Considering it is home to the most photographed monument in India, the beautiful Taj, you’d expect the city of Agra might have polished itself up for the tourists. Not so. Following an early start and a 4-5 hour drive, we arrived in a smaller, slightly less smog-choked Delhi with little to keep you here longer than a day.
To our pleasant surprise we found that a tour guide had been booked for us and we visited Agra’s Red Fort first. The palaces within were more pleasing to wander through than those of the fort in Delhi, with beautiful intricate mirror work – our guide was great at pointing out smaller details that we would have otherwise missed ourselves. Much of the fort is still used as a military base, and apart from the stares from groups of goggle-eyed teenagers we were largely un-hassled too.
Later in the afternoon we set foot in the Taj Mahal complex. At the end of a vast garden, looming against a background of deep blue sky, the mausoleum truly is a breathtaking sight. It’s impressive size seemed to completely absorb the hoards of tourists.
Shah Jahan built the monument to enshrine the body of his favourite wife, Mumtaz Mahal, who died after giving birth to her 14th child. Building commenced in 1632 and 20 years later the work was complete, using 20,000 men.
The marble is inlaid with thousands of semi-precious stones that were shipped from across the world and up close, the detail is really quite something. “Foreigner” tickets are ten times the price of Indian tickets and to compensate for this we are allowed to jump the queue snaking round the mausoleum to get in.
We kind of wished we hadn’t bothered! The heart of the Taj is a fairly small octagonal room, at the centre of which are the tombs of Mumtaz and her husband behind a finely cut marble screen. Every few minutes the entrance was opened and a scrum of people barged their way in, pushing and elbowing their way round clockwise while guards blew whistles in everyone’s ears. With barely a glimpse of the tombs or the beauty of the room itself, we were swept through a serious of dark passages with small children constantly standing on our ankles, and thrust bewildered back out into the sunshine.
Total mayhem. And in stark contrast to the surprisingly peaceful outside.
We were starting to get used to the constant stares and double takes, and walking back we bemusedly agreed to be in a few family photos. I can’t believe the amount of attention we are getting here in India, especially at such a tourist hotspot such as the Taj which sees hundreds of western tourists every day.
On the way back we were taken to a marble workshop to see how craftsmen cut and polish gemstones and inlay detailed designs. Impressive as it was, in these places it’s all about the sales opportunity and the guy tried his hardest to convince us to buy a marble table top. Now trying to sell two completely broke backpackers a 3 foot lump of stone was never going to work… But even us explaining that we don’t have a home to house said table didn’t deter him, and he just showed us a more portable version. When that failed too he took us to another room, showing us objects that got smaller and smaller until his last card was a tiny marble elephant for 250 rupees. You’ve got to admire him for trying
Back at the hotel we were quite frankly overjoyed to find we had been upgraded to a suite! Reliable hot water and clean bedbug-free sheets are real luxuries compared to our normal standard of basic hostel rooms, never mind a minibar and a TV to watch Masterchef Australia on…