AGRA DIARIES: Short trip to the city of love

I did not expect my experience in Agra to be so wonderful, and I certainly did not expect to be transformed by the experience. But here I am, wanting to visit the city again and even begin exploring travel for leisure, something which the travel averse person is me always tries to avoid. If you are from in or around New Delhi and are looking for a weekend gateway that will give you experience beyond pictures and to a city that has history beyond words, then Agra is definitely the place for you to visit.

I have been exploring possibilities of a short trip to nearby cities with my family for the past few months so that the Taj vouchers I received from my American Express credit card spending could be utilised for a stay at any of the Taj hotels and resorts. Even though I am based out of Gurgaon, I had never been to Agra, which is less than 200 kms from the city, so we zeroed in on Agra which is also known as the city of love due to the mausoleum symbolising one of the greatest love stories of medieval India.

We decided to take the Gatimaan Express train to Agra from Hazrat Nizamuddin railway station in South Delhi. Gatimaan Express is the fastest train in India with a max speed of 160 kmph and takes around 1 hour and 40 mins from Delhi to Agra. Upon reaching the Agra railway station, we were fleeced by the auto and taxi drivers quoting high rates for a short ride to the Tajview Hotel, where we had our rooms booked. We kept saying no to them until we reached the exit of the station, when an auto driver finally succeeded in convincing us and dropped us off at the hotel. At the hotel check-in, we were well received with a cordial welcome, making us feel that we were invited to the hotel setting, instead of us merely choosing the hotel, which we really appreciated.

Taj Mahal

After having lunch at the hotel, we headed to our next destination, the Taj Mahal which is also one of the Seven Wonders of the World and is the primary attraction of the city. There is a certain enchantment about the Taj which is beyond words. The first sight of the Taj Mahal almost dazzled me with its magnificence. The immense monument, made of ivory white marble, stands tall on the bank of the river Yamuna. It was built by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan between 1631 and 1648 in the memory of his wife Mumtaz Mahal. The masterpiece is a mausoleum which houses the tomb of Mumtaz as well as that of Shah Jahan himself. The tomb is raised on a square platform with four minarets on the corners, which adds to the architectural beauty and gives the structure a three-dimensional effect.

Taj Mahal, Agra

The path which takes you to the west gate of the Taj, however, is a narrow lane with several street shops along the way. The Taj is open to visitors on all weekdays except Fridays. The place is always crowded, so it’s often difficult to find the space needed to take good pictures. Early morning hours, around 5-6 AM, are thought to be the best time to avoid crowds. Our guide Mohan also explained to us the optical illusion with the Taj, as you walk towards the royal gate, the view of the marble monument keeps expanding, but the monument itself appears to be getting further away until you are out of the royal gate. The marvel is definitely worth all the hype, and I would definitely like to visit the place again to explore it in greater depth.

Soami Bagh

After seeing the majestic Taj Mahal, I was particularly interested in visiting the Soami Bagh temple in the radhasoami tradition but wanted to take it slow, so we headed back to our hotel in the evening, where we got much needed rest after a tiring day. The next morning we hired a cab which drove us for site-seeing across Agra, and our next destination was Soami Bagh temple, which houses the sacred samadh of Shiv Dayal Singh, the founder of the radhasoami tradition. Shiv Dayal Singh, popularly known as Soami Ji, propagated the Surat Shabd Yoga form of meditation, which has become popular both in the east and west today, with several branches of the faith emerging across the world.

Soami Bagh, Agra

Upon arriving, to our surprise, we found out that the gates of the compound were closed for visitors for over two years now, and we were not allowed to enter the premises even upon requesting that we had come all the way from Delhi. During the conversation, however, when we revealed that we were followers of the Beas branch of the faith, the guards immediately gave us entry inside. The caretaker lady inside gave us a tour of the place and we were also allowed to click several pictures. The interesting thing about this memorial is that it has been under construction from 1904 and is still not complete. The construction of the samadh was first started by Brahm Shankar Mishra, in the memory of Shiv Dayal Singh.

This marvellous place is full of artistic expression, in all dimensions with intricate floral designs and verses from the book Sar Bachan carved on the marble walls. Soami Bagh, however, would need to preserve the quality and beauty of the construction against possible deterioration due to atmospheric pollutants which may cause decay. It will be interesting to see how much longer it takes for the construction to be completed and what the final piece will look like, as it already been over 118 years since construction started.

Agra Fort

Our Agra trip could not have been completed without seeing the grandeur of Agra Fort, which was the residence of Mughal emperors till 1938 and was a symbol of power and strength. So our cab driver drove us to the Agra Fort, where we left our baggage at the clock room so we could explore the vast area covering around 94 acres freely. Upon entering the fort, we saw the hall for public audiences known as Diwan-i-am. The fort also houses mosques like Nagina Masjid and Mina Masjid, and palaces like Macchi Bhavan, Khas Mahal, Shish Mahal, Shah Jahani Mahal, and the Mina Bazaar. Agra Fort was built by the Mughal emperor Akbar and is believed to have several underground interconnected tunnels. It is said that this is where Shah Jahan spent the last 8 years of his life under house arrest looking at the view of his greatest creation, the Taj Mahal, until he died.

Agra Fort

The city also has some delicious stuff to satisfy the taste buds, like Panchhi Petha which is a famous sweet of Agra, but it is difficult to find the original Panchhi store as the city is full of fake Panchhi shops. I missed out on trying the famous kachoris at Deviram sweets, which I am told are served with spicy potato curry. I also could not visit a few other important places like Itimad-ud-Daulah’s Tomb, Akbar’s Mausoleum, Fatehpur Sikri, and Mehtab Bagh due to limited time available. But I thoroughly enjoyed my time in this beautiful city of historical importance. I also enjoyed the nice hospitality shown by the staff of Hotel Tajview, which made our stay very pleasant and relished the food there. I definitely wish to visit the city again, for a longer duration preferably, so that I get enough time to explore new places while also revisiting what I already saw on this trip to spend more time exploring them further.

Hotel Tajview, Agra

Although I knew that Agra attracts tourists from all over the world due to its history and culture, I had no idea that it would be as congested and overcrowded as it was, with busy and bustling marketplaces, forts and mausoleums. The city is still worth your time and energy as it hosts some of the finest architectural achievements from the Mughal dynasty.

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