So, we pushed on to the Royal City of Agra, best known for its world famous attraction, the Taj Mahal.
After 8 hours drive from the Himalayas to Delhi and switching drivers; we drove another 4 hours- arriving at Agra around 10 pm.
We had arranged for a car and driver beforehand. This is absolutely the best way to experience India; also is inexpensive and family friendly. A newer mini-van (usually Toyota Innova) with driver for a week, including driver’s lodging/food, taxes, tolls and gas is about $400-450 (18,000-20,000 INR). Smaller car would run considerably less. Tipping is extra, about $3-5 (150-250 INR) per day depending on the service provided. We reserved ours through a friend. Many tour operators as well as major car rental companies offer this service in India. Do not attempt to drive yourself. Roads are not well signed especially in rural areas and are very congested- by people, animals and other vehicles. Also, you need your eyes free to enjoy the beautiful and colorful scenery.
We chose to stay at Oberoi Amarvillas. It is a newer property of famous Oberoi Hotels and Resorts and very close to Taj Mahal. The hotel golf cars take guests to/from the Taj in about five minutes. The grounds are quite large and the architecture is beautiful. Rooms are good size (ours had a large balcony which was quite nice) and have direct, but distant view of Taj Mahal. Staying here is not cheap ($500+), but if budget allows is worth the indulgence for a night.
There are two restaurants at the hotel. The larger one serves continental and Indian cuisines as well as breakfast. The second one, Esfahan, is an upscale Indian restaurant offering nightly live Indian music. The service and food are very good at both. Regrettably, the reception, concierge and general management are not well coordinated and knowledgeable.
Most travelers visit Taj Mahal on an exhausting day-long tour from Delhi or stay just a night in Agra. We settled on staying for two nights; since we were arriving late on the first night and didn’t want to rush through Agra. Beside Taj Mahal, there are a few other important places to visit in or around Agra, including Agra Fort (Lal Qila) also called the Red Fort of Agra and Fatehpur Sikri, both World Heritage Sites.
We booked a tour guide at the hotel to accompany us to Taj Mahal and Agra Fort. It cost about $25-30 for a private guide without car (we already had a driver) and is definitely worth it. These two sites can easily be seen in half a day. Reserve the guide a day in advance during the busy season (summer and Dec-Jan). Do hire a guide- it is so much better than reading through a guide book. This also frees your eyes to soak up the amazing sites and your hands can be better employed taking great pictures.
Taj Mahal was built by Shah Jahan (from Farsi/Persian meaning “King of the World”), grandson of Akbar, as a shrine and memorial to his beloved wife, Arjumand Bann Begum (Mumtaz Mahal) after she died in 1630 at Burhanpur in South India. It is the jewel of Muslim art in India and a magnificent combination of Persian, Indian and Islamic architectures. The construction started in 1632 and was completed in 1653 by a workforce of over 20,000 including craftsmen from Italy, Persia and Turkey. It is over 55 meters high and is built in white and yellow marble. There are two smaller red stone buildings on either side, one a mosque and the other a rest house. We spent a couple of hours staring at this magnificent structure and the beautiful grounds. The weather was cloudy and very foggy, especially in the early morning, but Taj Mahal still managed to glow through.
Nearby stands the 16th-century Mughal monument known as the Lal Qila(Red Fort) or Agra Fort. This important fortress of red sandstone encompasses, within its 2.5-km-long enclosure walls, the imperial city of the Mughal rulers. The Fort also offers beautiful views over Taj Mahal and surrounding area. Shah Jahan spent his final years imprisoned by his son, Aurangzeb, at Agra Fort from where he could see the majestic monument he had built. It is said that he died in Agra Fort on Musamman Burj (a beautiful marble balcony) while looking at Taj Mahal.
The next day we checked out and headed west. After a short 45 minutes drive mostly through beautiful and colorful country side, we arrived at the amazing Fatehpur Sikri.
Once there, we had to leave the car behind as cars are only allowed to a certain point. We hired a tuk tuk (small 3-wheeler cab) for about $1 (20-25 INR) and a guide for $20 more and headed up to see this beautiful complex.
Fatehpur Sikri meaning “the City of Victory” was built in late 16th century by the Mughal Emperor Akbar. He had inherited the Mughal Empire from his father Humayun and grandfather Babur. During the 1560s he rebuilt the Agra Fort and established it as his capital. He had a son and then twins, but the twins died. He then consulted Sufi shaeikh/saint, Salim Chishti who lived as a recluse in the small town Sikri. He predicted that Akbar would have another son and indeed one was born to him in 1569 in the small town of Sikri. The child was named Salim and would later rule the empire as Emperor Jahangir (from Farsi meaning “Conqueror of the World”). To honor the saint, the 28 years old Akbar ordered the construction of a palace and royal city in the small town of Sikri, later known as Fatehpur Sikri. A capital for only 14 years, it was abandoned (some suspect that water supply could not sustain growing population) and replaced by Lahore. Fatehpur Sikri encompasses a complex of monuments and temples including one of the largest mosques in India, the Jama Masjid.
From a religious standpoint, Akbar’s state was built on the principle of universal tolerance. All religions were to be equally tolerated. In Akbar’s theory of government, the ruler’s duty is to ensure justice for all the people in his care no matter what their religion.
The tomb of Salim Chishti, encased in white marble is also located at the
Mosque’s courtyard and to the right of its entrance.
As with many historic monuments we had seen in India, the whole complex is in great condition. One of my favorite structures here is the Panj (Panch) Mahal meaning “palace of five (stories)”. Also known as “Badgir“, which means windcatcher/tower in Farsi; it is entirely columnar, consisting of five levels of decreasing size. The ground floor consists of 84 pillars.
The world’s highest gate, Buland Darwaza, is here at the Mosque’s Courtyard.
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Next Stop: Rajesthan> Ajabgarh & Amanbagh
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Taj Mahal & India: Video
Mughal Empire in India
Shah Jahan: Video
Fatehpur Sikri: Video
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