Agra (India)

April 2010

I just concluded a different kind of weekend trip – I went to Agra with my parents and two more families, both the uncles being schoolfellows of my father. I’ve not gone for such big fat family trips since my childhood, but the old fellas wanted to catch up and I wanted to see Agra. I had seen the Taj Mahal once before on a school trip when I was 10; I had a hazy memory and no pictures of the same.

We booked a 10-seater Tempo Traveler (a sort of mini-bus; Google for pictures) for the road trip and rolled off on Saturday morning. We started at my parents’ place in Delhi and went via Gurgaon, picking up the two uncles & co. The logical route from Gurgaon to Agra is via Palwal in Haryana, which we decided to take. The road condition turned out to be poor and the traffic was bad, making the journey long and tiring. A better way would have been to go back to Delhi from Gurgaon and take the conventional highway route to Agra, even if it meant doing 50-odd extra kilometers.

We stopped for lunch en-route at Mathura (The Status restaurant at the Brijwasi Hotel located near the State Bank office – fabulous food, peaceful decor) and reached our hotel in Agra (Royal Residency, located on the Fatehabad Road opposite the TDI shopping mall) after noon. The heat was overpowering and we decided to rest for a while before heading to the Taj Mahal. We didn’t realize when it struck half-past-five and we were left with just half-an-hour to dress up and get the entry tickets for the Taj. (Entry tickets are sold till 6 pm and visiting hours for the Taj Mahal are till 7 pm). We reached the ticket counter seconds before its closing time and managed to see the spectacle of the Taj at sunset.

Outside, the Taj looked majestic at twilight, while the inside hall of the Taj was dark, and the zillion sweaty, loud-mouthed tourists were frantically taking pictures with their camera flashes, blatantly ignoring the signboards forbidding photography inside the hall. I was appalled to see what one of the greatest monuments of our country has come to. I did not venture inside. We had some food at McDonalds at the TDI Mall opposite our hotel before calling it a day. I dozed off early while the old timers kept chatting late into the night.

The next day was more like my kind of tourism. The group wanted to end their Agra sojourn right there and head to Fatehpur Sikri (50 km from Agra – famous for the gigantic arched doorway ‘Buland Darwaza’). They also wanted to visit the Lord Krishna temples in Mathura and Vrindavan on their way back to Delhi. I had no immediate interest in these places; besides, my Lonely Planet India guidebook told me that I had a lot left to see in Agra, so I split from the group there. As I headed out alone I had the familiar energy and spring in the step of a lone traveler. An auto-rickshaw driver proposed to take me around to the places of my interest scattered across the crowded city for Rs. 250. I took the deal.

I visited Mahtab Bagh (a Mughal-style garden that presents a great view of the back side on the Taj Mahal from across the Yamuna river), Itmad-ud-Daula’s Tomb (build on the same concept and as symmetrically as the Taj Mahal but one generation earlier), and the Agra Fort (the grand fort of the Mughals).

Just when I was beginning to trust my auto-rickshaw driver who patiently waited outside these places as I took my time clicking hundreds of pictures, he took me to a couple of shops which give commissions to these drivers for bringing tourists. I sensed it and did not buy anything from there, and the driver refused to take me to the shops I’d heard about as being special to Agra (for instance the Panchhi Petha shop which is famous of its sweets), citing no knowledge of those shops.

Incidentally, one of my good friends from college was hosting his brother’s engagement party in Agra the same day, so I briefly dropped by to say hello before boarding my 4 pm bus to Delhi. The state tourism’s air conditioned buses leave the Idgah bus station in Agra for Delhi every hour and they do not issue tickets in advance. These are not Volvo-style coaches; there are only two per day of the latter (called the ‘Swarn Shatabdi’ service) – one leaves in the morning and the other at 3 pm.

I reached Delhi at 9:30 pm and was back at my place in Gurgaon in another hour.

Key expenses:
Tempo Traveler: Rs. 8500 for the trip (approx. 600 km)
Hotel in Agra (Royal Residency): Rs. 1500 per room per night
Entry tickets for the monuments: In the range of Rs. 5 to 30
Sightseeing by autorickshaw: Rs. 250
Bus from Agra to Delhi: Rs. 220