Agra – Taj Mahal and Agra Fort… Stunning sights and pungent odours

 

So we set off towards Agra today. I’d read in a guide book last night that the place is riddled with people ready to hassle you – scams aplenty from rickshaws, and tuk tuks and false marble Taj salesmen.  Essentially the whole escapade had started to sound a bit concerning…  The guide book implied that to get an official guide is a good idea as they can then fight off all the others for you… We’d spoken to our driver who said it was very much up to us, but he also mentioned that part of a guide’s role is to show us where to buy the ‘right’ marble tat, etc, so we felt like we might just be getting hassled from a different angle…  We decided we would brave it and manage alone and unguided…

So, after a long journey of more than an hour and a half (google maps and rome to rio had promised us about 45 minutes), with again all kinds of sights you simply wouldn’t see in England, mostly because it’s illegal, we arrived at Agra.

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So far winning the prize for the most unusual item(s) transported by motorbike…

I could see why Agra isn’t massively recommended as a destination – it seemed busy, chaotic (the worst driving and roads we’d seen), and dirty…

At the car park nearest the Taj booking office, we were let out by our driver – he’d given us instructions of where to find the booking office and perhaps to get a tuk tuk or even a horse drawn carriage down to the Taj from there…. So, with an unspoken plan to look confident and purposeful, pretty much like we lived there, we strode on past all manner of hawkers, everyone of whom shoved a bracelet, mini Taj’s, or some kind of plastic tat in our face ‘only 100 rupees’ etc. ‘No thank you, no thank you’ etc. We’d also learnt a new word for the occasion…. ‘Dhanyavaad’ …  Which means, handily, ‘no thank you’ but in Hindi…

So the ticket office was shut, which meant our purposeful striding started to look a bit more shambolic which left us open to more ‘do you want a guide’ ‘official government guide’, etc. No thank you.   So one guy said the booking office is now right down near the Taj, which, because I’d read it in a book, I felt was incorrect… Steve asked a policeman to be on the safe side, and indeed it was right – we needed to get the 200 metres down to the Taj itself and run the gauntlet of more touts and persistent sellers…

So we hailed a Tuk Tuk as we were told they were allowed within a radius of the Taj as they have clean fuel. He explained he could only take us 60m further, and then a rickshaw guy pulled over and said he would take two of us down for 50 rupees and another guy who pulled over would take the other two for 50 rupees. Happy with that, we headed off (downhill, we later heard it costs a lot more to come back up the incline)… Of course when we arrived he said it was 50 rupees per person not per rickshaw, but we managed to say no and pay the agreed amount and continue on…

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The hassle did continue ‘you want a guide’ etc, but we managed to keep saying no and finally got through the gates …. where we almost immediately noticed, firstly the Taj Mahal – iconic and exactly like in the pictures – followed swiftly by another kind of hassle I’d read about…   Apparently there’s an internet ‘craze’ at the moment to get photos of selfies with foreigners, and we were surprisingly some of the most noticeably foreign-looking tourists there… Some were subtly doing selfies on a selfie stick with us in the background, some less subtle. Only one girl asked us if we’d have a selfie with her and we felt guilty for saying no, but we’d read once you agree to one then you’ll potentially be inundated…

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The outside of the Taj was stunning – and the history really interesting… We had known that Shah Jahan built it for his wife, Mumtaz (his ‘favourite’ wife at that, apparently he had three), but didn’t realise he’d planned to build a black Taj for his tomb, across the river. He got as far as the foundations we’re told.

Inside the Taj was a surreal experience. We put on the obligatory shoe covers which we got free with our ticket, and headed on in… The inside was unlit (so fairly dark really), and was filled with something to delight most of the senses (or certainly to make them sit up and take notice)… The main noise was whistles – like officious swimming pool attendants, the police appeared to be there to keep us moving and essentially spoil any chance of having a ‘moment’… Certainly they were set to ensure poor Mumtaz didn’t have a hope in hell (poor choice of words?) of resting in peace… Add the whistles to the raised voices, the elbows in the ribs from (apparently in a hurry) tourist-mum-and-child combo, then throw in the fact that, as our children commented ‘someone in there forgot to use their deodorant this morning’, and all in all you’ve got yourself an iconic, once in a lifetime experience which in some respects you couldn’t help wishing would end really soon…

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Taj Mahal – magical in parts

After the Taj Mahal we had some (late) lunch and then headed off to the ‘Agra Fort’. We were told by the driver that a guide would be a good idea, as it is relatively easy to get lost. He did advise that we should be able to pay 150-200 rupees, so we set off with that in mind…

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Turns out the guides at the Fort are really quite persistent. The first one wanted 950 rupees, but rather than either agree to meet our price or leave us alone, he hung about for ages trying to persuade us we wanted a guide for 650 rupees. We didn’t. Then another guy had a go. He would have agreed 350 but wasn’t keen on the 150-200. But again, wouldn’t just leave us alone – he kept reappearing like Mr Ben’s shopkeeper, just a little ahead of us, but curiously without ever having walked past us.

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Guide holding forth (tbh another one who’d forgotten his deodorant that morning)

Eventually he agreed 200 rupees, and off we went. I’m sure on the whole it was better to have him than not, as he explained why there were white marble areas, (Shah Jahan made them, I think), where Shah Jahan was put under house arrest by his son, and even gave an alternative view, that it maybe wasn’t ‘cruel’ of his son to lock him up, but was for the good of the country as he wouldn’t stop spending money building things out of marble… It was pretty poignant though that he could sit in his own gilded marble palace looking across at the Taj Mahal for the next 12-13 years of his life until his own death.

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Where Shah Jahan spent his ‘house arrest’. The fountain at the front was part of the air-con system and used scented water stored on a nearby rooftop…

Agra fort is an amazing, huge, fort, and we only got to see 35% of it as the rest is used by the army. The guide told us other stories which I didn’t understand the full extent of, just enough to know that our guide perhaps doesn’t like the British a lot and holds us responsible for nicking all the books out of the library, and also for spoiling some kind of marble umbrella feature which got hit by a canon. I felt very apologetic, but not enough to tip him.

 

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