On Monday 5th March 2018 we were back on the train at 4:10am to travel 642km to Agra, the home of the Taj Mahal. Originally, Niall and I had been placed in different carriages on the train which wasn’t ideal but the conductor was very nice and the train wasn’t full so he told us which seats were spare and Niall was able to come join me in my carriage. On this train we were in class 2A which had bunk beds in two tiers instead of three and so was a bit more spacious. The train started in Amritsar so we were the first ones in the carriage and got fresh sheets and blankets for the journey.
The train arrived into Agra two hours later than we expected and apart from having 3 samosas between us (at 20 rupees – 20p) we hadn’t eaten anything since our meal the previous evening. It was 3pm when we arrived so ended up nearly being another twelve hour journey and both of us got less sleep on this journey for some reason compared to the last night train we got.
Instantly the contrast between Amritsar, Delhi and Agra was clear. There were monkeys in the station! The locals didn’t even bat an eyelid as they walked along the railings of the station roof but we certainly took notice and I was very excited about it. Agra was the first Indian city we had gone to where monkeys just lived in the city but there still wasn’t heaps in the part of town where we were staying although there were still a few. Despite living in an urban environment they still seem very territorial and don’t like you going into their space or being near them. The day we left Agra, we were sitting on the rooftop terrace of the hostel and Niall saw one on the roof of the hostel and so went to take a look. He ended up being closer to the monkey than he thought he would be and it took one look at him and bared its teeth in annoyance and warning. Niall knew what was coming so ran up the stairs and as he did the monkey jumped and tried to get him! Luckily he was going fast enough that the monkey missed but it did get his top and he was left with a dirty mark on the back of his t-shirt where the monkey had been which was a sign of just how lucky he had been! It was understandably quite rattling and we were always even more weary of the monkeys everywhere we went after that!
There was also a much larger number of cows everywhere compared to the other places we had been so far. They lay on the road or strolled down the highways without a care in the world with the traffic having no choice but to weave around them. It was incredible! Throughout our stay in Agra we would keep being surprised to suddenly see a cow crossing the road but also with how enormous some of them were. We even saw one cow have a stand off with a dog that barked at it. I wouldn’t have liked to be that dog as the this cow and a lot of others in Agra have some nasty looking horns on them!
We had originally planned to go out and see some of the sites of Agra the day we arrived but our train being so delayed meant that wasn’t an option. Instead we just had some food at the hostel – a creamy paneer curry and naan bread – and then went to a supermarket to buy some biscuits for our breakfast the next morning as we would be up early to visit the Taj Mahal. We were staying at Backpacker Panda Friends Agra which was an alright hostel. The rooms were quite small but the restaurant did nice food and it was quiet at night, near to the Taj Mahal and the hostel staff were very helpful so it did what we needed for our stay.
We were up before 6am the next morning to walk the 10/15 minutes from the hostel to the Taj Mahal for sunrise. We weren’t going to watch the sunrise of the Taj, but we were going early to avoid the peak time and the biggest crowds. As we were leaving the hostel, a tuktuk pulled up offering us a ride and so for 20 rupees (25p) we took the ride even though the walk wasn’t far. Once we arrived we then had to walk down a long walkway as cars aren’t allowed within a kilometre of the Taj and arrived at the Eastern ticket gate. The ticket cost us 1000 rupees which we were able to pay for on card and with that you got given a little bottle of water and some foot covers that you’d need later on when you went inside the Taj Mahal itself. We then had to queue with everyone else for the gates to open at sunrise. There was one queue for women and one for men ready for being security searched on the way in.
We hadn’t realised but you weren’t allowed food into the Taj Mahal grounds and so, although we’d got some of our breakfast eaten, we had to throw some of it away. The packet had been unopened so I tried to give it away to some of the workers seeing as I didn’t see the point in it going to waste but they still made me bin it. It’s the same at airports when you have to throw away your water, sometimes we have unopened bottles and I always feel bad particularly with us travelling in Asia where you can’t drink the water that this bottle can’t be given to someone to actually drink instead of being thrown in the bin!
Once we were through security we walked through a large courtyard to a very decorative stone gateway that led you into the main complex and gave you your first sighting of the Taj Mahal. We went with the throngs of people and stopped with them all to marvel and snap away at the beautiful building before we all spilled into the main gardens and got a better look.
The Taj Mahal is an ivory-white mausoleum that was commissioned in 1632 by the Mughal emperor, Shan Jahan, after his wife died. His wife, Mumtaz Mahal, was his favourite of all the wives he had and died during childbirth of her fourteenth chid. The Taj Mahal was built for her but he then joined her after his death. The whole complex that houses the tomb, gardens, a mosque and a guest house is 42 acres (17 hectare’s) with the tomb being the central focus.
This is one of those sites that is as good as you think it’ll be. Yes, you’ll have seen pictures of the Taj Mahal your entire life as it’s very well publicised and one of the most famous landmarks in India, but to actually see it in person and see how ivory white it is, the fine details of the entire structure from the inscriptions to the carved flowers and the sheer size of the place is still incredibly impressive and beautiful. The symmetry of the structure (it’s been built completely symmetrical on all four sides) and the manicured gardens with that long, tree lined pond running down the middle from the entrance adds even more to the place. I’m sure you’ve gathered by now, we loved it here.
After marvelling at the Taj for at least half an hour, we ventured onto the tomb itself to have a closer look. Like everyone else we had got photos of ourselves with it from every angle and distance (we may only be here once in our lives after all!) and could now focus on the details of the place.
As we walked around, every inch of the building was covered in carvings and scriptures from the Qur’an. The writing was beautiful in itself and looked more like a design than words and so only added to the beauty of the building. As the sun was rising and the day was becoming brighter, we saw the Taj in a different light at different times as we circled the building which allowed us to take in different elements of the place like the carvings or inscriptions.
On one side of the tomb there were a lot of monkeys. This was next to the Mosque that was built on the grounds of the tomb to allow for worship from the emperor for his late wife as well as others who may visit the site. The monkeys were clambering on the outer walls of the complex and scaling the towers that were in each corner. One monkey particularly enjoyed the railings that were around the site and would swing off it making the railings shake dramatically if another monkey went to sit on them! I hadn’t expected there to be monkeys here but I guess if they’re everywhere else in Agra I don’t know how you’d stop them being there. I imagine the biggest thing that must be an issue for the staff of the Taj is cleaning up after the monkeys because I can’t see them being able to damage the marble structure itself.
The Taj Mahal is built on the south bank of the Yamuna river that runs through Agra. You’re able to go down to the banks of the river from the Taj but I don’t know why you would bother as it’s incredibly dirty down there. Like all rivers in India, there is a lot of litter that’s dumped into the river. I think going down to the river would give you a different view of the tomb but I don’t think it would be anything particularly special so we just didn’t bother and saved ourselves standing in a pile of rubbish.
Once we had circled the outside of the Taj, we headed inside to see where the princess and emperor were buried. You walk around an octagonal room that is covered in inscriptions and flowered detailing and in the centre is the sarcophagi of the two of them that’s in white marble but this actually doesn’t house the two bodies. The real graves are on a lower level that you aren’t able to visit. I imagine this would have been similar to when the Taj was first built to protect the bodies but also create a place for people to come and pay their respects.
After spending longer looking at this amazing building and just enjoying actually being at the Taj Mahal, one of the wonders of the modern world, we left to go to Agra Fort. Because of how close the Taj Mahal was to our hostel, we stopped there first and got some food and it was from here that we got a tuktuk for 60 rupees (65p) to Agra Fort as it was on the other side of town.
Agra Fort was the main residence of the emperors of the Mughal Dynasty until 1638. Each emperor left their own mark on the fort and evidence of this can be seen as you walk around the fort particularly as some emperors chose to use red stone and others white marble. Agra used to be the capital of India until 1638 when it was moved to Delhi instead. The site is now a UNESCO World Heritage site and is a lot more detailed and preserved than the fort in Delhi particularly as the fort in Delhi has suffered a lot of sieges and ransacking from the British in the past as well as damage from fire.
We liked the Agra Fort because of this level of detail and there was also a number of information boards around the site explaining different architectural changes by different emperors or interesting points to note. You could also get views of the Taj Mahal from the fort. The part of the fort I found the most interesting was where a giant bell on a chain that ran from the fort into the city used to be. This chain was put in place by one of the emperors who wanted to be able to easily contactable by his people when they felt they were receiving an injustice. If they were in court and wanted to appeal to the emperor then all they had to do was ring the bell and he would know something was unjust and come to help. I thought this was remarkable that he would have something to create such an easy link with his people and it shows he must have really cared about the role he had as emperor and about his subjects outside of the fort walls.
After visiting the fort, we had originally planned to go and see the Baby Taj which is the tomb of I’timād-ud-Daulah but we were really tired from all of the traveling we had done and being up so early for the Taj Mahal opening. We decided not to bother and headed back for a relax and nap at the hostel before we had to get a train back to Delhi to get to the Airport for our flight to Nepal. The rest was very much needed and I was also starting to feel quite ill so even by the end of exploring the Agra Fort I was seriously starting to flag.
Agra had been good as seeing the Taj Mahal didn’t disappoint. The city itself was something we weren’t as fussed about and it was a lot more run down than I had expected considering the massive amount of tourists the Taj Mahal will bring to the area. I’m glad we were only in Agra for the night as it was enough for what we went there to see but it was definitely worth being tired and all the traveling we had done to see the spectacularly beautiful Taj Mahal, it really is a wonder of the modern world.
Next stop: a detour to Nepal
Sending Love x