Agra and Delhi are probably the two most touristic places in all India, but for good reason. The architectural treasures that abound in these cities attract travellers from all over the world; indeed they are rites of passage when it comes to India. Stay long enough in Delhi to appreciate the vibrancy and grit of Pahar Ganj and the bustling chaos of Old Delhi.
There is only one thing that comes to mind when the word Agra is mentioned; that’s right, India’s most famous monument, the Taj Mahal. So let’s look at that first.
The Taj Mahal
The Taj Mahal is one of three UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Agra, the others being Agra Fort and the ruined city of Fatehpur Sikri. It is widely considered the most beautiful building in the world and understandably so. It may be India’s biggest tourist attraction but it is simply one of those things that should not be missed. It is, quite simply, a stunning feat of architecture that must be seen to be believed.
The Taj was built by Shah Jahan as a memorial for his third wife, Mumtaz Mahal, who died giving birth in 1631. Construction of the Taj began the following year but it was not completed until 1653. Soon after, Shah Jahan was overthrown by his son, Aurangzeb, and imprisoned in Agra Fort where, for the rest of his life, he could only gaze out at his creation through a window. When he died in 1666, Shah Jahan was buried here alongside Mumtaz.
The best time to visit the Taj is at sunrise, which is when we decided to go. It’s the most atmospheric time of day, as well as the coolest and least crowded. In the early morning light the monument looks stunning and the vibe in the grounds is just magical.
Agra has a long and rich history and boasts plenty more architectural wonders other than the Taj Mahal. For 130 years Agra was the centre of India’s great Mughal empire; this legacy lives on in the city’s amazing cuisine, beautiful artwork and stunning architecture.
One of the finest Mughal forts in India, no visit to Agra is complete without a visit to Agra Fort. This huge red-sandstone fort was begun in 1565 by Emperor Akbar and is situated on the banks of the Yamuna River. Inside is a maze of buildings, a city within a city, though many of the structures have been destroyed over the years.
Today much of the fort is used by the Indian army, so is off-limits to the public. We spent almost two hours walking around and exploring Agra Fort; there is lots to see and the architectural detail is stunning. Despite the number of tourists, nothing detracts from the experience; Agra Fort is a worthwhile and extremely photogenic icon to explore.
Other Sights in Agra
Ollie and I stayed a few days in Agra to really see the city and all of it’s amazing sights. Though the other sights aren’t quite so well-known and are less visited than the Taj Mahal and Agra Fort, they are every bit worth visiting. In many ways they are more enjoyable than the city’s famous duo, much less stressful because they aren’t so busy or packed out with people.
In Agra we also explored Itimad-ud-Daulah, nicknamed the Baby Taj, Chini-ka-Rauza, the Persian-style riverside tomb of Afzal Khan, Mehtab Bagh and Jama Masjid. Mehtab Bagh is a Mughal garden set on the eastern bank of the Yamuna River and is a fantastic place from which to view the Taj Mahal.
Jama Masjid is situated in the chaotic Kinari Bazaar, a spider’s web of twisting and turning alleyways and narrow streets buzzing with humanity and selling every kind of ware imaginable. The mosque was built by Shah Jahan’s daughter in 1648 and was once connected to Agra Fort.
One final sight in the vicinity of Agra is the ruined city of Fatehpur Sikri, which makes a superb day trip from the city. This UNESCO World Heritage Sight is absolutely stunning, both in scale and in architectural beauty. Fatehpur Sikri is located 40km west of Agra and was the short lived capital of the Mughal empire from 1571 to 1585, during the reign of Emperor Akbar.
There are two parts to this ancient city – the Jama Masjid and the palaces and pavilions. Jama Masjid is a beautiful, fully functioning mosque that contains elements of Persian and Indian design. The main entrance, through the spectacular 54m high Buland Darwaza (Victory Gate), is an incredible sight to behold.
The complex of palaces and pavilions is the main sight in Fatehpur Sikri; it is spread among a large abandoned city, dotted with courtyards, servants quarters, gateways and ornamental pools. Allow yourself a whole day to explore at leisure; places like Fatehpur Sikri should not be rushed.
Staying in Agra
Despite being a very large, busy, chaotic Indian city, Ollie and I found Agra to be a great place to explore, full of gems and architectural wonders. It helps staying at a decent place though; Agra is one of those cities where where you stay matters. If you pick the wrong area it will impact your whole outlook of the city.
We stayed quite a distance from the Tag Mahal, within walking distance of the fort. Our guesthouse, Tourists Rest House, was quiet and peaceful, set around a courtyard garden, where we enjoyed eating breakfast and dinner each day. We chose to stay away from the hassles and hubbub of the tourist ghetto, Taj Ganj, and were glad we did.
From Agra Ollie and I journeyed to Pushkar and then onto India’s frenetic capital, Delhi. If you have limited time, or are unsure about exploring Delhi independently, a good idea is to hire a taxi or rickshaw for the day, which allows you to tick off many of the main sights and saves you the hassle of navigation. I will not write about every sight the city has to offer (we would be here forever) so I will just mention some of the main ones.
Delhi takes some getting used to; it is a huge, chaotic, sprawling metropolis that overwhelms every sense all at once. The colour, the noise, the traffic and the sheer number of people are a lot to take in. There are many scams and con artists out there too, not just the minor hassles of other cities, so it pays to do your research well and come prepared when dealing with Delhi.
It can be a great city to discover though; the medieval forts, Mughal mausoleums and dusty bazaars are unique and help to make Delhi a city quite unlike any other.
This massive sandstone Mughal fort is the most famous sight in Old Delhi and is a fabulous structure to behold. Converted into a barracks by the British, Red Fort is protected by a huge 18m high wall. However, the fort is most atmospheric on the outside; inside the buildings and monuments are rather sparse. We felt that this sight is very much overshadowed by Agra Fort.
Jama Masjid is India’s largest mosque and can hold 25,000 people; it is built on a 10-metre elevation. Also known as the ‘Friday Mosque’, Jama Masjid was built between 1644 and 1658; it was Shah Jahan’s final architectural triumph. There are two 40-metre-high minarets, one of which can be climbed, and four watchtowers that were once used for security.
Although entrance to the mosque is free, you’ll be asked to pay a Rs 300 camera fee if you’re carrying any sort of camera (including a mobile phone), even if you don’t intend to take photos. A separate Rs 100 ticket allows you to climb the 121 steps up the southern minaret; views from here show how architect Edwin Lutyens incorporated Jama Masjid into his design of New Delhi; it lies in a direct line with Connaught Place and Sansad Bhavan.
South of Red Fort on the banks of the Yamuna River, Raj Ghat is a simple black-marble platform that marks the spot where Mahatma Gandhi was cremated. The marble plinth is inscribed with his final words, ‘Hai Ram’, which mean ‘Oh, God.’ Across the road is the Gandhi Darshan, a pavilion displaying photos relating to this great man.
Lakshmi Narayan Temple
Lakshmi Narayan Temple was constructed in the Orissan-style; Gandhi inaugurated the complex in 1938 as a temple for all castes; a sign on the gate says ‘everyone is welcome.’ This Hindu temple is definitely worth visiting; it’s walking distance from Pahar Ganj and is strikingly different from other Hindu temples.
Surrounded by well-kept gardens, Humayun’s Tomb brings together Persian and Mughal elements, creating a template that strongly influenced the Taj Mahal. It was built by the wife of the Mughal emperor Humayun. The surrounding gardens contain the smaller mausoleums of the emperor’s favourite barber and his wife, Haji Begum. Also in the complex is the Tomb of Isa Khan.
This peaceful park in New Delhi is a great escape from the chaos of the bustling city. The gardens are dotted with the crumbling tombs of Sayyid and Lodi rulers, including the impressive Bara Gumbad tomb and mosque and the strikingly different tombs of Mohammed Shah and Sikander Lodi. Ollie and I could quite happily have wiled away a good few hours in this lovely park; in fact it looked as though many locals were doing just that.
The centre of New Delhi is Rajpath, a grand parade that links India Gate to the offices of the government. Buildings such as the North and South Secretariats, housing government ministries, and the Sansad Bhavan, where the Indian parliament meets, can all be seen.
India Gate is at Rajpath’s eastern end; this huge stone memorial arch pays tribute to around 90,000 Indian army soldiers who died in WW1, the Northwest Frontier operations and the 1919 Anglo-Afghan War.
Gurdwara Bangla Sahib
This beautiful white gurdwara, topped with golden domes, is especially stunning at sunset when the setting sun is reflected in the waters of the tank. The gurdwara is beautiful, both inside and out. Devotional songs sound out over the complex, adding to the calm majesty of the place.
Bahai House of Worship (Lotus Temple)
The Lotus Temple is one of Delhi’s most imaginative works; it was designed by Canadian-Iranian architect Fariburz Sahba in 1986. The temple is styled after a lotus flower with 27 white-marble petals; it was created to bring faiths together. Visitors are invited to pray or to meditate silently according to their own beliefs. Delhi’s flamboyant Iskon Temple, run by the Hare Krishna movement, is nearby.
Qutb Minar Complex
This complex of ruined monuments and tombs was built to celebrate, in stone, the triumph of Muslim rule. There is plenty to see here so plan on staying a while. Of special note is the Qutb Minar itself, the soaring Afghan-style victory tower and minaret, and at its base, Quwwat-ul-Islam Masjid, the first mosque to be built in India and intended to be a physical symbol of the triumph of Islam.
Delhi is a huge city with many different areas where travellers can choose to stay. Ollie and I always stay in Pahar Ganj, the gritty, hectic, bustling bazaar very close to New Delhi station. Pahar Ganj is home to Delhi’s budget hotels, some dirt cheap and pretty filthy, others a lot better.
Whenever we overnight in Delhi we always stay at Smyle Inn; the rooms are clean and comfortable, breakfast is included and the prices are very reasonable. It is also right in the heart of the action, in a small lane off the Main Bazaar.
Don’t trust anyone you meet on the street in Pahar Ganj; get information from reputable sources, such as Smyle, and trust your instincts. Have an idea where you’re going before you set out; confusedly searching a map will make you a prime target for hassle and dodgy characters.
However crazy Pahar Ganj definitely is, it is also a melting pot of colours, flavours, sounds and experiences. The bazaar is filled with everything you could hope to find in India, cuisine from a host of different countries and a huge variety of street snacks.
Delhi is a foodie’s paradise with flavours from all over the globe. Just opposite Smyle is a quaint little Nepali restaurant, run by friendly Nepali people serving authentic Nepali food. If that wasn’t enough, the walls are covered in photos of Nepal, from the Himalayan peaks to the monuments of Kathmandu. As much as we sometimes hate Delhi, we love it at the same time!
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