Here’s some of what the Lonely Planet – India chapter Gujarat has to say about the Taj Mahal and other treasures, in and around Agra:
The Taj was built by Shah Jahan as a memorial for his third wife, Mumtaz Mahal, who died giving birth to their 14th child in 1631. The death of Mumtaz left the emperor so heartbroken that his hair is said to have turned grey virtually overnight. Construction of the Taj began the following year; although the main building is thought to have been built in eight years, the whole complex was not completed until 1653.
Not long after it was finished, Shah Jahan was overthrown by his son Aurangzeb and imprisoned in Agra Fort, where for the rest of his days he could only gaze out at his creation through a window. Following his death in 1666, Shah Jahan was buried here alongside his beloved Mumtaz.
In total, some 20,000 people from India and Central Asia worked on the building. Specialists were brought in from as far away as Europe to produce the exquisite marble screens and pietra dura (marble inlay work) made with thousands of semiprecious stones.
Nicknamed the Baby Taj, the exquisite tomb of Mizra Ghiyas Beg should not be missed. This Persian nobleman was Mumtaz Mahal’s grandfather, and Emperor Jehangir’s chief minister. His daughter, Nur Jahan, who married Jehangir, built the tomb between 1622 and 1628, in a style similar to the tomb she built for Jehangir near Lahore in Pakistan.
It doesn’t have the same awesome beauty as the Taj, but it’s arguably more delicate in appearance thanks to its particularly finely carved jalis (marble lattice screens). This was the first Mughal structure built completely from marble, the first to make extensive use of pietra dura and the first tomb to be built on the banks of the Yamuna, which until then had been a sequence of beautiful pleasure gardens.
With the Taj Mahal overshadowing it, one can easily forget that Agra has one of the finest Mughal forts in India. Walking through courtyard after courtyard of this palatial red-sandstone and marble fortress, your amazement grows as the scale of what was built here begins to sink in.
Its construction along the bank of the Yamuna River was begun by Emperor Akbar in 1565. Further additions were made, particularly by his grandson Shah Jahan, using his favourite building material – white marble. The fort was built primarily as a military structure, but Shah Jahan transformed it into a palace, and later it became his gilded prison for eight years after his son Aurangzeb seized power in 1658.
This magnificent fortified ancient city, 40km west of Agra, was the short-lived capital of the Mughal empire between 1572 and 1585, during the reign of Emperor Akbar. Earlier, Akbar had visited the village of Sikri to consult the Sufi saint Shaikh Salim Chishti, who predicted the birth of an heir to the Mughal throne.
When the prophecy came true, Akbar built his new capital here, including a stunning mosque, still in use today, and three palaces, one for each of his favourite wives – one a Hindu, one a Muslim and one a Christian (though Hindu villagers in Sikri dispute these claims). The city was an Indo-Islamic masterpiece, but erected in an area that supposedly suffered from water shortages and so was abandoned shortly after Akbar’s death.
KAPOORS ON THE ROAD
Right from the start, when we were planning our trip to India, and had invited my sister Donna and her husband Duncan to join us, we almost dreaded yet another trip to Agra to see the Taj Mahal and Fatehpur Sikri. We’d been so many times in the past, and the last one had been particularly gruelling because we’d gone by road and the traffic getting out of Delhi and into Agra at the other end was horrendous.
However, when it was confirmed that our daughter Adia and her husband Geoff were coming to Delhi as well, to join in the 50th Wedding Anniversary celebrations for Anil’s older brother and his wife, we were relieved because I came up with the idea of sending all the ‘youngsters’ off together while we stayed back and relaxed with family.
It’s true, I would have liked to see the McColl’s reactions to the fantastic heritage buildings in one of the world’s most famous cities, but now that I’m approaching the end of my seventh decade, I get tired more easily and this was something that the four of them could easily do on their own. I strongly encouraged them to travel to Agra and back by train, as that’s what I’d done when I’d visited with a friend and our baby son way back in 1981.
However, I’d done it all in one day, and taking a train at 7:00am and returning at 10:00pm was too rushed and too tiring. Now, almost forty years later, there are high-speed express trains that can get you there in under one and a half hours, so it’s not necessary to leave so early in the morning. The steam locomotive I travelled on in 1981 took a full three hours each way.
We did some searching on the internet and found a reputable tour company that operates out of Agra; they had very positive reviews on their website. I was able to call them easily because I had a local SIM card, and we worked out a plan for the travellers to be picked up in Delhi, taken to the station, transported by train to Agra, met by a driver and a guide, and generally cared for during their two-day visit to the various locations in and around Agra. We were surprised by the fair price we were quoted and booked the trip.
I was sure that we would have to pay a deposit, but it became a little complicated because we wanted to pay by credit card, and they could only process it at their office in Agra. I thought that would be a deal-breaker, but instead, the company chose to trust us and went ahead and purchased the four return-journey train tickets without any guaranty that we wouldn’t cancel at the last minute. We had no intention of doing so, but it was still refreshing to be trusted in this way. It’s something you don’t come across much any longer.
To make the departure easier, I suggested that the McColls leave the AirBnB that we share and stay the night before the departure at our nephew’s condo with Adia and Geoff. That way, the tour operator could pick them up at one location instead of two, and then take them to the New Delhi train station. My plan had the added bonus of giving the four Canadians a chance to spend a little more uninterrupted time with the two young Indians, Tanju and Manita.
The entire two-day trip went like clockwork and they were kept busy and well fed on the train journeys and in Agra. They made their own hotel booking and chose where they ate, giving them the flexibility they wanted, rather than being locked down to the tour company’s choices.
They were very happy with the guide who spent the first day with them in Agra, but less so with the different guide who was assigned to take then to Fatehpur Sikri. However, it wasn’t enough to put a damper on the whole adventure, and we were happy to have them back with us once again in Delhi.
I got such a kick out of the video our daughter took of the Dubba Walla delivering their evening meal, that I wanted to share it with you. Click on the link below: