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The City of the Taj is a good option for a short getaway
New Delhi, July 23, 2017
Summer is not the best time to visit Agra, but we had no choice as far as the dates were concerned.
Our last trip was about a decade ago (and that, too, was in June!). Since then, the 165-km six-lane controlled Yamuna Expressway from Greater Noida, near Delhi, to Agra has opened, cutting the travel time considerably. That is the route we took, and it was one of the smoothest drives we have had in India, with the journey taking about three hours. We made sure the driver of our Toyota Innova stayed well within the speed limits and stuck to his lane, and that made the trip enjoyable, without the tension associated with travel on wide highways.
This is the expressway on which an Indian Air Force (IAF) Mirage-2000 successfully landed near Mathura on May 21, 2015 as part of the IAF's plans to use national highways for emergency landings by fighter aircraft. That will give you some idea of the quality of the highway and you cannot help feeling a sense of pride as you race ahead.
From Delhi, we drove through Noida and then Greater Noida and before long we were on the Yamuna Expressway. We left around 1 pm on a Sunday afternoon, after brunch, but the efficient air-conditioning in the car meant that we did not suffer on account of the heat outside. Our aim was to reach Agra long before sundown, and that we did, with more than a couple of hours to spare.
Once you leave Greater Noida, there is not much to see on the way to Agra. The expressway does not pass through any towns and there is hardly any inhabitation for long stretches, unlike the National Highway (NH)-2, which is the older and longer route and passes through towns such as Faridabad, Ballabhgarh and Mathura.
It may not be a very wise decision to drive in the night on this route, given the stories you read in the newspapers about crimes on the highway. Ideally, you should leave early in the morning and try and reach Agra by noon. Winter is the best time to visit Agra, but you have to be very careful because of the thick fog that is likely in these parts and the consequent traffic risks.
There are three toll plazas along the expressway at Jewar (38 km), Mathura (94 km) and Agra (150 km). Jewar, by the way, is the place where a new international airport has been planned, one which will bring Agra even closer to tourists from other parts of India and abroad. All three have good food courts and other facilities, including reasonably clean toilets. We are the sort who like to stop for short breaks on road journeys and we did this at Jewar on the way out and just outside Agra and Mathura on the way back. There is a wide choice of food and drinks, especially at Mathura and Jewar, and there were lots of families enjoying themselves in these food courts.
There are any number of options at Agra as far as hotels are concerned -- from luxury properties to modest ones. On our previous trip, we had got a good deal from the Taj. This time, we booked ourselves rooms at Sterling Holidays' Agra Regal Vista for our stay. It is small hotel but quite exceeded our expectations. The check-in was a smooth process, the rooms were comfortable, all the fixtures worked, and room service and housekeeping were effficient. We took the breakfast-dinner package and enjoyed the food at each of the meals. The spread was limited, but the quality was good and consistent. What we appreciated even more was the restaurant's and the hotel's willingness and ability to respond to our requests. A good place to stay for those travelling on a budget and well located on Fatehabad road in the city.
What many people try and do is to make a day-trip to Agra and squeeze everything into a few hours. But we think it is much better to stay in the city for a couple of days and enjoy at leisure what the Taj and other monuments have to offer.
Based on our experience from the previous time, we asked the hotel to arrange for guides for us, and they found us two -- one for Fatehpur Sikri and the other for Agra on the following day. These guides were slightly more expensive but much better than the ones we would otherwise have ended up picking at the monuments.
After a quiet evening and a relaxed dinner, we set out early next morning for Fatehpur Sikri, a fascinating city built by Mughal Emperor Akbar in the 16th century about 36 km from Agra. Legend has it that Akbar, then 26, did not have an heir and went to a saint, Shaikh Salim Chishti, who lived at Sikri. He blessed Akbar, who had three sons after that. As a gesture, he built a whole new city in Sikri and named it Fatehpur Sikri, the City of Victory. It is a superb example of the splendour of Mughal architecture and has featured in many Bollywood movies. It was meant to be a joint capital with Agra, but was soon deserted because it did not have a proper water supply system.
Fatehpur Sikri is a fine example of a combination of Hindu and Muslim architecture and attracts thousands of tourists from around the world today. There is a fair bit of walking to do to see all the structures, but they are worth every bit of the effort you make. In particular, the Diwan-I-Khas, the Panch Mahal, a five-storeyed building which offers a panoramic view of the surrounding areas, the tomb of Salim Chishti, Buland Darwaza, the 54-metre high gateway built in 1575 and the Diwan-I-Aam and the Jama Masjid are some of the major attractions. Listed as a World Heritage structure by UNESCO, Fatehpur Sikri is clearly one of the places people must visit at least once in their lives.
We were back in Agra by noon and, after a quick lunch, went to the Taj Mahal. Again, there is a lot of walking involved, and it would be a good idea to equip yourselves with a bottle or two of drinking water.
Even if you have been to the monument before and have seen hundreds of pictures, nothing quite prepares you for the majestic beauty of the structure when you first set eyes on it from the gateway. You will be overcome by a variety of emotions as you enter the complex and slowly walk towards the mausoleum.
Before that, we hired the services of a photographer, who took pictures of us outside the entrance and then at various points inside the complex. At the end, when you come out, you get an album of pictures.
As is well-known, the monument, often described as poetry in marble and one of the wonders of the modern world, was constructed by Mughal emperor Shah Jahan in memory of his wife, Mumtaz Mahal, who died in 1630 A.D. Its construction began in 1632 and was completed in 1648. More than 20,000 workers were said to have been employed to build the mausoleum. It stands on a raised, square platform (186 feet x 186 feet) and is a part of a vast complex that includes a large garden, a mosque and several other grand buildings.
As things turned out, Shah Jahan was imprisoned by his son Aurangzeb in the Agra Fort for nine years, which he spent just gazing at the Taj Mahal across the Yamuna.
Agra Fort, which we visited next morning, is also a UNESCO World Heritage site, about 2.5 km northwest of the Taj Mahal. It was built by Akbar in red sandstone and served as his residence and military strategic headquarters. The vast complex has splendid palaces in red sandstone and marble, built by Akbar and later Jehangir and Shah Jahan. Among the buildings that have survived are such exquisite structures as the Sheesh Mahal (Glass Palace), the royal dressing room adorned by mirror-like glass-mosaic decorations on the walls; the Diwan-I-Aam, where ordinary people could communicate with the rulers and which once housed the Peacock Throne; and the Diwan-i-Khas, a private hall where the emperor met kings and other dignitaries.
There also the Anguri Bagh, Khas Mahal, a white marble palace, various mosques, and Musamman Burj, an octagonal tower with a balcony facing the Taj Mahal.
Other places of interest in Agra include Sikandra, the mausoleum of Akbar; Itmad-ud-daula, the tomb of Mir Ghiyas Beg, a minister in the court of Shah Jahan and the first tomb in India that was entirely made of marble; and the Red Taj Mahal, the tomb of Dutch soldier John William Hessing built by his wife Ann Hessing in his memory after his death in 1803.
Tourism is a major contributor to Agra's economy but the city has a lot of manufacturing units, too. Among other things, it is known for its leather industry.
An important fact we noticed was that the city appeared to be a much cleaner place as compared to what it was on our earlier visit. Also, there are now any number of good restaurants. We tried one of them, Pind Baluchi, and enjoyed the experience.
All in all, thanks to the expressway, Agra is a good destination for a weekend getaway from Delhi.
Photographs: Kevin Verghese Sam