Based on my personal visit in January 2017 …. Rajesh Deshpande © 2017
Destination Type – Architecture. Trip Type – Leisure.
Agra is synonymous to the Taj Mahal, one of the seven wonders of the world. Situated in the state of Uttar Pradesh, India, Agra along with Delhi and Jaipur is one of the constituent cities of the golden triangle of tourism.
Agra was planned and built in CE 1501 by Sikandar Lodi, the sultan of Delhi. Babur defeated Sikandar’s son Ibrahim Lodi in CE 1526 in the first Battle of Panipat and invaded Agra. He established the Mughal empire and continued to live in Agra transforming it in to a city of gardens. Agra rose to prominence during the reign of emperor Akbar who built the Agra fort and made it the capital of one of the mightiest and richest kingdoms in India. It was in the 17th century during the reign of Shahjahan, grandson of Akbar, that Agra reached to the pinnacle of glory as the city of immortal architecture. Agra’s monuments of exceptional splendor built during the reign of Shahjahan stand testimony to his eye for detail and perfection.
Even though Agra is popular world over for the Taj Mahal, very little is known about the other majestic monuments in and around Agra. The red fort also known as the Agra fort is a relic in red sandstone on the right bank of the Yamuna river. About 19 Kms from the Taj Mahal is Sikandara, a complex of resplendent monuments with the tomb of Akbar at its center. Opposite Sikandara at about a kilometer is the tomb of Akbar’s wife Mariam-uz-Zamani (meaning Mary of the Age), which was the titular name of Jodha bai. The tomb of Etmad-ud-Daulah (meaning Pillar of the State), a titular name of Mirza Ghias Beg, the grand vazir of Jahangir and father of Noor Jahan (literally light of the world), is on the left bank of the Yamuna. Mehtab Bagh, a sprawling 25-acre garden is bang opposite to the Taj Mahal across the Yamuna. Of the more recent but stunning architectural marvels are the Guru ka Tal, a magnificent gurdwara and Dayal Bagh, the temple of Radha swami. About 35 Kms from Agra is the ruined walled city of Fatehpur Sikri which was built by emperor Akbar who lived there for a short 15 years. The city was abandoned due to scarcity of water.
Tourists often choose to skip a visit to the other monuments of splendor due to the tight itineraries chalked out by their travel agents. Most tour companies, Indian as well as foreign prefer Agra to be a day trip from Delhi leaving no room for tourists to visit anything more than the Taj Mahal and Agra Fort. It’s a shame. Agra is also known for its signature sweet called the Petha (a sweet made of sugar and ash gourd) and Bedai (a kachori eaten with spicy potato curry) Jalebi, a popular breakfast in the city. Agra is an important cantonment of the Indian Army, it’s also home to the transport fleet of the Indian Airforce. Agra boasts of many markets like the Sadar bazaar, Belanganj, Meena bazaar, Kinari bazaar and Raja ki Mandi.
At least two full days must be reserved to see Agra in totality and half a day for Fatehpur Sikri.
How to reach?
By Rail – Agra has three prominent railway stations, the Agra Cantonment, Agra Fort and the Idgah stations. Agra Cantonment and Agra Fort stations are more busy stations. Numerous trains from Delhi, Jaipur, Mumbai, Allahabad, Kanpur and cities in the south and east ply through Agra. Shatabdi, Duronto, Garib Rath, Intercity, Superfast, Express and Passenger trains either halt at Agra or start from Agra. The Taj Mahal and the adjoining Taj Ganj area is about 6 Kms from Agra cantonment station and about 3 Kms from the Agra Fort station. Taxis, auto rickshaws and cycle rickshaws are available for local transportation. Visit indiarailinfo.com, irctc.co.in and erail.in for train details and schedules.
By road – Agra is well connected to major Indian cities by road. The Yamuna expressway connects Agra to Delhi, a distance of about 230 Kms which can be covered in 3 hours. The national highway NH8 connects Agra to Jaipur which is about 242 Kms away via Bharatpur, it takes about 4.5 hrs. to reach Jaipur from Agra. The national highway NH19 connects Agra to Kanpur, Allahabad, Varanasi and further to Kolkata. National highway NH44 connects Agra to cities like Srinagar and Ambala to the north and to cities like Gwalior and Jhansi to the south. UP state transport buses, Rajasthan state transport buses and private buses ply between the cities. The prominent bus stations being at the Agra Fort and Idgah.
By Air – Agra doesn’t have a full-service airport, the Indian Air Force base at Agra allows few domestic flights to be operated in a week from Delhi and Jaipur. The nearest airports from Agra are at Delhi and Jaipur, both international airports about 240 Kms away whereas the one at Lucknow is a domestic airport about 334 Kms away.
Where to stay?
Being India’s most prominent tourism center and a constituent of the golden triangle, Agra has a wide range of hotels ranging from 5-star to budget hotels. The swanky Oberoi Amar Vilas, Courtyard, Trident, Four Points and Radisson Blu are 5-Star properties in Agra, most of them lined up on Fatehabad road. The Fern Hotel – Howard Plaza, a 4-star property is strategically located near the Taj West Gate. There are plenty of 3-Star and budget hotels to choose from while at Agra. The prices are about Rs. 7,000/- per night or more for five star properties, Rs. 5,000/- per night or more for four star, Rs. 3,000/- or more for three star and less than Rs. 2,000/- per night for budget hotels. Refer tripadvisor.in and booking.com for choosing a hotel.
Despite all the positives, Agra is infamous as the city of touts. Right from the railway station up to the monuments, touts are found everywhere in the form of rickshaw drivers, guides, shopkeepers and agents who relentlessly follow tourists and cheat them by selling counterfeit items at exorbitant prices. Agra is also extremely dirty (except for the Army cantonment area and the monument precincts) and polluted. Tourists get a sense of lawlessness within couple of hours of being in the city. Agra is certainly not a place for women to venture alone on the streets after dark.
It is a good idea to hire a tourist cab for sightseeing in and around Agra. There are many travel companies in Agra for hiring private cabs. They have fixed half day and full day sightseeing itineraries. Typically, a non-A/C Indica car for 4 people costs about Rs. 1,500/- for a full day sightseeing including tolls and parking fees but excluding entry fees and guide fees. This includes all the important monuments like the Taj Mahal, Agra Fort, Fatehpur Sikri, Sikandra and Dayal Bagh. The price can be negotiated to include tomb of Etmad-ud-Daulah and Mehtab Bagh on the opposite bank of the Yamuna.
A reliable name for hiring a private cab is Auto Travels, opposite to the Hanuman temple in Namner, a suburb of Agra. The owner Manish Kumar Verma ensures good condition and timeliness of vehicles driven by experienced drivers. More details at www.autotravelsagra.com
What to see?
The magnificent monuments of Agra reflect the grandeur of the Mughal era. The Taj Mahal, one of the seven wonders of the world and a UNESCO world heritage site is the chief attraction and a reason to visit Agra. Equally imposing are other monuments enumerated above. Before venturing out, it is a good idea to hire a private cab or auto rickshaw to explore Agra as the monuments are quite far off from each other.
Renowned poet Rabindranath Tagore has described the Taj Mahal as “The teardrop on the cheek of eternity”. True indeed, the Taj Mahal is a dream in marble, it’s an exquisite piece of lyrical beauty unparalleled by any other monument in the world. Emperor Shahjahan built the Taj Mahal in memory of his wife Arjumand Bano Begum popularly known as Mumtaz Mahal (literally Elect of the Palace). Mumtaz Mahal was the niece of empress Noor Jahan and granddaughter of Mirza Ghias Beg (titular name Etmad-ud-Daulah), vazir of emperor Jahangir. She died in CE 1631 at Burhanpur (now in Madhya Pradesh), during the birth of her fourteenth child. Her mortal remains were temporarily buried in the Zainabad garden. Six months later, her corpse was transferred to Agra to be finally enshrined in the crypt. Taj Mahal is the mausoleum of both Mumtaz Mahal and Shahjahan. Work begun for building the incomparable masterpiece in white marble a year after Mumtaz Mahal’s death. Shahjahan risked the entire Mughal treasury to build the Taj Mahal which is estimated to be built at a cost of over thirty-one million rupees. It was built by about twenty thousand workers which included masons, stone cutters, in layers, carvers, painters, calligraphers, dome-builders and other artisans from every nook and corner of the empire, central asia and Iran. While bricks for internal construction were locally extruded, white marble for external use in veneering work was procured from Makrana in Rajasthan. Semi-precious stones for inlay ornamentation were sourced from distant regions of India, Srilanka and Afghanistan. Red sandstone of different tints was procured from the neighboring quarries of Sikri and Dholpur. It took about 17 years to build the Taj Mahal complex, it was completed in CE 1648.
The Taj Mahal is a marvel of symmetry, it’s secret lies in self-replicating geometry. The mausoleum is located on the right bank of the Yamuna river at a point where it takes a sharp turn and flows eastwards. The main gate of the Taj Mahal is a three storeyed structure ornate with embellishments of precious and semi-precious stones and inscriptions from the Quran. The letters are graduated in size to look uniform from a distance. The Taj Mahal complex covers an area of about 25 acres, the terrain gradually sloping down from south to north towards the river in the form of descending terraces. The forecourt has the ornamented main gate and tombs of Shahjahan’s other two queens, the Akbarabadi Begum and Fatehpuri Begum. The tombs called Saheli Burj 1 and 2 are on the south-east and south-west corners of the forecourt. On the second terrace is a spacious square garden called ‘Char Bagh’ divided into four quarters by broad shallow canals of water, fountains, wide walkways and cypress trees on the sides. The whole scheme is in a perfect square. The ornamental lotus pool in the center of the water channel creates an imposing reflection of the Taj Mahal further enhancing its beauty. The four minarets of the Taj Mahal were thoughtfully constructed to tilt outwards for protecting the Taj Mahal in the event of an earthquake. The minarets would fall apart thus preventing damage to the Taj Mahal. The two prominent marble benches on which many popular world personalities have been photographed were built on the elevated lotus pool. The main crypt of the Taj Mahal is square with chamfered corners. A red sandstone mosque on the western side and Mehman-Khana (Guest House) on the eastern side of the Taj Mahal provides aesthetically a clear color contrast. The Taj Mahal has some wonderful specimens of colored inlay art both in the interior and on the exterior dados, on cenotaphs and on the marble grills.
The locals say that the murals and motifs in the Taj Mahal and many palaces in the Agra fort were studded with gold, precious and semi-precious stones. These embellishments were ruthlessly plucked and stolen by the British leaving behind visible scars. The symmetry of Taj Mahal is around the tomb of Mumtaz Mahal with the center line of the campus passing through it. The original tomb is right below the octagonal central chamber which houses a replica of the original exactly above. Next to Mumtaz Mahal’s tomb lay the tomb of Shahjahan in a similar arrangement under ground. Both the tombs in the octagonal chamber are enclosed in a magnificent marble grill intricately carved from the finest white makrana marble. This exquisite grill has a floral border in colored mosaic which was substituted for gold by Aurangzeb. Both the replica tombs are of white makrana marble inlaid with semi-precious stones. A scintillating chandelier hangs over the two tombs diffusing smooth light. A passage leads down to the original tombs in the chamber beneath through a vestibule. Entry to the lower chamber is restricted to the public.
For every hour of the day the Taj Mahal has its own charm and hue of white. The soft creamy white hue at dawn, milky white at noon and the splendor of its pearl like radiance on a full moon night is truly mesmerizing. The Taj Mahal is an insignia of femininity and a tribute to the royal personage it enshrines. This perception is evoked by the delicacy of its soft contours, chaste texture and subtle coloring on white makrana marble rendering a feminine ethos to the monument.
Viewing the Taj Mahal
The Taj Mahal complex can be approached through one of the three gates – West, South and the East. Entry fee (as in Jan. 2017) for Indians is Rs. 40/-. For foreigners, it is Rs. 1000/- and Rs. 530/- for citizens of SAARC nations. Both Indian and foreign children below the age of 15 years are allowed free entry to the Taj Mahal. Tickets can be bought at ticket windows at Taj West gate and South gate and at Shilpgram, 750 meters outside Taj East gate. Proof of identity must be produced at the ticket counter while buying tickets (Aadhar card or PAN card for Indians and Passport for foreigners). Cloak rooms are available at Shilpgram, near Taj East gate and at Taj Shopping complex at the West gate. Still cameras are allowed without a charge whereas video cameras are charged. Entry to the Taj Mahal opens at sunrise and closes at sunset. The Taj Mahal remains closed on Friday.
Night viewing of Taj Mahal is available on five days in a month i.e. on full moon night and two nights before and two after the full moon. Tickets are available a day in advance before viewing of the Taj at the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) office, 22, Mall Road, Agra. Ph. +91 0562 – 2227261, 2227263, Fax: +91 562 – 2227262, E-mail – firstname.lastname@example.org between 10 A.M. to 6 P.M. Night Viewing Ticket can be cancelled in the same office on the day of viewing up to 1 P.M. (Cancellation charges are 25% of the ticket cost). Night View Timings: 20:30 hrs. to 00.30 hrs. in 8 batches of max. 50 people each. Time duration for each batch is half an hour (30 minutes). Night Viewing of the Taj Mahal is closed on every Friday & in the month of Ramzan. Premium entry fees are charged for night viewing of the Taj Mahal which is currently (as in Jan. 17) Rs. 510/- for Indian nationals, Rs. 750/- for foreigners and Rs. 500/- for children between 3 to 15 years, both Indian and foreign.
Administration of the Taj Mahal and its precincts is in the hands of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) and its security is entrusted to the Central Industrial Security Force (CISF), a paramilitary force. Eatables and sharp objects like scissors, multitool kit, blades and keys are not allowed inside the Taj Mahal. Medicines and drinking water in a transparent bottle is allowed. Hand baggage is thoroughly checked by CISF personnel at the entrance and individuals are frisked. The Taj Mahal complex has good sanitation arrangements available for a small fee of Rs. 5/- per individual. Wearing a shoe cover is mandatory to enter the central chamber housing the tombs. Disposable polypropylene shoe covers are available for Rs. 5/- per pair at all the entry gates.
It is a good idea to avail services of a guide to see the Taj Mahal. Guides double up as photographers, they also know the popular spots to click the right frame. ASI approved guides charge a fee of Rs. 475/- from Indian nationals and about Rs. 1000/- from foreigners. This is negotiable though. Beware of touts lingering at the gates of the Taj Mahal claiming to be guides. They cheat tourists by telling distorted or incorrect history and escort them to souvenir stores that pay handsome commission to the tout, such stores often sell cheap artifacts to the tourist at exorbitant prices.
RED FORT, AGRA
Agra Fort was one of the most important strongholds of the Mughals. The fort sprawls over an area of about 90 acres with a number of richly ornamented buildings. It was constructed by the third Mughal emperor Akbar on the remains of an ancient site known as Badalgarh. The fort was occupied by Sikandar Lodi (CE 1487-1517), first Sultan of Delhi. After Sikandar Lodi’s death in 1517, his son Ibrahim Lodi held the fort for 9 years until he was killed in the battle of Panipat in CE 1526 by Babur’s men. Several palaces, wells and two mosques were built in the fort during the Lodi period. Babur’s son Humayun captured the fort and seized a vast treasure which included the world famous ‘Kohinoor’ diamond. Humayun was coronated in the fort in CE 1530. Akbar ordered to renovate the fort with red sandstone. It took about 4000 workers to complete the renovation in 8 years (CE 1565 – 1573). The fort is in semi-circular plan and surrounded by a 21 meter high fortification wall. Double ramparts with broad massive circular bastions at regular intervals and wide moats make the fort impregnable.
Agra fort was the seat of the Mughal empire for over 300 years. The overwhelming edifice was built as a mark of military prowess. It stands erect on the right bank of the Yamuna, about 2.5 Kms to the west of Taj Mahal. The fort has four gates, the most prominent being the Delhi gate and the Lahore gate (renamed as the Amar Singh gate after the chief of Mughal army, Amar Singh Rathore). The monumental Delhi Gate, which faces the city on the western side of the fort, is considered the grandest of the four gates and a masterpiece of Akbar’s time. It was built circa 1568 both to enhance security and as the king’s formal gate. It is embellished with inlay work in white marble. A wooden drawbridge was used to cross the moat and reach the gate from the mainland; inside an inner gateway called Hathi Pol (Elephant Gate) added another layer of security. The drawbridge, slight ascent, and 90-degree turn between the outer and inner gates prevented charging war elephants of the enemy from crushing the doors. The northern part of the fort is occupied by the Indian Army’s parachute regiment.
The mighty towers, bastions, wide moats and overwhelming facades instilled fear and awe in the bravest of the brave, yet there were few who incapacitated the daunting adversities and made their mark in history. The fort was invaded and captured by the Marathas in the early eighteenth century. The Mughal empire rapidly declined after the death of Aurangzeb due to corrupt nobles; weak, extravagant and incompetent successors who fought a war of succession among themselves; and due to persistent attacks by the Marathas and the Afghans (Ahmed Shah Abdali and Nadir Shah).
Agra fort is a UNESCO world heritage site. The fort as it stands today represents the combined efforts of three consecutive sovereigns. Designed and rebuilt by Akbar, it was fortified further by Jehangir and enhanced with beautiful buildings and gardens by Shahjahan. The fort has many significant buildings and palaces like the Diwan-i-Aam (house of public audience), the Moti masjid, Diwan-i-Khas (house of private audience), the Nagina masjid, the Hamam or the Sheesh mahal, Machhli bhavan, the octagonal Musamman burj, the Khas mahal and the Jahangir mahal. The Khas mahal also known as Aaramgaah, or the emperors bedroom was built by Shahjahan and tastefully decorated with embellishments of precious stones studded on white makrana marble. The Musamman burj, an octagonal tower adjacent to the Khas mahal provides an imposing view of the Taj Mahal and the Yamuna river. Shahjahan was kept in captivity here by Aurangzeb for eight years where he took his last breath watching the Taj Mahal.
The Agra fort remains open for public from sunrise till sunset. The entry fee is Rs. 40/- for Indian nationals and Rs. 550/- for foreigners. Children below the age of 15 years are allowed free (both Indian and foreigners). Entry fees are discounted on Fridays. Tickets window is right inside the Amar Singh gate. Guides are available near the ticket window and charge about Rs. 475/- which is negotiable. They also double up as photographers. Eatables and sharp objects are not allowed inside the fort.
AKBAR’s TOMB, SIKANDARA
Sikandara is the resting place of emperor Akbar where his mortal remains lay buried. The mausoleum is one of the most remarkable buildings of the Mughal period and was built during the earlier years of Jahangir’s reign, only its location and plan were finalized before Akbar died. The mausoleum is an immaculate conception of such magnitude that it was not completed until 1613, eight years after Akbar’s death. Sikandara is about 19 Kms to the north west from the Taj Mahal.
The main entrance to the complex is from the south. Four gateways lead to this massive complex of manicured gardens. Four marble minarets of about 50 feet high rise above the building of the main gate. A broad paved causeway from this fine gate leads up to the mausoleum. The emperors tomb is in an underground chamber accessible through a vestibule. The ceiling is elaborately frescoed in gold and blue in an exquisite pattern. Inscriptions from the Quran run under the cornice as a scroll that is about a foot broad. Rooms on the sides contain tombs of Akbar’s relatives with beautiful inscriptions. The gardens surrounding Akbar’s tomb are rich in flora and fauna. Domesticated peacocks, deer and black buck are found free ranging in the gardens.
The tomb is a five storey pyramidal structure. The crypt is at a level below the ground, while the replica crypt is at the top floor. The entire tomb is constructed of red sandstone except for the top storey which is constructed in white marble. The ground floor is surrounded by abbeys except at the center on the southern side. These abbeys are divided by massive arches and piers divisible into many bays. The square storeys have arcaded verandahs, with arcades and cluster of kiosks on each side. Some of the kiosks in the second storey have marble pyramidal roofs while the rest are crowned by cupolas. The top most storey is entirely made up of white marble. It has a square court, which is open to sky. The central courtyard is enclosed on all the sides by slender arches and piers divided into bays. At the center of the courtyard lies a square platform, over which a white marble cenotaph is laid out. This cenotaph is profusely carved with floral patterns.
Sikandara is a sprawling complex of about 50 acres. It takes about three hours to carefully see the complex on foot which is a walk of about two kilometers. The complex has good sanitation arrangements at a nominal fee of Rs. 5/-. Bags are checked and individuals are frisked at the main gate. There’s ample parking space available outside the main gate.
Sikandara remains open for public from sunrise to sunset. A fee of Rs. 20/- is charged for Indians and Rs. 210/- for foreigners. Children below 15 years of age are allowed free of charge (both Indian and foreigners). The fees are discounted on Fridays. Ticket window is in the parking area of the complex which is about 300 meters from the main gate.
Etmad-ud-Daulah (literally Pillar of the State) is the tomb of Mirza Ghias Beg, the grand vazir of emperor Jahangir and his father-in-law. Jahangir’s wife Noor Jahan (literally Light of the World) had built this magnificent tomb on the left bank of the Yamuna in memory of her father. This grand monument is built in the center of a manicured garden complex complete with lawns, pavements, water channels and fountains. It looks quite different from the dome like structures of the era. The tomb has four octagonal towers alike minarets on each corner and is built on a plinth of red sandstone.
The ornate tomb is entirely built in white makrana marble and is a precursor to the era of gold and precious stone embellishments on white marble and is also a precursor to the Taj Mahal. A remarkable feature of this relic is the pietra dura embellishment of intricate inlay work, finely ornamented with delicately colored semi-precious stones on white makrana marble throughout the interior and exterior of the building.
The replica crypts of Etmad-ud-Daulah and his wife are of yellow marble in a central chamber having a canopy like roof. The original crypts are in a chamber beneath alike other tombs. The monument took six years to build, work commenced in CE 1622 and was completed in CE 1628.
Etmad-ud-Daulah is open to public from sunrise to sunset. Entry fee is Rs. 15/- for Indians and Rs. 210/- for foreigners. Children below the age of 15 are allowed free (both Indian and foreign). The tomb is about 9 Kms from the Taj Mahal across the Yamuna.
Mehtab Bagh is a sprawling 25-acre garden which was originally identified as the site for building the Black Taj Mahal by emperor Shahjahan. After learning about the plan, Aurangzeb dethroned his father Shahjahan and kept him under house arrest in Agra Fort for eight years. Shahjahan died there looking at the Taj. Aurangzeb committed this heinous act because Shah Jahan had drained the Mughal treasury for building the Taj Mahal.
Mehtab Bagh is exactly on the opposite bank of the Yamuna right behind the Taj Mahal. It offers a magnificent view of the Taj Mahal at sunrise and sunset in front of the Yamuna. The foundation of the black Taj Mahal can also be seen here. Mehtab Bagh is a drive of about 12 Kms. from the Taj Mahal even though it is just behind the Taj across the Yamuna river. The UP government has built the Taj heritage walk and has developed the Kachhpura village en-route Mehtab Bagh for promoting ecotourism.
Mehtab Bagh is open to public from sunrise to sunset. Entry fee is Rs. 15/- for Indian nationals and Rs. 200/- for foreigners. Children below 15 years of age (both Indian and foreigners) are allowed free.
The ruined walled city of Fatehpur Sikri lay 35 Kms to the south west of Agra off the Agra Jaipur highway. Fatehpur Sikri was built by emperor Akbar in CE 1569 and named so by Akbar after his triumphs. The city has a 6 Km. long outer protective wall. The royal palaces are located on a low sandstone ridge inside the walled city. Fatehpur Sikri is a synthesis between Hindu and Muslim cultures. Fatehpur Sikri are two distinct complexes comprising of Sikri which is the palace complex and Fatehpur which is the sacred complex due to the tomb of Akbar’s guru, the sufi saint Sheikh Salim Chishti. The entrance is from the Agra gate and it leads to the Diwan-e- Aam (House of public audience). The Sikri complex has prominent buildings like the Diwan-e-Aam, Jodha bai’s palace, Diwan-e-Khas, Birbal’s house, Akbar’s house, Turkish Sultana’s house, Panch Mahal and Anup Talao.
The Fatehpur complex is a short 100 meter walk from the Sikri complex. It has splendid monuments like the tomb of sufi saint Sheikh Salim Chishti, the Jama Masjid and the magnificent Buland Darwaza – gateway of victory. Akbar built the Buland Darwaza to commemorate his victory over Gujarat. The Buland Darwaza, has 42 steps and is 54 meters high and 35 meters wide. An astounding example of Mughal architecture, it is the highest gateway in the world. It is made of red and buff sandstone, and decorated by carving and inlaying of white and black marble. An inscription on the central facade of the Buland Darwaza exemplifies Akbar’s religious tolerance and broad mindedness. The Buland Darwaza towers above the courtyard of the mosque. It is semi octagonal in plan and is topped by pillars and chhatris, echoing early Mughal design with simple ornamentation, towering arches and carved verses from the Quran. On the southern side a long flight of steps sweeps down the hill giving the gateway additional height. A persian inscription on the eastern arch way of the Buland Darwaza records Akbar’s conquest over Deccan in 1601 A.D.
What to eat in Agra?
The culinary excursion of Agra begins with the staple breakfast of Bedai (a kachori eaten with spiced potato curry) and Jalebi at Deviram’s restaurant near Pratap Pura crossing in Rakabganj or at GMB sweets on the Mall road near the Taj crossing. Agra is popular for the Mughlai, Avadhi and North Indian cuisine. Being a tourists eden, restaurants in Agra are overpriced and lag in taste compared to restaurants in Mumbai and Delhi. A good place for Mughlai cuisine is the restaurant ‘Jahapanah’ in the shopping arcade near Sadar Bazaar. Their signature dishes ‘Ulte Tawen ka Paratha’, Kakori and Galawat Kebabs and Lucknowi Boti Masala are simply lip smacking. Pinch of Spice on Fatehabad Road, opposite hotel ITC Mughal, is a fine dine restaurant popular for its rich curries and succulent kebabs. Surprisingly, Agra also has Dasaprakash, a restaurant serving south Indian cuisine, situated on the Hotel Lane off the Mall road. Their preparation is just okay for the gourmet who has a taste of authentic south Indian cuisine from restaurants in Mumbai, Chennai or Bengaluru. Service is tad slow and focus is more on foreign guests. The best parathas in Agra can be savored at Ram Babu parathe wale on Mathura road at Sikandara, near Mariam’s tomb. They serve a wide variety of parathas deep fried in clarified butter (desi ghee) including exotic ones like the fruit paratha, maggi paratha, pizza and pasta paratha, something unheard, unusual but unique. The best parathas being the mix paratha and the paneer paratha served with kadhi, daal and a vegetable curry. The epitome of culinary delight for the gourmet are the exquisite Mughlai preparations at Esphahan, Agra’s finest restaurant inside the beautiful Hotel Oberoi Amar Vilas. Every evening, Esphahan has two sittings, one at 19.00 and the other one at 21.30, giving their guests good time to fully enjoy their meals. The menu might not be as extensive as in other venues but the dishes are exquisite and succulent. The ambiance is romantic with live santoor (a musical string instrument) performance adding to the charm. Reserving a table is essential at Esphahan. The chaat wali gali in Sadar bazaar is a popular place for street food in Agra popular for Bedai, Jalebi, Aloo Tikki and Golgappa.
Shopping in Agra
Agra is famous for the Petha, a sweet made from sugar and ash gourd. Panchhi Petha store is the most popular chain in Agra having a wide range of Pethas. The best one being the Paan petha, Kesar petha, Angoori petha and the Raspberry petha. Beware of stores all over Agra faking as being one of the original Panchhi Petha store. The original store is in Sadar bazaar on the ground floor below Hotel Pawan. There are about twelve stores across Agra belonging to the original chain. An original Panchhi Petha store packs the box of Petha in a branded polythene bag with a girl’s picture printed on it. Daal moth is also a popular snack available at Panchhi Petha.
Shops in Agra sell variety of marble souvenirs. The miniature marble replica of the Taj Mahal is the most popular souvenir. Beware of shops selling cheap counterfeit artifacts at exorbitant prices. Shilpgram is an arts and crafts village, a sprawling 11.5-acre open-air emporium run by the UP government that showcases artifacts that may not be found in the markets of Agra. It is situated in the Taj Ganj area, just half a kilometer from the Taj East Gate. Tourists can shop for leather goods, rugs, carpets, fine embroidered suits, sarees and intricate pietra dura work. The Taj Mohotsav is held here every year in February. Artisans from all over UP flock to showcase their artifacts. This ten-day festive mélange display magnificent performances ranging from classical dance, fusion music and vocal renditions. There’s lot of fun activities like camel rides and a good spread of the local cuisine at the food courts.
Agra has many markets like the Sadar bazaar, Meena Bazaar, Belanganj and Raja ki Mandi which are popular places for everyday shopping but may not lure the tourist.
Information credit: Monument architecture, Entry Fees and Timings – Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), Agra circle.
Research and Photography: Rajesh Deshpande and Rasika Deshpande.
…. Rajesh Deshpande © 2017