Agra is the home of the Taj Mahal. For most people, that’s all they need to know for them to visit. But don’t be fooled; there’s much more… both good and bad. So while I’ll talk about the stunning World Heritage sites Taj Mahal, Agra Fort and the lesser known Fatehpur Sikri; I do have some controversial thoughts that will help you prepare and take advantage.
Here’s the part no-one tells you: Agra is dirty. Not just a layer-of-dust dirty; it’s trash-everywhere-you-step dirty. While some Indian cities have had street cleaning initiatives in recent years, there seems to be a culture of lax littering and shrugging off pollution in Agra. The slums and squatter population totals an extraordinary 50% of the city’s population with
850,000 people. The poverty that visitors see when driving into the city may be very… eye-opening, but it’s as much a part of India (right now, hopefully not forever) as Taj’s grandeur. Everyone just needs to remember that each Indian city is as unique as New York or Minneapolis or San Diego. It’s why I suggest seeing Jaipur, Udaipur or Jodhpur in addition to Agra and New Delhi – to see the calmer/cleaner side of Northern India.
Below: Taj Mahal, Agra Fort, Fatehpur Sikri, Lodging & a fun tale
Now that you’ve had a warning, it’s time to get you excited. Welcome to the epitome of India’s juxtapositions, Agra’s poverty against one of the Seven Wonders of the World. The Taj Mahal, a tomb built by an Emperor’s love, is breathtaking and perfect. The precision of its construction makes you think you’re looking at a postcard. When you take off your shoes (which you’re required to do), and put your bare feet on marble, the pristine picture becomes all too real.
Let me rewind. You will need to buy a Foreigner ticket for 750 rupees (in 2015). Indians pay 20 rupees. But as you’ll see, the Foreigner ticket helps you cut an epic line. (Indians willing to pay the 750 can also cut the line). The ticket includes a bottle of water and “footies” – fabric booties that you need to cover your shoes to step on the gorgeous white marble. Make sure you step into the correct line when walking through the ticket line – there is one for men and one for women. They’re tight and uncomfortable, but push through and it will open up into a courtyard. The gateway itself is impressive, but as you look through the archway to the Taj, it will be a moment you’ll never forget.
When you’re up there, don’t forget to look across the river to where the Mughal King had planned on building an identical tomb in black for himself… too bad his own son imprisoned him and took his “throne.” Take your time and enjoy the views! Note: this site won’t take up the whole day.
While this fort is impressive from the outside (my family loved the Indiana Jones-style rolling stone defense gate), my interest was captured by the complex family palace. Akbar the Great was known for his relatively peaceful reign of religious tolerance in which Hindus, Christians, Muslims and more all got along. I’m not sure which came first – if his rule was a result of, or inspired by, his marriages, but Akbar married three women – one Hindu, one Muslim and one Christian (from the Portuguese influenced Southern India). Of course, he had an impressive harem as well, but it was expected at the time and often had political significance. His palace reflects these separate spaces for each of his wives.
Fun side facts:
- The kitchen was for the Hindu wife who enjoyed cooking and could only eat vegetarian.
- The white marble bedrooms belonged to Shah Jahan’s daughters. When his son imprisoned him, it was in this fort that one of his daughters cared for him until his death. He was held there so that he could look out at the Taj Mahal, his wife’s tomb.
- The green courtyard was once used as a bazaar staffed only by women, so that his wives and concubines could shop without being seen by men.
This may look like another fort, but it’s more accurate to think of it as a city. 2mi x 1mi, it is surrounded by 5 miles of fortified wall. Inside you will find several different segments to visit: a palace, a mosque and the tomb of a Sufi saint. We came up through the “back door” to avoid the crowds and peddlers. We saw where the crumbled walls showed the stalls that were used by the locals to sell their wares when the city was the empire’s capital. The walk was markedly peaceful.
The multiple buildings within palace were incredibly intriguing to me. You had the public and private viewing hall. You had Emperor Akbar’s winter and summer bedrooms. Plus, there’s an ornately carved mini-palace for each of Akbar’s brides. If you look closely, you can see that each is carved in the style of the bride’s culture/religion – Hindu/Gujarati, Muslim and Christian. You’ll see a platform in the center of a pool, used for singing competitions. Next time someone makes fun of American Idol – you can let them know it’s merely following a human tradition historically enjoyed by Emporers.
That’s just part one. The second is a pilgrimage site made up of a mosque and Sufi tomb. You must leave your shoes outside. I can’t guarantee it, but your shoes will probably be there when you get out – ours were. The Tomb is in a white structure in the center of a large stone courtyard. You can take a look and take pictures from the outside; but if you want to participate, it will cost you. It costs about 750 rupees/$12 per person or couple to enter. You’re given a plastic hat to cover your head. You walk around the “casket” in a dark room. You lay out a fabric you were given on top as an offering. Then you tie a red threat with three knots on a carved metal grate, making a wish. As you leave, you’re hit on the head with some peacock feathers. Voila, you’re blessed. The price seems a tad steep, but you will be participating in a ritual that thousands of local Indians do. This stop broke up a long day of travel to Ranthambore.
The tale of the local guide
This is a tale of how we were conned… and how everything turned out OK anyway.
Thomas Cook had arranged a local guide to show us through Fatehpur Sikri. He was knowledgable and knew a back entrance that kept us away from the relentless peddlers at the main gate. He walked us through the process at the tomb. All was good, until he told us we should meet his brother… his “brother” was hunkered down in a corner behind a wall with some of his friends. The guide explained that the carved stones were his family’s trade. I’m sure it won’t surprise you that I now have 0% faith that those men were relatives at all.
A few of our members stepped back to watch, but my parents and I couldn’t turn away from the figurines – it was our first time to really shop. The prices seemed astronomical until my Mother-in-Law stepped in. Soon it was my MIL making package deals. We were generally satisfied as we walked away.
After a short bus ride to the parking lot where we’d meet our van, we were led to a group of buildings. The local guide politely asked my MIL in Hindi if we would mind stopping by the government store. His tour guide company required him to bring the groups here. That’s when it clicked… the stop by his “brother’s” business was off-script. It took about 30 seconds in the government shop, where the prices are fixed, for my MIL to see that a few of the items we purchased were overpriced even after negotiating. I bought two magnets before we were hustled out the door by a furious MIL. We all shuffled back to the van without her. After about 5 minutes, my MIL stormed back on the bus with a very contrite looking guide. We dropped him at the exit and were on our way. That’s when my MIL explained: The guide begged her to not tell his supervisors. But my MIL wasn’t hearing it. She hated the idea that she had paid more than she needed to. It wasn’t the game that he was playing that irked her, it was the fact that she paid more for the figurines than she could have gotten at the store. We don’t know what she said exactly, but she got him to turn over 2000 rupees to pay her back for the difference. Don’t mess with my MIL!
Lodging – Mansigh Palace
I’m usually very easy going when it comes to hotels. I don’t want to be a princess about anything, especially since we were staying in hotels as opposed to hostels. However, I found that the service here rubbed me the wrong way. The hotel restaurant had an extremely odd menu that attempted to cater to international tastes and had poor selection Indian food. A large amount of the international food involved raw vegetables, which you’d think they would know most visitors have been advised not to eat. We really wanted some samosas – just a snack to hold us over, but the menu only said they were available as a “Late Night Bite”. After much negotiating, we got some snacks out, but nothing to write home about. Breakfast was lackluster as well – just soggy, sorry excuses for continental cuisine. Overall, the manager’s attitude was unwelcoming.
The only interesting twist to the hotel was the backyard pool with peacock topiary. There is no way I’d even dip a toe in the dirty water, but at lease it was fun to take picture on the stepping stones.
Mansingh Palace in Agra
Fatehabad Road, Agra 282 001
Tel: 2331771-78, 4008441-45
Did I mention that I am really loving this commentary.