Coming back to the Golden Triangle tour; it was time to visit Agra the city where the Taj Mahal is situated. Me, Peter and my parents-in-law couldn’t wait to see the Taj Mahal at sun rise. As for Sabrina, she couldn’t wait to ride on a camel. It was Thursday 15th March 2012 and we were ready to drive from Khajuraho to Jhansi Junction Railway Station for four hours to board the train bound for Agra. Jhansi Junction is a major railway junction in the city of Jhansi in the Bundelkhand region of Uttar Pradesh. It is a major intercity hub and a technical stoppage for many fast trains in India. It was built by the British in the late 1880s. This is an important destination for tourists who wants to visit Khajuraho, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
We took the Shatabdi Express, one of the fastest trains in India. We departed Jhansi at 17:55 , and arrived Agra at 20:25. We were travelling first class with reserved seats and air conditioning (highly recommended if you are travelling with kids and you don’t want to be groped).
I could just ignore our time in the station waiting for the train but it was in fact a unique experience standing in an Indian train station appreciating the untidy and noisy railway system. What a different world, considering that I lived in England for almost 4 years and for 2 of those I had to rely on the train to get to work.
The view of the Taj Mahal from our hotel room at dusk on a misty morning.
Agra is dominated by the stunning Taj Mahal, which really cannot be done justice to in photographs or on film. The experience of being there is magical and is truly one of those places that lives up to the hype. The plan was to do a sunrise tour of the Taj Mahal but unfortunately our guide pointed out that it might be difficult to appreciate the beauty of it because it was misty and foggy (i.e. heavily populated air) at that time. The monument is a white marble mausoleum built as a memorial to the Emperor Shah Jahan’s favorite third wife Mumtaj Mahal who died in 1629 during her fourteen childbirth. The building of Taj started in 1631 and ended in 1653 and so it took 22 years to complete. This is probably the greatest symbol of love in the world. It is the symbol of one man’s devotion to the woman he loved. Far better than a bunch of flowers, but what about the other wives? The Emperor didn’t love them as much as he did Mumtaj. Just like the Incas where they had lots of wives but one of them was the special one.
We decided to wait for the fog to go away so we went to visit the Taj Mahal at around 8:30 am. From our hotel it seemed a long way off. So we drove for 10 minutes to the point where you can take a tuk tuk, camel or horse drawn carriage to get the actual entrance. As Sabrina requested, we took a camel drawn carriage. Poor camel! He looked old and sick. At the end Sabrina managed to sit on the camel’s hunchback and get a shot. When we arrived at the entrance of the Taj Mahal we found a couple from Los Angeles dressed in the traditional Indian dress ready to get married. As we were getting close to the Taj Mahal we all were advised not to bring video cameras. Only cameras are allowed even though most cameras these days can take video too. However, even cameras are not allowed in the inner sanctum, the tomb. What a shame for us but more so for the couple! Such a memorable day in their lives and not being able to record their unforgettable wedding in motion! The security guards are very strict. It feels like an airport security check with the difference that they also search for chewing gum in handbags and pockets. So please leave them behind!
From the moment you pass the security point the views become breathtaking. The monument below is the main gateway of Taj Mahal which is about 93 feet in height and is built in red sandstone. It has beautifully crafted doors on the two sides, one opening towards the court-yard side to receive visitors from all three entry gates, and the other side opening towards the grand white marble Taj mausoleum. The gate has profuse inlay work of white marble and precious stones into the red sandstone surface. The top of the gate has eleven domes between two high columns, 22 in all, depicting the number of years it took for the construction of the Taj Mahal complex. This building contains typical Muslim architecture with a huge brass-lamp of Egyptian style in the center of the roof.
This is the view once you passed through the entrance of the main gate. The image of the Taj reflects in the waters of the central canal thus creating a calm and pleasurable ambiance. The gardens are designed in a very symmetrical manner and start from the main gateway and extend up to the Taj mausoleum. The fountains and running channels of water are typical of garden design brought from Persian Timurid gardens. It was the first architectural expression they made in the Indian sub-continent, fulfilling diverse functions with strong symbolic meanings. Somehow I missed the famous “Diana’s bench” where the late princess Diana was photographed alone during her visit to India with Prince Charles in 1992. This bench is probably the best spot to take pictures with the Taj Mahal reflecting in the central pond. Please make sure you remove your shoes walking on the marble platforms and the mausoleum. Unfortunately the sky wasn’t as clear as you can see in the internet photos so we hardly saw the reflections.
The Taj mausoleum stands on the northern end of Taj gardens, on the banks of the river Yamuna. It stands on a raised white marble platform which is about 22 feet high and 180 feet square. As is everything about the Taj Mahal, the Taj mausoleum is all about symmetry. It appears identical from all four sides, from any angle you look at it, it still looks beautiful. The materials used for its construction were brought from all over India and central Asia, with the main ingredient, of course the white marble, was brought from Makrana in Rajasthan. On approaching the mausoleum I could appreciate the Islamic calligraphic designs inlaid in black stone both inside and outside of the monument.
There are four minarets, each about 137 feet tall and set at the four corners of the main dome. They are shorter in height then the main dome to highlight the effect of the dominant main dome. The minarets are designed to lean outwards so that in event of an major earthquake, they would fall away from the Taj Mausoleum.
On the west of the Taj mausoleum is a mosque made of red sandstone. It faces mecca and is still used for prayers today.
Beyond the Taj Mahal: the other tombs of Agra, India.- All of these monuments were built during the Mughal dynasty, Muslim dynasty of Turkic-Mongol origin that ruled most of northern India from the early 16th to the mid-18th century, after which it continued to exist as a considerably reduced and increasingly powerless entity until the mid-19th century. The diverse background of South Asia’s Muslim rulers themselves contributed to the formation of distinctive architectural, painting, and decorative styles. The Mughal Empire maintained close ties with their Persian contemporaries. They utilized Persian as their court and administrative language, and Persian architectural forms were reflected in the arches and dormers of Mughal Monuments like the Taj Mahal and many others around the Agra area. If you have some extra time I think it is worthwhile visiting the other tombs such as the Tomb of Akbar in SiKandra, the Baby Taj, The Chini-Ka-Rauza and of course the Agra Fort. We visited all of them except the Chini-Ka-Rauza which is located behind the Yamuna River. It was unusually constructed in a Persian form, reflecting the origin of its occupant. Unfortunately it’s suffered over the centuries, and much of the rich external decoration has disappeared.
Akbar’s mausoleum.- It is situated in Sikandra a suburb of Agra about 7 km on the Agra Mathura road. This Tomb of King Akbar the Great, king of the Mughal dynasty, is an important Mughal architectural masterpiece. It stands in a big garden called Bashishtabad (‘heavenly abode’), in an area of 150 acres. The gardens are laid out in classical ‘charbagh’ mughal style with central running water channels (representing the 4 rivers of paradise) leading to Akbar’s tomb in the center of the square.
The red sandstone gateway of the tomb is a beautiful structure. It has four white marble minarets at its four corners. The upper story of the gate has a “Naubat khan” from where the big drums were played from morning till evening in the honor of the dead emperor. Sabrina was entertained chasing the Indian palm squirrels, also known as three-striped palm squirrel and watching at the antelopes eating grass.
The Baby Taj, tomb of Itimad ud Daulah.- On our way to visit the Baby Taj Mahal we saw in the road a group of happy men painted in pink. It was hilarious but cute. My daugther Sabrina pointed out that pink is only for princesses and girls. So our driver explained that they were celebrating Holi, festival of the colors. It is a festival that celebrates the victory of good over evil and a celebration of the arrival of spring and harvests to come. It’s the festival of colors, emotions, and happiness. And what better way to express yourself than with the vibrant colors of the rainbow?
Finally we arrived at Itimad-ud-Daulah; the tomb built for the chief minister of Akbar’s successor, Emperor Jahangir. It is also known as the baby Taj Mahal for its striking resemblance to the Taj Mahal, though on a small scale. It is located in the center of Agra on the riverbank north of the Taj Mahal. Some walls of this mausoleum have attractive nature scenes, populated with trees, flowers and urns. The Baby Taj was something of a prototype; many of the decorative techniques used here were later perfected in the Taj Mahal.
Agra Fort.- Our tour wouldn’t be complete without a visit to Agra Fort, so we did. The massive red sandstone Fort set on the banks of the Yamuna River was built 500 years ago by the Mughal emperors Akbar, Jahangir, Shah Jahan (same Emperor that built the Taj Mahal) and Aurangjeb. It is a complex of buildings and palaces that represent different tastes, likes, dislikes, and the splendor of the ruling Mughal emperors of that era. The building below is called the Khas Mahal. It was built by the same ruler who built the Taj Mahal, Shah Jahan and it was used as a Harem complex by the ladies of the royal family.
The Muthamman Burj.- This is probably the most important place in Agra Fort because it was in this tower that the creator of the Taj Mahal, Shah Jahan spent his last eight years in house arrest. He was taken as a prisoner by his own son. This tower has a marble balcony, from here Shah Jahan used to view his greatest creation. The Taj Mahal is in full view from this tower.
Two and half days in Agra is more than enough to visit The Taj Mahal, the other tombs and the Agra Fort. Just make sure you don’t visit the Taj Mahal on Friday as it is closed. The best time to visit is either at sunrise or sunset. Also don’t forget to leave behind pencils, pens, chewing gums, electronic things (except cameras), food and alcohol.