As a captive, Shah Jahan would gaze at Taj Mahal from the Agra Fort and sigh. We sighed too, at the levels of pollution that shrouded the memorial of love. Nevertheless, Agra is a must on the weekend visit list. Here's why
Beauty does strange things to the beholder. Some take recourse to paeans, some paint or sculpt, while others lose all consciousness. Especially if the beauty in question happens to be a mausoleum of love, something that has been listed as one of the seven wonders of the world. A monument that every visiting star and
dignitary makes it a point to visit on every trip to India (something I'm not sure our stars have bothered to visit).
The first view of the Taj Mahal is breathtaking
So it did to me. So lost was I taking in the beauty of the inner sanctum where the mighty Shah Jahan and his love Mumtaz Mahal were laid to rest, that I was totally oblivious of the fact that someone's been picking my fresh-out-of-the-packet phone from my pocket.
Welcome to Uttar Pradesh, I thought bitterly! I was out driving on a weekend when Delhi had nothing to offer and the weather was comfortable enough for Agra to seem inviting. That, and a bunch of 'phoren' friends, and I was all set for Agra, aka Akbarabad.
The mahal that Shah Jahan built for his daughters.
The balcony offers a view of Taj Mahal
The journey started early one nippy Friday morning. Six hours later, post ample chai-stops on the NH2, we reached Agra. The journey is scenic, with mustard plantations and ample roadside dhabas (yes lots of congestion too when you near towns like Mathura, Vrindavan etc which conveniently fall on the way for the religiously-inclined), almost out of a Yash Chopra movie.
The entry to Agra is dusty. In fact, till the time you reach near the gates of the Taj Mahal, you will be totally clueless about the beauty lying inside. The town is dotted with signs of 'development' -- glitzy shops and even malls -- while rickshaws occupy a major portion of the roads.
We started sightseeing with the Agra Fort, about 2.5 kms away from the Taj. Originally made of brick by the Sikarwar Rajputs, this is where Shah Jahan was kept captive in his last years by son Aurangzeb. Like all other Mughal forts, this one, built in red sandstone, is towering.
The Musamman Burj where Shah Jahan was kept captive
Agra Fort houses several structures like the Anguri Bagh (not in great shape now with wilting plants), the Diwan-i-Aam which once housed the peacock throne and where the emperors held court, the Diwan-i-Khas meant for select audience, Jahangiri Mahal (once built for Jahangir), the Mina Masjid, Musamman Burj (that has a balcony facing the Taj Mahal) among others.
As you climb up and down narrow staircases that lead to rooms, wide halls and courts, the guides tell you interesting tales about an 'insaaf ka tarazu' that the kings used, how Shah Jahan pined for the Taj Mahal from the balcony of Musamman Burj where he breathed his last, how the fort was damaged by British bombing and the palki-shaped structures that Shah Jahan got built for his daughters. There are baolis and jenana mahals, sheesh mahals and naubat khanas that transport you to a different era altogether.
Then there are the domed arches, intricate carvings on sandstone and marble, all of which have taken a beating at the hands of time. Several jewels from the fa ade are believed to have been looted over centuries.
The view of Taj Mahal from the fort is hazy at best, thanks to soot from factories dotting the small town.
The sun was clearly setting on the Mughal fort. We made our way to our hotel. It was time to get back to Delhi, but not before a view of the Taj where we headed the next morning. The main structure is several kilometers away from the gate that is flanked by hawkers who sell marble home decor items and jootis on both sides. Battery-operated carts or rickshaws are what will take you to the main gate.
The line at the ticket counter snaked a considerable distance. We walked past the mahal for Fatehpuri Begum, parts of which have been converted into toilets, flanked by huge lawns on either side, with the dome of the Taj peeking at us. The first view, as we climbed across the last gate (with floral motifs and Urdu inscriptions on its walls), is imposing and breathtaking.
Pure as love can be, white as the pollution let it remain, the Taj Mahal is indeed a wonder of wonders. All around us, there seemed to be a picnic going on -- families, couples, youngsters -- frolicking about and clicking pictures. We walked past the manicured gardens and waterbodies to reach the main mausoleum.
Built as a perfect square, the structure is flanked by four towers on all sides. The Yamuna flows behind it, now no more in a condition for boat cruises. The inner sanctum is where the bodies of Shah Jahan and Mumtaz Mahal are laid to rest, their tombs carved with floral imagery. We had met our journey's end too. With the beauty of the Taj Mahal firmly entrenched in our memories, we drove back to the humdrum of the Capital.
Photographs by author