Moghul mausoleums and forts

Agra Travel Blog

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Having struggled to get a seat to Agra on 1st Jan, I managed to claim an emergency seat. With no 2AC or 3AC available, I was stuck in cattle class again and went with the tourist office recommendation of taking a top bunk.  I found my spot which was a full length bed, but placed about 2 foot off the roof of the train.  I placed my 2 bags down as headrests and settled down for a 10 hour train journey without any window to look through.

The guy next to me a very friendly chap who promptly introduced himself with his tour operator card.  Chatted away through most of the journey offering advice on good places to go on my onwards journey through northern India.
  With a noiw established natural distrust of anyone helpful in India, I gave him a false e-mail address.  In hindsight I regret as he was a genuinely nice guy trying to be helpful - not all English speaking Indians are trying to scam extra money.

After 6 hours and a still predominantly empty carriage I climbed down for a regular seat and watched a world of farmers fields, dusty towns and busy rail tracks (trains, people, cows, dogs all use the tracks) go by.  The latter part of the journey infuriatingly slow as fog descended prompting the train to crawl along that eventually saw us arrive in Agra 4 hours late (initially cursing the delay, I subsequently found out that the same train the following day had crashed in the fog killing 10 people !! and closed the track for 2 days).

My rickshaw driver used the usual scam of taking me to a different hostal to where I had asked.  However as his option was also recommended in the Rough Guide, I went along with it this time before negotiating a better rate (600 dropped to 250 rupees) the following morning under threat of leaving.

1st morning in Agra and surprisingly cold and visibility very poor.  Decided to leave the Taj Mahal and instead go to Sikandra.

Sikandra is 10km out of Agra and the site of Akbar's mausoleum.  Akbar the maharaja of the Moghul empire during its finest years that coincided with having Agra as the capital.  He is widely acknowledged as a man ahead of his time who acknowledged all cultures within his empire and adopted many practices to appease his subjects.
  He left behind a vast array of architecture that is hard to criticise 500 years later.  

Akbar's mausoleum was self designed and is approached through an immense gate that hides the main building itself.  However once through the gate, the grand red sandstone building appears on a raised platform with minarets in each corner.  The whole platform surrounded by 4 symmetrical gardens that even now host large herds of deer.  Climbing up to the platform, the mausoleum itself intricately engraved with a mixture of Hindu and Muslim scriptures that are written to read in identical height from the ground.  All 4 sides identical.  The outer sections of the building built with Arabic arches that are acoustically sound if making a noise directly under the arch peak.
  Each side of the mausoleum has a path that leads off to another beautiful 100 foot structure.  The complex not just aesthetically pleasing but impressive in its design precision.

Returned to Agra to go to the Agra Fort. The fort was originally built in 10th century but Akbar significantly enhanced it to be the seat of power under his reign. Large fortifications lead in to a ramp that goes up in to the main complex making it very hard to attack, the complex houses a maze of palaces, mosques, guest housing plus the house of his infamous hareem (reported to number 5000 women from all corners of his empire).  The fortifications and much of the complex built in the red sandstone that was the Akbar's obsession, but a few buildings (mainly mosques) in the white marble that was to become even more famously associated with the Moghuls.
  The fort enhancements built between 1565-73 even contained air conditioning.  I was most impressed with the courtyard with the pachisi board where he would use girls from his hareem as live pieces :-).  Oddly, two thirds of the fort are out of bounds to tourists as it still in use by the current Indian army. 

With the following day not much improved in weather, headed off to Fatehpur Sikri for the morning.  40km outside of Agra, it is another of Akbar's creations when he grew tired of the mayhem of the existing cities and wanted to build a brand new city to be his capital.  It took 16 years to build (1569-85) but was only lived in for 14 years before it was mysteriously abandoned.
  The site has been an abandoned ghost city ever since leaving a whole Moghul city in mint condition to explore.

I got talked in to my 1st site tour of whole trip as costing only 100 rupees ($1.50).  In return I got a rushed 20 minutes around the main courtyard which focussed on taking me to various sounvenir shops around the square, he took 2 photos for me on my camera before offering me excellent young boys for sex !!  Yep - that's why I normally just stick to the Rough Guide information !

I walked around again with book in hand taking more time with the temples and palaces in both red sandstone and white marble.  The main gate far more impressive from the outside of the courtyard and is reputedly the biggest gate in Asia. Looking at it, I was quite happy to believe it.
  I walked over to the main town complex which provided a maze of buildings still in excellent condition displaying the thoroughness of city planning but also time taken to apply intricate carvings to almost every building.  This Akbar can design !!

Returned to Agra having saved the best until last - the Taj Mahal.  My good luck on the trip so far took a hit as on arrival it started raining (1st rain of whole trip !!).  At least the queues weren't so bad.  Another impressive gate hides the Taj, but passing through you get the image that's been seen a million times in photos.  Even with the grey skies, an awesome sight with the line of water running straight up the middle of the pathway leading towards the great mausoleum.  Even having seen so many photos, still surprised by the size of it.

A lot of the hype about the TaJ Mahal is not just that it is pleasing on the eye with such a grandiose romantic gesture to his recently deceased "favourite wife" (how can any man compete with such a gesture ?), but the 400 year old building is still regarded as architecturally flawless with identical height and width, identical on all 4 sides with an identical minaret in each corner of the platform and using only the finest white marble.  The architecture genes of Akbar rubbed off on his grandson.   I was happy to spend a few rupees on the photo touts pointing out a few different spots to take good photos. 

The queue to get in to the cenotaph took a full circuit of the Taj and took 40 minutes to be herded around to an anticlimax of the two marble caskets - his casket the only aspect of the whole complex out of symmetry as the Taj was only intended for her and his body squeezed in next to her at a later date.

On exit, I stayed around to try and get the sunset, but the cloud prevented the view.  Even without the weather, there is no way you can leave disappointed.

Treated myself to a nice meal out by getting a tuk tuk to Sadar Bazaar.  Not only a very nice curry, but the Sadar Bazaar a little bit of Europe with very nice boutique shops and the 1st clean street I've seen in India so far.  Agra is not as bad as most tourists make out and is really quite pretty in some areas.

Having completed everything on my list in Agra and time to kill before my onward train, chilled in hotel only to find out there was a Baby Taj.  Itimad-ud-daulah predates the Taj and was built as the mausoleum for the father in law of Jahangir (son of Akbar).  Nicknamed the Baby Taj as also made totally of white marble, much smaller than its more illustrious Taj, but more ornate in design.  Clearly a template for the later model.  A nice last stop before time to move on.

SheffDave says:
Glad it's going well, sounds great!
Posted on: Jan 09, 2010
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photo by: rotorhead85