With a population of about 2 million people, Agra is so much bigger than I ever realised. Here I was, thinking that the glorious Taj Mahal was way out in the wops – little did I know there was SO much more to it. Obviously, Agra is home to the Taj Mahal (basically the only reason I think anyone has actually heard of Agra) which is certainly India’s most famous structure, and one of the Seven Wonders of the World… and with good reason. The majestic marble structure sits poignantly and prominently, rising above Agra, allowing its beauty to be appreciated from every direction.
As if it’s sheer beauty wasn’t enough, there is actually a wicked love story behind the Taj, just to make it that little bit more awe-inspiring. Without giving too much away, the Taj was built by the emperor Shah Jehan as a testament of his love to his wife Mumtaz Mahal. Every single detail about the Taj is perfectly symmetrical, except for the size of the two tombs of Mumtaz and Shah Jehan – an act performed out of spite by the emperor’s son.
When visiting the Taj Mahal, I would recommend you go early, early, EARLY! Sure, getting up in the dark sucks, but how many times in your life are you going to experience the Taj Mahal, so why not experience it at its finest?! My group were literally the first people through the gates into the Taj Mahal (make sure you buy your tickets from the counter before you line up outside the gate) and to have our initial impressions untarnished by mobs of tourists was something really special. A bonus too was the photos we got – no-one likes having an otherwise spectacular photo ruined by a stray tourist’s head! When inside the Taj you have to take your shoes off, but you will be given protective booties along with your ticket. If you visit the Taj later in the day you will actually be really thankful for the booties, as they protect your feet from the heat of the marble.
Take your time, don’t rush – it’s a once in a lifetime opportunity that will most likely stay with you forever. Be careful of people offering to take photos and do other random things for money. Also, don’t get too excited about seeing the inside of the Taj Mahal – there is a reason you haven’t seen photos of it already, and that is because it is drastically underwhelming!
There is many a good viewing spot of the Taj Mahal from further afield, which can make really great places to watch the sun set and observe the colours of the fine white marble transition through into darkness. A number of bars and hotels overlook the Taj (including The Oberoi – we went here: disclaimer, it’s astonishingly beautiful but will cost an arm AND a leg. Cocktails sit at a minimum of about $20 each), as well as there being plenty of cute spots along the river. Magnificent but more distant views can be obtained from the Agra Fort.
The Agra Fort is the second of three UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Agra. It is a fort which more closely resembles a palace, and is made from both red sandstone and white marble. One of the most important battles of the 1857 Indian rebellion happened here, and it resulted in the end of the British East India Company’s rule in India. From many of the rooms and courtyards the Taj Mahal is visible, and our guide showed us this really cool optical illusion showing how perspective affects the apparent size of the Taj. A highlight for me was the anecdote told to us about any attacking army: they would have to encounter a moat full of alligators, the defensive army, then a pit of starving tigers, bears and monkeys before scaling a 70 foot wall whilst being attacked by the defensive army throwing boiling water down. No wonder the Agra fort never really got attacked!
The third and final UNESCO World Heritage Site in Agra is the Baby Taj (or formally known as the Itimad ud Daulah Tomb), and it’s not hard to see how it earned its nickname! We visited here before we went to the Taj Mahal, and I am glad we did because it allowed for maximum wow factor. I suspect that if we went to the Taj Mahal first, the Baby Taj would have felt less impressive. Instead we got to be wowed by the Baby Taj, the distant views of the Taj and then the actual Taj close up the following day. The Baby Taj sits alongside the river (similarly to the Taj Mahal) and also similarly, it has some pretty spectacular gardens.
Not only were the marble inlays at all three structures extremely beautiful, I was also fascinated by the craftsmanship that must have gone into all this handiwork. It is possible to visit the marble workshops and learn how it’s done (or at least get an appreciation) and there is the option of purchasing various marble souvenirs as well. I couldn’t resist a cute wee elephant, but you could buy big chess sets, tables and artworks.
Agra is a must visit when in India, for obvious reasons. We stayed at Hotel Athithi which was in quite a touristy area and had a stunning pool. My favourite place to eat was a restaurant called Maya – which had a nice rooftop terrace with some delicious food.