In front of Taj Mahal
I woke up in time to get off at the Agra
Cantonment railway station a bit before 6:00. I was still feeling tired and hurting from the head-cold. I walked upto platform number 1, found out about the tourism department's day tour of Agra and Sikri. It wasn't starting before 10. So I let a rickshaw guy convince me to take up a room till then. He took me around and I couldn't find a room that was good but cheap. Finally decided to relax a bit in a relatively cheap room which I could keep till the evening and also keep my luggage safe evening.
After some rest I set off back to the station, among pleas by the rickshaw guy that I shouldn't go by bus and take the rickshaw instead for sightseeing.
Taj from a distance
But I was feeling lazy enough to have a guide and have someone manage my time. So after a quick breakfast at the Comesum cafe at station I reached the tourism department office to board the sightseeing bus. The tour was supposed to start at 10:00, but it so happens it was a no-go that day since there weren't enough tourists signed up for it. By around 10:30 it was clear that I would have to make my own arrangements. Fortunately there were 3 more tourists who were stranded with no tour like me.. so the only option was for us to pool up and take a taxi. The prepaid taxi took Rs. 950 for the day tour. The four of us - me, Owen from England, Luis and Veronica from Mexico - set off shortly afterward in the taxi, me being the liaison with the cab driver since I talk the local language (Hindi).
One of the Minars of Taj
Pretty soon we were stuck in horrible, chaotic, lawless Agra traffic, stuck at the same spot for over 15 minutes. We were already late in starting, but were able to get loose and drive on to Fatehpur. The city itself is quite dirty, crowded and stuffy - I'm quite sure there's very little that the city itself has to offer in terms or relaxing or partying. The Taj Mahal is definitely a "lotus in muddy water" as the idiom goes in Hindi.
On entering the Fatehpur fort, parking, much hassling to take a guide, finding a cheap guide and a short bus ride we got to the entrance of Sikri. It was well past noon by that time. We spent a couple of hours looking through Sikri and Fatehpur, intermittently listening to the partially correct knowledge and downright fables of the guide.
Almost setting sun at one of the gates to Taj
The interesting things to see: at Sikri - the Diwan-e-khas i.e. king's private audience, summer residences of the queens and king; at Fatehpur - the giant entrance gate (Buland Darwaza), white marble tomb (dargah) of the saint Salim Chishti. We took the 5 Rupee per person bus back to parking, and set off again for the hour-or-so long drive back to Agra. On the highway, close to Fatehpur, we stopped for lunch (which turned out to be decent but not exactly cheap). After dropping Owen at the station again, there was only time left to visit the Taj Mahal. Although Agra fort was on the itinerary, it would have to wait for another day perhaps, but that was just fine with the 3 of us.
The Taj is surpirisingly close and in the city boundaries itself I would guess. We were parked near one of the gates of the complex, and set off by foot to cover the 1 km walk to the ticket counters/entrance.
Next to Taj
Here one can take cycle rickshaws also till the entrance, but the distance is short enough and I was in no mood anymore to bargain or beat back the throngs of tourist-hounds. After a short ticket queue, pretty long security and entry queue and some hassle about keeping certain things in a locker, we made it inside. There is a pretty big entrance gate, with a small entrance passage for access to the main premises. The Taj is barely visible from outside, but as you go through the gate, you suddenly see it in its splendour. Unchanging at a decent distance, standing majestically as you move through the throng in the passage. It looks pretty huge once you are actually there... and snappity-snap - loads of people taking the first picture as soon as they enter. The first thing that undoubtedly impresses is the massive scale.
Close to sunset
None of the typical pictures can do justice to this monument - it looks so small and feeble in them. But in front of your own eyes, you can make out the distance and the scale.
You cross the 100 meters plus distance to the base of the Taj, take off your shoes and then climb up to the monument which is prominently raised from the surrounding gardens and entrance ground level. Even then, its a huge monument and theres plenty of space around it to gaze at it. The entire structure is white marble, even the raised foundation on which it rests, and one can walk around it completely. We gazed at it from outside, went inside to see the tomb, and then sat outside relaxing on the cool marble gazing at the Taj illuminated by a low sun. Weirdly enough, throughout the day, at Fatehpur-Sikri and even around Taj, I heard so many Spanish speaking tourists - like no other tourist place I had been to in India.
Main pillar in the King's private audience "Diwan-e-Khas" at Sikri
Los Mexicanitos found a few more Mexicans to hang out with. We stuck around till a bit past 18:00 and then I had to rush back to station to catch my train at about 18:45.
I picked my backpack on the way back, settled the taxi charges at the station, and found the train was late by some 20 minutes. So we sat down to discuss some of the destinations in north India where I was going and where Luis and Vero might be interested in going. After a quick goodbye I waited for the train. Turned out it was to be one of the longest wait I have ever gone through. The delay announcements kept coming. Some snagged rail equipment had blocked lines before Agra, causing lots of trains to divert and get delayed. Thankfully I got time to eat dinner. My train for Delhi
finally parked itself on the platform at about 22:00, 3 hours or so late, but refused to leave for well over an hour. I relayed the bad news to relatives at Delhi, so they wouldn't wait for me. Turned out this was going to be one heck of a slow journey. Pitiful and waitful end to such a nice day.
-- Ashish Bhambhani