We had for a long time wanted to visit the sacred Hindu city of Varanasi, and were not disappointed when we finally made it. For our 3-day stay we were based in the the Suryauday Haveli hotel which is right on one of the ghat on the Ganges River - a perfect place for exploring this fantastic city
Today, we were off to Agra, the home of the Taj Mahal. We woke to yet another pea-soup of a fog, which suggested that our flight from Varanasi to Agra would be problematic. After another exciting journey through the chaotic Varanasi traffic, our prediction of a delay turned out to be true. That said they are used to smog and fog in this part of the world so the delay was not horrendous and it was not too long before we were on our way.
One of the nice things about flying in India is that they have not yet caught on to all the cost-saving measures that the airlines in the United States have imposed, such as charging for snacks on the flight.
The flight was short, and we were soon landing in Agra. The airport in Agra is actually an air force base and there are limited flights in and out, in fact, our flight from Varanasi was only one of two that happen each week. So, not being a commercial airport, the facilities at the Agra airport were very basic but due to its lack of visitor traffic, we were soon out.
We were met by a tour company representative and our driver PK, who was to be our constant companion for the rest of our stay in India. As we travelled we discussed how our time in Agra was to be spent. The plan had been to tour the Taj Mahal at daybreak the next day, but there was concern that it could be very foggy, as it had been that day, so the plan changed and it was decided we’d go straight to the Taj there and then.
It was still the holidays in India so the whole area around the Taj was super busy with international and domestic tourists. Somehow, we managed to meet up with the guide who was going to take us around the Taj. We waited while he disappeared off to get the entry tickets. The wait was quite long even though he was in the line for international visitors, with the jacked-up price, fast-pass tickets. Eventually, he returned and we joined the lines to get in, again in the fast track lane, but there was a security check where everyone came together so it still took a while to get into the complex.
The Taj Mahal (meaning Crown of the Palace) is an ivory-white marble mausoleum on the south bank of the Yamuna river. It was commissioned by Shah Jahan in 1631, to be built in the memory of his wife Mumtaz Mahal, a Persian princess who died (probably of exhaustion) giving birth to their 14th child. Construction of the Taj Mahal began in 1632. The imperial court documenting Shah Jahan’s grief after the death of Mumtaz Mahal illustrated the love story held as the inspiration for the Taj Mahal. The principal mausoleum was completed in 1643 and the surrounding buildings and garden were finished about five years later. The remains of the princess were transferred from their temporary setting to the Taj Mahal on its completion. Myth has it that Shah Jahan planned to build another mausoleum in black marble similar to the Taj Mahal on the opposite side of the river (there are some workings that purport to be the start of the construction) but the work was never completed as he was deposed by his dastardly son and ran out of money.
The entrance gate leading to the Taj Mahal is impressive in its own right, and as you pass through its impressive arch you get your first sighting of the Taj. It is truly a majestic building of a colossal scale; pictures do not it justice. Having been recently cleaned it was stunning and shimmered in the hazy sunlight. The crowds were enormous, and as we walked down the avenue towards the Taj you could see hundreds of people milling around the balcony surrounding the Taj like an invading army of ants. There were plenty of photoshoot opportunities but with the volume of visitors, none were quite as impressive as the iconic photos that were taken when Princess Diana visited many years prior to our visit when they closed the grounds to visitors and she had the whole place to herself!
On reaching the base of the Taj we were able to once again jump the line to get up to the balcony level, but it was still a crush. The soldiers on duty tried their best to keep order but the crowds were overwhelming. Once on the spacious balcony area things opened up and we were able to enjoy the splendour of the Taj. Sadly, the entrance to the mausoleum had been closed due to the number of visitors but we were able to walk around the outside and enjoy the amazing craftsmanship that went into the construction of this Wonder of the World. To the east and west are two more impressive identical structures; to the west in the direction of Mecca is a large mosque, reflecting the strong Islamic beliefs of the Mughal rulers. To the left, the mosque’s sister building is a faux structure that was built purely for symmetry. Getting down from the balcony was even worse than getting up, and it is easy to see how a simple event could cause a mad panic, leading to people dying in the proceeding crush.
As we left the Taj behind we passed by a long, snaking line of domestic visitors, numbering thousands, waiting to get to the Taj. The likelihood of them all getting in before the close at sunset was very slim.
From the Taj, we were taken to our accommodation for the evening, not a hotel this time but a homestay. This was not your typical Blackpool bed and breakfast, it was a large building set in very exotic gardens; the building’s design was very quirky, definitely eclectic and tricky to describe or classify. Our room was up three floors at the very top. We did a very quick turnaround and headed out to a local restaurant called a “Touch of Spice” which turned out to be wonderful – even after a week of eating Indian food for breakfast, lunch and dinner we were yet to get bored.
Returning to the homestay we found a group of people sitting around the fire pit, so we grabbed a beer and joined them. There was a couple from South London who was visiting India with their three children ranging from a teenage daughter to two sons in their twenties. The daughter apparently had hated every minute of the trip and the sons were enjoying themselves greatly! The dad was a fireman, so we shared some stories of wildfires in the western United States before moving on to our hatred of President Donald Trump and the state of affairs in the US and Europe. It was a good end to the day and we headed off to bed feeling nourished spiritually and nutritionally.
In summary …
- The Taj Mahal gets a lot of hype but it deserves these accolades – it is stunning
- It gets incredibly busy – especially on holiday, so expect some waiting time to get in
- Getting to Agra from Dehli is straight forward
Planning your visit
Getting to and around Agra
Most travellers fly into Delhi’s Indira Gandhi International Airport (DEL) and then hop a train to Agra. Multiple trains pass through the Agra Cantt train station from the New Delhi train station daily.
The best way to get around Agra is by auto-rickshaw. They can navigate the city streets at a startling pace and are reasonably priced. Air-conditioned taxis can be more expensive than auto-rickshaws, but considering the very low conversion rate, you can probably get away with taking a taxi or two here or there. Walking between top attractions just isn’t possible due to the distance.
Best time to visit Agra
The best time to visit Agra is from November through February. That’s because this long “winter” sees daily temperatures ranging from the 70s to the low 80s. While prices and tourist volume will be high, you’ll avoid heavy rains and unbearable heat present during the spring and summer months.
Where to stay?
1. THE OBEROI AMARVILAS AGRA
Just 1,950 feet from the Taj Mahal, The Oberoi Amarvilas Agra boasts luxurious 5-star accommodation with a flat-screen TV. This property houses 4 dining options and provides free parking. Free WiFi is available in the rooms of the property.
Beautiful rooms come with stylish modern interiors and large windows. All the well-appointed units are equipped with a sofa, personal safe and private bathroom.
2. THE CORAL TREE BOUTIQUE HOMESTAY
The Coral Tree Homestay in Agra is only 2,300 feet from the Taj Mahal
The accommodation is air-conditioned and every unit is equipped with a private bathroom with free toiletries and a hairdryer. Towels are available.
The food here is great according to all the reviews!
3. MAX GUEST HOUSE
MAX Guest House is situated in the heart of Agra city centre, located within the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Taj Mahal.
Free WiFi. Just 2.3 km from Taj Mahal and Agra Fort is 3.3 km far away and convenient access to Agra attractions such as the Akbar’s Tomb and Sadar Bazaar.
At MAX GUEST HOUSE you will find a garden and a 24-hour front desk. luggage storage and an ironing service.