As with most people, Agra got a place on our Indian itinerary purely to see the Taj Mahal. It’s easy enough to make a day trip from Delhi by car or the relative luxury of the Shatabdi Express train, but we were on our way from Udaipur to Kolkata, via Varanasi, so we booked a couple of nights in Agra to break up the long sleeper train journey.
At that point, Agra pretty much only equalled Taj in our minds. But in fact, we arrived into a hectic city of over 3 million people where the Taj was the last thing on locals’ minds. Cycle rickshaws, stacked high above the driver’s head with boxes, revealed the city’s biggest industry after tourism: leather shoes.
We arrived on a Thursday afternoon and left on the following Saturday evening which meant a lot of our scheduling was decided for us: we held off visiting the Taj straight away as any guide book, blog or review tells you that the best time to visit is dawn. Friday was also off the cards, as the Taj Mahal complex contains a large Mosque which is an important place for Agra’s muslims who gather there to pray every Friday.
We couldn’t wait until Saturday for our first glimpse, so we reverted to our standard tactic of finding a rooftop bar with a view. The best of these are south of the Taj Mahal in the Taj Ganj area. The Ganj is essentially a dusty set of run-down streets but it’s redeeming feature is its proximity to the impressive sandstone southern gate of the Taj, and its high density of backpacker hostels, many of which claim to have the “best Taj view in Agra”. Most bars in the Ganj don’t have alcohol licenses but are more than happy to produce an off-menu cold beer if you ask.
First, we followed Lonely Planet’s tip, Saniya Palace (so hard not to add inverted commas around the word palace there), and caught our first sight of the amazing monument in the distance. The main thing obstructing our near-perfect view was another roof terrace 20m in front that clearly had a better one. Ok, on to the next. From here we realised we were the subject of some tourists’ zoom-lens photos of the city taken from an even better vantage point! We hastily finished our drinks and headed up to the terrace of Hotel Shanti Love which, we would say, deserves the ‘Best Taj View in Agra’ crown.
So, what to do with our non-Taj day on the Friday? It was over dinner at our hotel that we got talking to the owners and, on hearing that we were considering Agra Fort instead of a day trip to Fatehpur Sikri, they dismissed the fort with a flick of the hand and practically begged us to visit the abandoned city saying we would not regret it.
Having not been there, we’re in no position to dismiss Agra Fort, and, if we’d had the time it would have been interesting to visit the imposing stronghold where Shah Jahan (the Mughal emperor who built the Taj Mahal) was imprisoned by his own son – partly for the resentment he felt at his father squandering so much money on the world’s most ornate mausoleum built in tribute to his dead wife. One thing that helped us choose Fatehpur Sikri over Agra Fort was that having both Jaipur and Delhi on our itinerary meant we would see equally impressive forts elsewhere, whereas Fatehpur Sikri is unique.
Given walking was not really an option (at least not a safe or easy option) in most places we’d visited in India, we soon learnt the value of pre-booking drivers for anything more than short hops across town, when flagging down an auto is best. We booked a driver for our dawn trip to the Taj Mahal and the day trip to Fatehpur Sikri, and couldn’t have been luckier with our driver Ajay, who runs Pacific Tour India. We also hired him to take us to Tundla station when we left Agra (about an hour outside of the city), where he kindly offered to wait with us for the train in spite of its 90 minute delay.
The abandoned city, Fatehpur Sikri, is an extremely well restored area of ruins which make up the former capital of the massive Mughal Empire that once ruled all of India. It was built in the 16th century but only inhabited for a few years before water shortages forced the inhabitants to abandon the city. You can see how the ancient Mughal emperors lived, along with their armies, followers, concubines, and wives. One unique feature is that Emperor Akbar had three wives; one Christian, one Hindu, and one Muslim, and, for each, he had built a palace reflecting the style of her heritage.
Having had a couple of evenings to work out our plan of action for the Taj Mahal we had decided on a dawn visit, entering through the East gate. We reckoned on there being the shortest queues here because we’d read that most big tour groups use the West Gate, the South gate is in backpacker-central Taj Ganj, and there is a 1km walk between the ticket office and the East gate, which we hoped would put some people off.
It put male travellers off, at any rate. Reaching the gate we joined the gender-separated queues where Timian’s line was about half as long and moving twice as fast as Rebecca’s. At the end of the line is a security check, which supposedly prohibits you from bringing in food, cables, headphones, and a bunch of other things, most of which we had. Instead, they chose to confiscate our deck of playing cards, which a local shopkeeper would store for us for a few rupees (how convenient).
We arrived at the East Gate ticket office just after 6am, where there were no queues at all, and then spent about 30 minutes queuing at the entry gate security check. Once inside, we hot-footed it round the corner and through the archway to come face-to-face with the world-famous, postcard view of the Taj Mahal. Even though we’d seen pictures of it thousands of times over, it is still so special seeing it in person. We got the obligatory tourist photos from the perfectly-positioned bench on the central marble plinth, and the standard shots of the Taj reflected in the water channels, all without too many people in the background. However, there were slightly too many people for Rebecca’s Instagram dreams of the perfect shot, so it could be worth going even earlier to beat the crowds if you can bear the pre-dawn alarm call.
Our pictures won’t do the sight justice either, but some masterstrokes of design, such as its perfect symmetry, gleaming white marble, and the raised plinth which gives a backdrop of nothing but sky, do put it up there with the most photogenic buildings in the world.