1,500 rupees, but this was a scam. It turned out that there’s a special and very short line for tourists, who pay many times what Indians do, and I quickly got in and through the security check. All three gates lead into the forecourt, then one turns north and enters the huge and intricately decorated 30-meter-high Main Gate for the first grand view of the glowing white marble Taj Mahal. A raised platform provids a fine vantage point across reflecting pools that divide the formal garden into four quadrants.
Farther along I clambered up to another raised platform that’s in the center of the garden for an even finer view. The great monument has marvelous symmetry, of course, and lots of detail with Islamic inscriptions around the great openings on each side and lots of pietra dura inside and out. A neat thing about the Taj is how beautiful it looks whether viewed from a great distance or close up.
Next I walked around the Taj with detours to a mosque on the west side and an identical building called the ‘Jawab’ on the east side whose sole purpose is to provide symmetry with the mosque. Delicate pavilions mark the corners of the compound where it overlooks the Yamuna River.
Then I stepped into the white marble interior of the Taj and filed past a jewel–inlaid latticed screen that surrounds the tombs of Mumtaz Mahal and her husband Emperor Shah Jahan. (The actual tombs are said to lie below in an underground vault.) No photos allowed inside, though.
Shah Jahan built this memorial and tomb for his beloved third wife, Mumtaz Mahal, who died while giving birth to their 14th child in 1631. Construction began the year after her death and it took about eight years to build the main tomb and about another 22 years to complete the complex.
After exiting, I again wandered around the Taj to admire its beauty from many angles. I also stepped inside a small museum, housed in an elegant building on the west side of the formal garden, to see exhibits of old royal decrees, miniature paintings, and samples of some of the many semi-precious stones used for inlays. I wandered back out the Main Gate, then through the South Gate back to Taj Ganj, where I had a late breakfast.
After a mid-day rest, I took an autorickshaw to Agra Fort, one of the finest Mughal forts of India. Emperor Akbar got it going in 1565, then Shah Jahan built highly refined palaces of white marble and red sandstone. Walls rise 20 meters, further protected by the Yamuna on one side and a crocodile-filled moat that curved around the other sides. I first visited the red sandstone Jehangir’s Palace, believed to have been constructed by Akbar for his son Jehangir. Then I meandered through a series of beautiful palaces that overlook the Yamuna to Diwan-i-Khas (Hall of Private Audiences) and the home of Shah Jahan’s famous Peacock Throne, once studded with precious gems including the Koh-i-noor Diamond, before later removal and dismantling.
Next I turned inland to the imposing Diwan-i-Am (Hall of Public Audiences) and its central throne room where Shah Jahan once held court.
A cycle rickshaw driver forged through thick traffic of Kinari Bazaar to Jama Masjid, built by a daughter of Shah Jahan in 1648. The red sandstone domes have striking zig-zag patterns from lines of white marble.
An autorickshaw driver then dropped me off at Vedic Restaurant, next door to last night’s Dakaprakash, where I had a tasty North Indian thali, then headed over to Dakaprakash for a dreamy banana split.
31 Oct. Vrindavan
On a hazy morning I enjoyed a leisurely breakfast, then packed up and loaded my bag on an autorickshaw for a ride to the northwest edge of town and a visit to the Akbar Mausoleum, which holds the remains of the greatest Mughal ruler. An exceptionally large gateway of red sandstone has wonderful geometric designs and Islamic inscriptions in white marble and dark stones. Four minarets rise at the corners. I left my backpack here at the cloakroom and entered an enormous courtyard. Antelope, a creature that appears in Mughal miniature paintings, grazed in green fields on either side of the central raised walkway. Small waterways once ran along all the walkways and filled pools, but all have now dried up. The mausoleum has what looks like a four-story palace on top with a white marble lattice screen on the uppermost level. Elaborate paintings cover the walls and ceiling of the entryway, and tomb markers, some in translucent white marble, lay in chambers on either side.
Then I followed a passageway to the dimly lit and undecorated central chamber where Akbar’s tomb rests. Back outside I walked around the mausoleum and detoured to the well-preserved north ‘gate.’ Although it’s just for symmetry and lacks a doorway, there is a balcony high up inside the towering archway. An eastern ‘gate’ stands in semi-ruin with a collapsed archway. The southern ‘gate’ is in better shape though didn’t have the extensive paintings and rooftop details of the northern one.
Several other buildings stand outside the walled compound including a woman’s palace with intricate stonework on the east side (the other side lost its façade) and a ruined octagonal tomb of a Lodi ruler.
I could have tried to flag down a northbound bus from the highway, but it seemed a better idea to take an autorickshaw for a short ride back toward town to the I.S.B.T. bus station, where I found a roadside bus about to depart for Matura (pronounced ‘Matra’). I got seat in the packed interior, which always had room for another person and bags! A few parts of the highway had wide and smooth pavement, but most turned out to be bumpy and dusty and would have been unpleasant on a bicycle. In Mughal times this route was the imperial highway from Agra to Delhi and roughly follows the valley of the looping Yamuna River.
In the warren of rough narrow streets of Matura, a temple town famed as the birthplace of Krishna, I got an autorickshaw for the 13 kilometers to Vrindavan, a temple town in a bend of the Yamuna River where Krishna grew up. The founder of the international Hare Krishna movement, Swami Prabhupada (1896-1977) spent the last part of his life here and followers worship at the Krishna Balaram Temple Complex. I saw many Westerners wearing Indian clothing. Huge crowds filed along one of the streets to an all-night religious program.
An enquiry at a food stall about a place to stay led to a phone call and a fellow came out on a motorbike. He had an apartment for rent, and the 1,500-rupee price came down to 1000 rupees and I took it. Then the fellow took me back to the center where I entered the temple. The main hall, a courtyard with a white-marble entrance, has several colorful shrines of Krishna, his lady followers, Swami Prabhupada, and another teacher. A group of people sang devotional songs to the beat of drums and small cymbals. Outside another group of singers attracted enthusiastic dancers. On one side a shrine holds the remains of Swami Prabhupada. On the other side I climbed a set of stairs to a small museum with photos and story of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON).
 I had planned on dinner at the Govinda Restaurant in the temple complex, but it served only snacks. Farther down the street I came to an informal multi-cuisine restaurant and got a very tasty and filling North Indian vegetarian curry. I took an electric autorickshaw back to my apartment, a good thing as the dark streets would have been tricky on foot. Unfortunately I had picked up a cold from breathing the dusty air during the bus ride, and spent a somewhat restless night.

On to New Delhi

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