Agra

Where: Agra, Uttar Praddesh, India.

When: I had two days in Agra in September 2011.

Why: I visited Agra on my Himalaya adventure and Indian back packing trip. On this trip I visited Delhi, Dharamsala, Bir and the Himalaya, Agra, Varanasi, Jaipur, Jodhpur, Jaisalmer, Udaipur, Mumbai, Goa and Hampi.

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Map

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Intro

Agra is the third apex of the Golden Triangle, which also includes Delhi and Jaipur.

People go to Agra for the Taj Mahal – and that is because it really is one of the most stunningly beautiful buildings in the world. It’s unique, it’s iconic and it is gorgeous.

But Agra is not just the Taj. As it was the former Mughal capital of India there are many more sights to see here – including Agra Fort, the mini-Taj, the tomb of Barbur and the deserted ex-capital city of Fathepur Sikri.

Most people will just run in and out of Agra on a day trip to the Taj Mahal, but there is enough to see to justify spending a day or two here.

Most people will also tell you that Agra is a dump and a horrible place. I’m not sure that I agree though. Certainly, around the Taj you will be hassled into tears and the open sewers and dirt and crumbling buildings are not very nice – but away from the Taj there are wide boulevards, trees, the slow river – and not a lot of hassle at all. I went exploring in the market area and not one person tried to stop me. Similarly, when I took the small local bus from the small local bus station – everyone pretty much left me alone.

Either way, a visit to India is not complete without a visit to Agra and the Taj Mahal. It’s a must do. The mausoleum and the complex surrounding it are simply stunning and they are truly one of the wonders of the world.

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Getting there

I caught the Kerala Express train to Agra from New Delhi Station. The journey took about four hours (delayed by five hours). It should have taken three.

There are six stations in Agra, so it’s worth checking which station you are travelling to on your ticket. I arrived at Agra Cantonment Station and then left from Agra Fort Station.

My ticket from Delhi to Agra cost £7 and I booked it through Cleartrip – which is a brilliant website on which you can pre-book Indian trains. I travelled to Agra in 2AC class, which was very nice.

After Agra, I caught a train to Varanasi.

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Getting around

Arriving in Agra was horrible, because from the moment I stepped from the train I was hassled by stupid men – telling me what I wanted and where I had to go – even though I hadn’t said one word to them. I tried to ignore them but they followed me like flies, over to the pre-paid auto-rickshaw stand and I actually ended up shouting at them to leave me alone. It didn’t work and one of them was actually commissioned by the pre-paid stand to take me to my hotel. To be fair to my driver, he was very helpful with getting me to my hotel and even came back after I left my disco-pig in the rickshaw – but his constant tours sales pitch meant that I didn’t tip him. I was just too run down and fed up to be nice.

The rickshaws and auto-rickshaw drivers are a hassely pain in Agra and there was once or twice when I had to shout at people to stop them following me, but the auto-rickshaws are the most convenient way to get about. Agra is a very spread out city, so walking in the heat is not really worth it. Most journeys across the town cost me between 50 to 100 rupees (85p to £1.60).

I did think about getting an auto-rickshaw to Fatehpur Sikri, but it’s a long way (about 25 miles) from Agra, so it’s better to get a taxi or to just get the local bus. I caught the local bus and it was a fine and nice way to travel and only cost me 24 rupees each way (about 30p). I caught an auto-rickshaw to the bus station and then the local bus from the local bus station (Idgah Bus Stand). There I did my usual trick of saying my destination very loudly until someone directed me to the right bus. I bought my ticket from the conductor on the bus and then the journey took about an hour and a half. The bus stopped at the bus station in Fatehpur Sikri town – which is just below the mosque and the deserted city. It came back to Agra from the same place.

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What I did on my holiday

Fatehpur Sikri (UNESCO)

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I had one full day in Agra, and then one day where I was leaving at 11.o.clock at night. So I decided to do the far sights (Fatehpur Sikri) on the full day and to save the Agra sights (the Taj Mahal and the Fort) until my second, shorter day.

Fatehpur Sikri was the capital city of Akbar the Great. He built this new capital 22 miles from Agra, after some dude promised him he would have a son (he did). He built the city here as a thank you – but then the city was abandoned about 20 years later – hardly used – and no one knows why. And the city still stands there today, pretty much preserved just as it was when they left.

I decided to catch the bus to Fatehpur Sikri, as I was on my own and I couldn’t be bothered to negotiate with taxi peeps or rickshaw drivers. I’m glad that I did get the bus as it only cost me 30p and was really easy to get. I caught the bus from the Idgah Bus Stand (I got a tuk-tuk there). I wasn’t sure which bus to get so I did my usual trick of standing in the bus station, saying my destination very loudly until someone pointed me to the right bus.

The bus took about an hour and a half to get to Fatehpur Sikri, and it was nice travelling through the Indian countryside with a breeze blowing through the open windows. People seemed to be a little curious about me – but everyone was very polite and left me alone, and the bus wasn’t very crowded. At the town of Fatehpur Sikri, we went through a beautiful red stone archway into the town, and then the bus dropped us off at the market place/bus station. This is just downhill from the ancient city and Friday Mosque, and you can walk to these in about five minutes.

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Fatehpur Sikri seemed like a nice little town, and I’m sorry that I didn’t explore further. There were lots of market stalls and food shops around the entrance to the city and mosque. When I was there, there were camels being used to pull carts, market traders, brightly coloured lorries, monkeys etc. It was a wonderful, stereotypical Indian scene that was fun to walk through.

I walked up to the Friday Mosque first – accompanied by some children, who were very strange and who I think pick pocketed me. If they did – they did it very well and they can keep the small amount of money they took, just for being so skillful.

Jama Masjid (The Friday Mosque) is stupendous! Because of its steep steps and location on top of the hill, it towers up above anyone walking up to it, and visitors have to look up and up and up to see it.

Inside there are beautiful tombs with marble-lace windows, cool cloisters, and great views over the surrounding countryside. The shrine of Salim Chishti, the man who promised Akbar a son, is inside the mosque. It’s a gorgeous mosque and, in some ways, even more impressive than the Jama Masjid in Delhi.

I spent about an hour here, pottering about and exploring. It was very pretty and interesting. It was, however, also one of the places where I got the most hassle in India – and this ruined the visit for me. I had a gaggle of children who swarmed after me for the whole time I was there – and a few adults too. (I’ll write more about this in a minute).

After my visit to the mosque I walked over to the abandoned city of Fatehpur Sikri. Fatehpur Sikri is actually more of a palace, and as palaces go it is pretty crazy. It’s built in a beautiful red sandstone and it has lots of open rooms and courtyards that you can explore. It’s in a prime position, on top of a hill, so the views are amazing. It is very exposed too though – so it gets hot!

My favourite parts of Fatehpur Sikri were the crazy throne pillar room (the throne sits in the middle of the room and looks like some bulbous living organism); the house of the Turkish Sultana (which is very ornate) and the courtyard with a Ludo board in the floor tiles. Apparently, Akbar the Great used to play Ludo – but he would use his concubines as the pieces, so there is a huge, human sized board game laid out in one of the courtyards.

I spent about an hour and a half in the Jam Masjid and about an hour and a half in Fatehpur Sikri – which was more than enough time to explore in the heat.

Entrance to the mosque was free. Entrance to Fatehpur Sikri city was 260 rupees (about £4).

When I was there you could use your ticket from Fatehpur Sikri to get a discount on entry to the Taj Mahal and Agra Fort (I think you don’t have to pay the tax again) and there was obviously some scam going on because the children didn’t want money from me, they wanted my used ticket from Fatehpur Sikri.

One little boy had attached himself to me in the mosque and would not go away. I have a rule that I will not give money to the children or buy anything from them – because they should be in school. I’ll buy them food or drinks (usually fruit) but I don’t want to encourage them to not be in school.

This little boy had been talking to me all afternoon, so when he asked for my used ticket, I said yes (it seemed harmless enough), but when I came out of the palace I couldn’t find him, so I gave it to his friend. Then he appeared and got very upset at me – and started following me and shouting at me. I offered to buy him a drink, but by this point he was just too upset and kept shouting and following me. He said ‘You crazy lady. Go away. Go away’, and I said ‘kid – you’re following me’ – and then he left.

I don’t know what I should have done, how I could have avoided this situation and what was the right thing to do – but it’s hard not to have people drag you into these situations in India (especially when you are on your own).

www.fatehpursikri.gov.in

Agra market

Okay, I admit it: Even though I pretend to be an exotic traveller, an explorer of new countries and customs, at this point, all I wanted was a MacDonald’s. I think it was because I was in such a foreign place and I just wanted something familiar, air conditioning, cleanliness and food that I could easily order and know what it was. So I went looking for Maccy D’s in the south of Agra – away from all of the tourist sites.

I didn’t find MacDonald’s but I did find Agra’s main market, and I had a great time pottering about, looking at all of the stores for an hour or so. And what was really nice, was that I was pretty much left alone. Away from the main touristy areas, Agra is pretty nice and relatively quiet and I had a nice time just pottering around on my own.

I’m glad I saw this side of Agra as the area around the Taj is dirty and crowded, with open sewers, and if you judged Agra by the Taj area alone – you would not like it. However, a lot of the rest of the city is not bad: it has wide boulevards, lots of space, some parks and statues and I kind of liked it – which I did not expect.

Incidentally, I ended up in a Dominoes Pizza – which was horrible. I never did find MacDonald’s in Agra but I did find one in Jaipur. They only sell vegetarian and chicken products. It was still great though.

Taj Mahal (UNESCO)

It’s what everyone is here for. It’s one of the most iconic buildings in the world – and it is simply beautiful. The first time I caught a glimpse of the Taj I just stopped and stared. My brain in some ways couldn’t compute that I was actually looking at the Taj Mahal – one of the most famous buildings in the world. I couldn’t believe it was real!

The Taj is Shah Jahan’s monument to his favourite wife, Arjumand Bann Begum, who died giving birth to their fourteenth child. When we first started planning the charity trek, which was for the maternity charity White Ribbon Alliance, we looked at ending the charity challenge at the Taj Mahal on India’s mothers’ day. However, because my trek had to be delayed – I visited on own my as part of my backpacking adventure.

The Taj Mahal mausoleum is stunning. It is just perfect – like a sacred building made of marble lace. It glows – and all around it the grounds have been landscaped to offset it’s beauty. From the cool long pools, to the side chapels, to the archway/gateway through which you cast your first glimpse – it is all just lovely. It really is one of the greatest tributes to love.

Many people will tell you to go at sunrise or sunset to get away from the crowds, but to be honest – the crowds weren’t a problem for me. This building is large enough to absorb the crowds and still give you space. If you want certain photos (like the one from the Princess Di bench), then you might have to wait a little bit, but I really didn’t find the crowds a problem at all. You might want to visit at dawn or dusk to get photos of the Taj in a different light though – as for most of the day this mausoleum just glows!

There’re two main entrances to the Taj – the west and the east gate. From what I understand, the east gate is the more crowded entrance and where you will get more hassle. I was staying by the west gate, so I went in from this side. You have to queue to go through security, and there are really high restrictions on taking bags in (I think you are allowed a camera and that is it). The ladies queue moved quite fast so I was in in five minutes – but the men’s queue seemed to take a lot(!) longer.

The first area you enter is the complex is the Chowk-i-Jilo Khana (or entrance courtyard). Here there were drinking fountains, toilets, lockers etc.

Then visitors enter the main complex through the main archway/gateway – and then there she is, in front of you, in all her glory; perfectly framed, like an iconic movie star that you just cannot believe is real.

I spent a good two hours wandering around the grounds and exploring. You can actually go inside the mausoleum to see the tombs of Shah Jahan and Arjumand Bann Begum. The tombs are beautiful: they have precious stones embedded into the marble and they are beautifully decorated. This is the only area which got slightly crowded and the guides were a little annoying.

When you go onto the main mausoleum platform, you have to wear shoe covers to protect the marble. For some reason, I was given bright orange shoe covers. I was also wearing bright purple trousers and had a read shawl wrapped around me – so people were pointing and laughing. I looked like a right numpty.

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Whilst I was at the Taj, I saw this young, really innocent guy talking to a big bunch of Indian lads. I might have a suspicious mind (especially in India) but I was slightly worried about this lad as he was completely surrounded and it looked as if the men were trying to edge him around the corner, into a very quiet, dark area. So, I watched him for a bit and then decided to interfere – by going to talk to him to ask him if I could borrow his guidebook – just so I could check he was okay and to give him an out if he wanted it.

But he was completely oblivious to the possible situation or danger, so I left him be and just made a point of speaking to the guys and asking their names – all friendly like (I’d make a great spy). Maybe I was being over cautious, but it did all look a bit dodgy and I just wanted to make sure this guy was okay. I was a semi-superhero in bright orange shoe covers.

The Taj Mahal is the most expensive tourist attraction in India. It cost 750 rupees to go in (about £11), but it is oh so worth it. The complex is closed on Fridays (which is quite controversial as the Taj is a Muslim holy site and Friday is the Muslim holy day).

www.tajmahal.gov.in

Agra Fort (UNESCO)

Agra Fort is in Agra. It was built by Akbar, in the same gorgeous red stone as Fatehpur Sikri and the Red Fort in Delhi. It is slightly down the river from the Taj Mahal and it has great views of the Taj Mahal – which was nice for Shah Jahan – who built the Taj Mahal – as this is where he was imprisoned by his son when he bankrupt the country, building the Taj Mahal. So Shah Jahan spent his final days, in the fort, watching his mausoleum being built. And you can go see his prison.

As prisons go, it is pretty nice. The apartments that he was kept in are ornate and stately, open to the cool river air, bedecked in jewels and lace-marble windows. It’s very, very pretty.

Agra Fort from outside looks pretty cool: a deep red fort/castle type building with huge defensive gates. You enter over a moat and in through the twisty entrance gates of Amar Singh Pol. Then you walk up through a series of courtyards and gateways (past lots of monkeys) to the Diwan-i-amHall of Public Audience. The Diwan-i-am is gorgeous. It’s a marble, columned platform, made for resting on and drinking tea. I spent ages here, listening to music, reading my book and just generally chilling out in the cool shade.

Behind the Diwan-i-am is the main area where the kings lived: the Fish Palace (I have no idea how it got that name). Here you can see the black and white marble thrones of the Mughal rulers, and also the stately living apartments too. (This is where Shah Jahan was imprisoned). There’s loads of rooms and courtyards to explore. I’m not sure what many of them were for (as I had no guide), but they were very impressive.

I really liked the fort. It was a very nice, chilled space, with monkeys, free from hassle. It was interesting to explore and also a good place to relax. If you come to Agra, it’s definitely worth visiting the palace to remind yourself that this was a capital city of a great empire and to find out more about the family who ruled this vast empire.

The ticket cost me 300 rupees or only 250 rupees with a Taj Mahal or Fatehpur Sikri ticket. I’ve just had a look at the website and apparently now (April 2017) the ticket price is 550 rupees (about £7).

www.agrafort.gov.in

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Where I stayed

Hotel Sidhartha, Taj Mahal West Gate

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Courtyard cafe of the Hotel Sidhartha

It’s amazing how much a fake cockney accent can cheer you up. When I arrived at the Hotel Sidhartha, it was late, I was tired, fed up and hungry and I just wanted to crawl into a clean bed and to escape. Within a minute, the owner had me giggling at his terrible fake accent, and suddenly I didn’t feel so bad. That’s hospitality.

The Hotel Sidhartha is right by the West Gate entrance to the Taj Mahal. It is in the pedestrianised area around the Taj, and is surrounded by touristy things such as cafés, internet shops etc.

The hotel has a great courtyard garden/restaurant which was great for food and chilling out (I ate here both nights), and the staff were really friendly.

The rooms were fine. I had an en suite room for £7/night. It was basic, but clean and comfy. I didn’t have hot water – but they would bring you buckets of hot water for a bucket shower.

I kind of booked the Sidhartha for something that other guests had complained about: the monkeys. People said that the monkeys were a pain and quite dangerous – but I love monkeys – so I booked this place – and though I saw lots of them, they didn’t come near me.

My favourite thing from the Sidhartha was watching the Kabootars (pigeons) being controlled by kabootar baz, early in the morning. This is a really wonderful sight and a  very old tradition. The kabootar bazs control the pigeons flight, so that they fly in patterns and parabolic arcs etc. They usually do this first thing in the morning, up ont he rooftops above Agra town. To watch this,, with the tip of the Taj int he background, at the dawn of a fresh, hot new day was just magical. It was an amazing thing to watch first thing in the morning.

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If I went back to Agra, I’d happily stay at the Sidhartha again. It had a great location and was a basic but good hotel.

It cost me £7 for a fan, en-suite, double room and I booked it through Hostelbookers.

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Useful links

www.agraindia.org.uk

wikitravel.org/en/Agra

www.lonelyplanet.com/india/uttar-pradesh/agra

www.roughguides.com/destinations/asia/india/uttar-pradesh/agra

DISCLAIMER

Please note, some of this information may not be correct or may be out of date. All these articles show is how we found these places when we visited and what we personally thought of each place. Where possible I will include links to sites which will contain more up-to-date info. All of this is my own work and any opinion expressed is that of the author only.

If you think I’ve missed something important or have got something wrong, please let me know in the comments section below.

All photos copyright of J Clemo-Halpenny. If you would like to copy or reproduce any of these images, please email me to ask permission.

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