Saturday, January 31, 2015

Taj Mahal, Agra, India (A day trip from Delhi)

I always regretted not having visited Taj Mahal while I lived in India for 21 years. And every time we went home, we never had time to add that to our already jam packed itinerary of lunches and dinners and social meetups. So, this time when we planned an impromptu week long trip to surprise our family, we figured it was a perfect opportunity to add a day trip to Agra on the pretext of our wedding anniversary! :)

Getting Here:

We wanted to take a day trip from Delhi. Hence we stumbled upon two options:
  • Drive (Yamuna Expwy): This is what we did. This newly built expressway is freaking awesome by Indian standards. And it is a smooth ride indeed. I would highly recommend this as there is no traffic, lanes are wide and it is every penny worth the toll. Plus, it is super quick. Since we were 6 adults, we hired a 7-seater cab and a driver and left around 8 in the morning. It took us around 3 hours one way.
  • Bhopal Shatabdi: This would be the next best option from what I discovered. Take the morning shatabdi to get here and take the evening shatabdi to get back to Delhi if your agenda includes visiting Taj Mahal only.

Visiting Taj:

Main entrance to the Taj
There are three entrances to the structure, East(reserved for VIPs), South (for locals and not very popular) and West(the one where most of the tourists enter from). There are assigned car parking areas close to these entrances. Once you park you car, you have to either ride a tonga, bus or small electric car to get to the entrance. None of the private vehicles are allowed closer to the monument.
We chose a small electric car(Golf car) to get to the entrance.
Being touristy
While you are parking, you'll see a lot of guides and it would be best to hire one. You can also listen to audio guides, which I think are great if you have time and would like to be sure about the authenticity of all the information. However, I absolutely enjoy the local guides who weave stories and help you take pictures! So, we hired a guide and he of course helped us to get tickets from the ticket counter. 
Being touristy - part deux
After we got our tickets, we had to go through a security check and then ended up at the main entrance. Needless to say, it is simply beautiful. And it is amazing how everything is so symmetric and well calculated by the architect. Once you step through the main entrance, you'll be simply mesmerized by the first view of the marble beauty. It was super crowded, most likely because it was a Saturday. But we managed to get some nice touristy pictures and then headed straight to the main tomb itself. The structure is huge, but it is just a tomb, so there wasn't much to see inside the main structure itself. We just walked around and were taken in by the beauty of all the intricate beautifully carved patterns. Verses from Quran and intertwined vines are carved with great detail.
There is a lot of detail about the architect, number of gardens, fountains, etc etc which I have happily forgotten. It took us about 2 hours to thoroughly walk through this place and then we had to take an electric car back to the parking lot.

Visiting Fatehpur Sikri:

Buland Darwaza - Fatehpur Sikri
After we stepped out, we thought we might as well visit either Agra Fort or Fatehpur Sikri. And Murphy would have laughed at us when we picked Fatehpur Sikri. We drove for about an hour and half to get here given the roads were narrow and there was so much traffic. Once here, it took us all about 30 minutes to see this place. But you have to park in designated areas and then take a bus to get to the visitor entrance. It is a courtyard with a famous dargah and the huge Buland Darwaza. Made entirely of red stone, it is beautiful but not worth the visit especially if you are short on time. Picking Agra Fort would've been a better choice as it was close to Taj Mahal and offered more to see, well after all it is a fort. 

Driving back:

This turned out to be a nightmare. First we decided to take a short cut, but there was an accident on the route and we had to come all the way back to Sikri and then go to Agra to get on the Yamuna Expressway. Plus the evening traffic made our lives miserable. But Google Maps were totally reliable! As always, they came to our rescue. Once we got on the Expressway after a lot of ordeal, we were all set to get back to Noida for our anniversary dinner with our extended family. We got late for sure, but didn't miss the fun :)

Useful Info:

  • Here is the official site. And here is the Wikipedia article.
  • Visiting during full moon at night offers great views of the Taj Mahal. Some stones shine bright and look like reflecting mirrors and the milky white Taj looks even more mesmerizing. 
  • Plan ahead if you want to visit Agra Fort or Fatehpur Sikri