Asia, India, Travel

Traveling Through India – Agra

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All over India, the natives make the joke, “90% of the crazy people are sent to Agra”, or “Agra has the biggest insane asylum”.  If they are referring to the traffic, it’s spot-on.  Otherwise, Agra held two of the most beautiful sites in the world, along with some of the most prestigious hotels in the world.

Driving to Agra

On our way to Agra, we drove through Udaipur, which is nothing but farm land and more modern neighborhoods.  However, as we got closer to Agra, the road became quite bumpy and we noticed that block by block, the living conditions were different.  Some blocks were exquisite mansions and others were nothing but tents, rubble, and piles of trash.  We saw makeshift huts, cows, and stray dogs everywhere; more people than I had seen in any other part of India; and some of the worst begging (given that it’s a high-traffic tourist area, it makes sense).

However, people truly only come here for one thing and that one thing can trump any bad experience you might have had otherwise.

Sights to See

Taj Mahal (1500rs per foreign visitor)

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The Taj Mahal (pronounced Taj-mahell by the natives) was built, based on an enormous love story between Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan and Mumtaz Mahal (as she was come to be known). Upon her death during childbirth, she requested that the Emperor never stop loving her.  Thus, he built the Taj Mahal as an everlasting reminder of her and his love for her.  Shortly after its completion, he was arrested by his son (the successor to the throne) to spend the rest of his days in jail.

To get to the Taj Mahal, you will driven to the visitor’s center, where you will need to take a battery car ride (suggested mode of transportation by me) to the path that goes to the gate.

Note that security is VERY HEAVY there.  No outside food and drinks are allowed. You will be searched in separate lines (per gender) and a guard will look through your bags, pulling out anything offensive.

Once you are through, you walk a short path to the gate.  The minute you see the gate, you will see how perfectly framed the sight of the Taj Mahal is.  This was done on purpose.  The Emperor believed that the first sight of the building should be a delicate view, much like how a man would pull back the veil of his bride to reveal her delicate features.

Once inside, it is absolutely MAGICAL.  As cheesy as it sounds, you can feel the love and the peacefulness.  Time sort of stands still.  Take your time, walking the grounds and take lots of pictures and video!  For some, seeing this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that you don’t want to ever forget.

When you get close to entering the Taj Mahal, make sure to remove your shoes or snag some covers.  If you choose to take them off, you may carry them in with you.  Also, there are no pictures, once inside so be sure to take as many pictures as you can of the facade.  Why?  In the video, you will notice some of the floral details.  Semi-precious and precious stones were used in the ENTIRE building.  It’s one of the most expensive memorials/buildings ever built.  My joke to my other half was, “Most women get jewelry, and others get palaces” 😉

Agra Fort
The Agra Fort was also built by Emperor Shah Jahan and ironically, is where he was banished to for the rest of his life, by his son, the successor to the throne.  It’s another architectural wonder with sweeping views of Agra and the Taj Mahal.  A few times, it was under attack and once, also hosted British military.  It’s another must-see in Agra!

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Evening Tour of Mohabbat the Taj Show  (1800rs per foreign visitor for platinum-level seats)

Next to seeing the Taj Mahal, the Mohabbat the Taj Show was absolutely incredible. Performed in the beautiful theater of the the Kalakriti Cultural and Convention Center, the show was all about the love story between Shah Jahan and Mumaz Mahal, and the temple he built for her.  When you’re in love, or have ever experienced intense love, it can be quite emotional!

To accommodate visitors from all over the world, you are given headphones that an assistant will set to your specific language.  They also have servers who will take drink and food orders.

NOTE: I recommend getting Platinum level tickets – we were three rows back from the stage!

Where to Shop

Marble

Our tour guide took us to Oswal Arts to watch the marble design process.  The manager there showed us the manual-intensive process of etching the design, placing the semi-precious stones in the marble, and lacquering the final product.  It’s truly remarkable how this is done and gives you a great glimpse into how this was done for the Taj Mahal.

NOTE: They will tell you price is determined by the intricacy of design.  They do not haggle well at all, so prices will not come down much.  I’m very happy with the purchases I made though!

Jewelry

We were also take to Abhushan Jewellers for a lesson on different stones and what powers they hold (in Hindu religions, each stone has a different power, such as calmness, wealth, love, etc.).  It’s a family-owned business and one of the most respected in Agra.  When you walk through the gallery to the back part of the store, you will notice all of the art and antiques.  It’s like walking through a treasure chest.  If you know enough about India, you know that they hold 30% of the world’s gold (they do not make jewelry under an 18k yellow gold weight) and an even larger percentage of precious stones.  Thus, it makes jewelry much cheaper to purchase.  I selected a small Emerald with two diamonds, set in 18K yellow gold.  They are willing to haggle, which brought my price down significantly.  They even resized it within 30 minutes of purchase.

The added bonus to my experience there was the family taking my other half and I, into the music room, where they played ancient Indian instruments and sung old Indian songs.  It was a lot of fun!

Where to Stay/Dine

Our tour package included two nights at the Hotel Crystal Sarovar Premiere.  It’s a newer hotel, which looks amazing, but I found the staff and the food (we ate every meal there) to not be as great as Jaipur‘s.  In fact, the staff was quite rude to me most of the time, even telling me there wasn’t a single ATM in Agra to use (note there are ATMs EVERYWHERE).

The highlights to our stay there were 1) Our room (room 430) had a view of the Taj Mahal.  2) The rooftop pool, bar, and restaurant were exquisite.  We spent much of our free time up there.

Tour Guide Company Information

We had our tour guide for four nights and five days.  We paid a total of 56,600rs for hotels (including breakfast), English speaking driver/guide, taxes, tip, and driver accommodations.

The company that handled the planning was Tours Mangalam.  We worked with Malika Kapoor – the owner of the company.

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