For anyone travelling to Uttar Pradesh (a Northern State in India) or any part of Northen India, Agra has got to be a necessary stop. Agra is home to many historic cites, the most notable being the Taj Mahal. The Taj Mahal is a tomb built by a Mughal emperor in honor of his favorite wife (of multiple wives...). This guy, Shah Mahan, had quite the story. It's also the same guy who built the walled city that is now Old Delhi.
In the early seventeenth century, Shah Mahan rose to power. He had fallen in love with a Muslim woman of high social status, but wasn't permitted to marry her for many years until astrologically set dates permitted. In the mean time he married two other women at different times, maintaining each marriage. He eventually was able to marry his love who became known as Mumtaz Mahal. Mumtaz Mahal had fourteen children with Shah Jahan, but died while giving birth to the fourteenth child. Shah Jahan built the Taj Mahal as a Muslim Mausoleum to his beloved sparing no resource, expertise, or expense.
He brought the world's best engineers, inlay tile workers, and marble sculptors to Agra to construct this unprecedented dedication to his, or any, wife. We'll show you pictures and talk more about the Taj Mahal, but before we do, things got real in Shah Jahan's life during and after construction. Years after his wife died, he fell ill. His eldest son took over. The other sons got mad smuckers (jealous), and decided to storm the palace at Agora Fort (across the way from the Taj Mahal) to get what they thought was due to them. They won their battle while the father, Shah Jahan, got better and pulled it together. BUT by that time the third eldest son decided that Dad's time was up, and put Shah Jahan on house arrest in his palace a few miles away from the Taj Mahal, in a room with a view of his beloved's tomb. The eldest daughter decided to share the house arrest with her father and help take care of his health. He died at age 72 still under house arrest by his son, who refused a large ceremony and production for his father's death. The eldest daughter instead had him buried during a modest ceremony inside the Taj Mahal that was dedicated to his love...Crazy story.
The Taj Majal is absolutely stunning. Carved out of white marble, which is rare to the area, with uncountable semi-precious-stone/jewel inlays. It is difficult to describe the amount of time, blood, sweat, and precision that clearly went into to crafting this mausoleum. The entire building is symmetric by construction. Each side looks exactly like the other with balanced minarets and identical façades. The only thing not symmetric about the building is that the tomb of Mumtaz Mahal was placed in the center of the dome, because Shah Jahan intended for her body to be the only one buried in the building. When his daughter buried him there, his body was placed next to his wife's centered tomb, offsetting the symmetry. The tombs we see when we enter are replicas of the actual tombs located below the site. The red entrance gates to the Taj made out of sandstone are also symmetric.
It's overwhelming to know how dedicated Shah Mahan's love was for his wife that he would go to such great lengths for her. While leaving Kurt told me that he would build me a Taj Mahal... it was a very romantic, and silly, moment for our honeymoon.
We took two pics from a prime spot in front of the Taj and we managed to each close our eyes in one of the pictures. If anyone wants to PhotoShop these into one normal picture, please have at it.
From the Taj Mahal we went to the Agra Fort. We think this Fort is a must see equal to the Taj Mahal, but for different reasons. Inside the expansive fort is palaces, former temples, mosques, as well as an active bunker for the Indian army reserves. We saw the palace that Shah Jahan lived in while on house arrest and the haunting view of the Tajh Mahal from across the river. The fort is mostly constructed of red sandstone. The palace is in white marble. It's quite small, but you can see the view of the Taj from the Agra Fort palace below. A couple palaces are shown below. One palace also has a vineyard, because the emperor liked wine.
Shah Jahan, was Persian and a devout Muslim. His father, also a Mughal emperor was more open to religion and had taken a Muslim wife, a Hindu wife, as well as a Christian wife (covering his bases for afterlife I guess??). Shah Jahan in 1633 imposed Shari law and basically ordered the demolition of all Hindu temples and artifacts as well as any other religious constructions that were not Muslim. As a result, much of India's history, temples, and artifacts of the time were destroyed and never repaired or reconstructed. Agra Fort has former Hindu temples that were converted to Muslim mosques having defaced any Hindu sculptures or references. This event is a recurring theme through different Northern Indian cities we visited.
We woke up at sunrise to see the Taj Mahal before it was too busy and at beautiful light. It took about 5 hours to get from the hotel to the Taj to the fort to a few shops and then to Agra airport (we were flying to Varanasi next). Note that to get into any Indian airports you have to have a print out of your pre-purchased airplane ticket to show them.
It is easy to get to Agra from Delhi by either train or hiring a car.
The car ride is a few hours depending on traffic. From what we could tell it's about 2,000 to 3,000 rupees (US $ 30-45) for a private car service and tour guide from Delhi to Agra and back (depending on the car and guide). The train was two hours but timing can depend on how fast and how many stops your train is/has. We decided we would enjoy a train ride and seeing the countryside. The train was 2,500 rupees (US $ 38) for 2 adult first class AC tickets. The train situation in India isn't too difficult to navigate. The only caveat is that we decided to buy our tickets ahead of time while in the U.S. which was much more difficult and involved extra fees, but ensured we had a seat on the time and day we wanted one. To book in advance, you need to register with India's train authority, the IRCTC, which requires detailed information, passport photos, and a series of clearances. The other option is to wait until you're in India and either book train tickets through your hotel if they can do that or walk up to a train booking office (in most major train stations and airports) and buy your tickets there. India sets aside a fixed amount of seats for tourists, so the odds of those filling up a less likely, but certainly possible during high travel season. You may also get stuck with a standby ticket that isn't confirmed useless others cancel. Depending on how flexible you are and how far you want to travel in India, hiring a car can be indifferent to buying a train ticket. Although purchasing the ticket was slightly difficult, finding our train platform, getting on the train, and finding our designated AC 1 seat was super easy. We met a German couple who missed their train in India once by getting on the wrong train, so you just have to be careful to know your train's number and lookup the correct platform for that train number at your station.
When you arrive at Agra, we suggest having your hotel send a car to pick you up. If you look Western you will especially be harassed coming off the train for rides to your hotel at unreasonable prices and have difficulty getting a fair and safe taxi. For a small premium you will have the peace of mind and know you are being taken to the correct hotel. We paid 800 rupees (US $ 12) for our hotel to pick us up from Agfa Cantt train station. Eight hundred rupees seems to be the going rate in Northern India for a airport or train station pickup, no matter the distance or traffic. Not sure how the industry worked that one out, but generally in India it's always worth it.
Ticket to see the Taj Mahal for foreigners is 750 rupees (US $ 12), but only 20 rupees for Indian citizens. We were told that in 2016 the tourist ticket would rise above 1,000 rupees. Ticket to see the Agra Fort was 250 rupees per person. We hired a driver and tour guide for 2,000 rupees (US $30) to pick us up from the hotel, hold our luggage all day in the car, ensure we were getting tickets quickly without harassment, explain the sites, then drop us off at the airport. Pretty good deal, but note that we had to negotiate them down from $3,800 rupees, which was their initial offer. Negotiate everything in India!