Captain obvious here: Things have changed a lot in India over the last 25 years.
I visited Chennai in the south of India in 1994 and again in 2000; and Mumbai in 2000 and again in 2002. At that time, we’d hear dire warnings about visiting Agra – it was a dangerous road from Delhi; two lanes, with steep ditches. You’d hear of buses overturning or car accidents at night. I have to admit, those tales of woe kept me from even wanting to visit Agra, and its famous landmark, the Taj Mahal. But now, there is a beautiful highway (a toll road) that runs between Delhi and Agra, making for an easy three hour journey. There are even rest stops akin to what we have in the United States (with Starbucks!)
After a much needed long night’s sleep and another gluttonous and delicious breakfast at our hotel (the Hilton Garden Inn, Saket), we left Delhi around 10am. We were happy to leave the congested city behind and excited to see the Taj Mahal. The trip was easy thanks to our awesome driver, and along the way we got to observe more rural life in India. We passed village after village, farms, small roadside temples, and miles upon miles of what we surmised to be brick kilns.
The air quality improved as we left Delhi behind. Though even in Agra, smog was thick and my voice began to go. We learned that manufacturing in Agra was banned in order to protect the Taj Mahal which was getting damaged by the polluted air.
We arrived at our hotel mid-day, and the kids were beyond excited. The gorgeous lobby of the Radisson Blu felt luxurious and welcoming. The kids ordered hot chocolate and tea while we got checked in, and then groaned when we had to hustle to get moved into our rooms and leave right away for lunch and more tourist stuff. They really wanted to explore the hotel and go for a swim. The rooftop infinity pool was spectacular – but we wouldn’t see it until the next morning.
We knew going into this trip that we were being aggressive with our itinerary. We wanted to maximize our time and see as much as possible, and weren’t willing to give up anything in order to give ourselves a down day. I have no regrets, but the kids struggled with the pace. Plus, they really were craving a day to just lounge at the pool. Luckily, the pools were freezing so it wasn’t a huge loss.
We met our new tour guide for Agra, a gentle man named who shared that he goes to the Agra Fort and Taj Mahal just about every day during the tourist season. He was well-informed and very articulate, and kept a fast clipped pace, which for this increasingly tired family of five, proved to be a challenge. He was amenable to the many breaks we had to take while walking the grounds at the Taj Mahal, even if it meant a longer visit and work day for himself.
Despite being home to India’s most famous attraction, Agra is a small, mostly underdeveloped town that very much reminded me of the India I met in 1994 with chaotic roads, cows meandering in the streets, and motor bikes weaving around pedestrians and bicycles. And anachronistically, huge modern tour buses which simply amazed me, because navigating these streets in a small car seemed dangerous and difficult. There looked to be a good amount of development happening, primarily on new hotels. The air was dusty, dirty, and though much smaller than Delhi, the noise of cars honking continued.
After an overpriced and mostly disappointing lunch at a touristy restaurant, we went to the Agra Fort. I was especially excited to visit because we had to skip the Red Fort in Delhi the day before (which was built as a “new and improved” version of the Agra Fort by Mughals in the 1600s.) But Agra Fort is the famous one, the original if you will, and it was stunning. I found myself imagining life inside the walls, the various palaces teeming with people, children running around, large public gatherings on the vast lawns. Agra Fort was never attacked, but had been built with numerous defenses and partitioned with a large moat and a river.
The Agra Fort offers a beautiful vantage point to the Taj Mahal, just across the river. My 9-year-old didn’t want to “spoil” the Taj Mahal reveal and was reluctant to look, but I promised him this was part of the glory. Fun fact: Shah Jahan, who built the Taj Mahal as an honor to his favorite wife, was condemned by his son to live out his final years under “house arrest” in his palace at the Agra Fort. His son was kind enough to allow him to live with stunning views of the Taj Mahal.
[The Mughal Empire is filled with soap opera worthy tales and sagas that have got to be the stuff of movies. It’s on my list to find more to read/watch about the 6 great Mughal leaders of India.]
It was a short drive from the Agra Fort to the Taj Mahal “campus” where we got out of our car and hopped into an auto rickshaw to take us to the ticket booth. From there we walked a few hundred yards to the main gateway into the Taj Mahal grounds. It took a long time to make our way through the gardens into the building itself. Thousands of people everywhere, but the congestion wasn’t even the issue. Every few feet was another amazing photo spot.
To me, the impressive part of the Taj Mahal isn’t the love story attached to its origins; or the politics of the leader who built it. The magic is in the design, the craftsmanship, the materials and the fact that this building stands magnificently today but was built in 1630. Marble, perfectly chiseled in intricate detail, inlaid with stones and painted.
If there was a disappointment here, it is that the mausoleum that the public gets to view inside is a replica; and that there are “guides” that will demonstrate the echo of saying your name for a price, but the kids did get a kick out of that. The actual tombs lie one floor below the rotunda that we can walk through; we are told that what we are seeing is an exact replica of what is below.
We had intentionally timed our visit to be there for sunset. But as it turns out, the sun doesn’t set over the Taj Mahal. Maybe it does in another season, but being in the grounds at sunset was lovely with nice light and more comfortable temperatures.
After sunset, we dragged our now exhausted selves back to the car, anticipating a swim at the “infinity rooftop pool overlooking the Taj Mahal.” Silly family – the kids ran off as soon as we got to the hotel, and we ended up sitting in the dark at the wrong pool (turns out we had missed that the infinity pool was on the roof, and when we found the kids near the 2nd floor pool we just stayed there, which was unpleasant: the water was freezing and I got a hundred mosquito bites. (Good think we were on malaria prophylaxis.)
I had a twinge of disappointment the next morning when my husband and I set out for a 6:30am “sunrise visit” to see the Taj Mahal. We went to the site of the never constructed “Black Taj Mahal” that Shah Jahan was going to build for his own mausoleum (he was interred with his wife at the Taj Mahal.) We had expected to see the sun rise from behind the Taj, but alas the vantage point didn’t offer anything particularly unique. No regrets, though. Because, it is the Taj Mahal and seeing it one more time was totally worth it!