INDIA, Jan. 2009

= AGRA =

Photos © Ruud Leeuw

Our very first visit to India... At the airport of New Delhi we were met by a chauffeur and he drove us through Rajasthan. After visits to several cities in Rajasthan, we now entered the state of Uttar Pradesh for a visit to Agra.

Uttar Pradesh (translation: Northern Province), often referred to as U.P., is a state located in the northern part of India. With a population of over 190 million people, it is India's most populous state, as well as the world's most populous sub-national entity...
Uttar Pradesh covers a large part of the highly fertile and densely populated upper Gangetic plain.
The Indo-Gangetic plain, that spans most of the state, has been the ancient seat of Hindu religion, learning and culture, the birth place of the Indo-Islamic syncretic culture of the medieval period, a center of nationalism during the colonial period and has continued to play a prominent role in Indian political and cultural movements. [Wikipedia]

The drive from Jaipur to Agra took 05:30 hours. The roads were generally good, in part highway-quality but not completed. We noticed that toll-booths were being built but not yet in use; while travelling on highways traffic would obviously move quicker but for tourists it is nicer to travel through the villages.
We skipped Fatehpūr Sikrī, did not feel like it and left that for another day.

Click on the thumbnail images to view a larger image

Hotel in Agra
Hotel in Agra
Arriving we checked in at the Lamba India Homestay. The room wasn't very large (the bathroom was larger!), but adequate. The tv had a huge selection of channels (incl. HBO, BBC Worldnews, 'Star Movies'). We would find out about Uttar Pradesh's reputation of black outs, 'everybody' has a back up generator, which had to kick in several times a day.
We had a room on the first floor, in the main building/house. There is a lounge (photo on the right) but we found it too chilly to sit there. Buildings are made to keep the heat out.
The accommodation of Lt.Col. Lamba (Ret.) has the comforts of a kind B&B; they don't do lunch (though they kindly made us some ham/cheese sandwiches), but make an excellent dinner.
The location is quite isolated, a cornerstore doesn't stock enough for a lunch and for a restaurant one has to order a taxi as none are within walking distances.

Lodgings at Agra


night market
Outside the GulMohar Enclave, where one finds the Lamba Homestay, there is a small market.
We went there to have a look and buy some soft drinks ('Mirinda' much like Fanta), biscuits, bananas, etc


Night market

Agra is a city on the banks of the Yamuna River in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, India. Legend ascribes the founding of the city to Raja Badal Singh (around 1475), whose fort, Badalgarh, stood on or near the site of the present Fort. However, the 11th century Persian poet Mas'ud Sa'd Salman writes of a desperate assault on the fortress of Agra, then held by the Shahi King Jayapala, by Sultan Mahmud of Ghazna.
Sultan Sikandar Lodhi was the first to move his capital from Delhi to Agra in the year 1506; he died in 1517 and his son Ibrahim Lodhi remained in power there for nine more years, finally being defeated at the Battle of Panipat in 1526.
Agra achieved fame as the capital of the Mughal emperors from 1526 to 1658 and remains a major tourist destination because of its many splendid Mughal-era buildings, most notably the Taj Mahal, Agra Fort and Fatehpur Sikri, all three of which are UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

The day after our arrival was a friday, a day upon which the Taj Mahal is closed. So we went to 2 other mausoleums.
The first was Akbar's Mausoleum.

The Tomb of Akbar the Great is an important architectural masterpiece set in 48 Ha (119 acres) of grounds in Sikandra a suburb of Agra.
A gatehouse stands at the center of each wall, and broad paved avenues, laid out in Mughal style with central running water channels representing the four rivers of Paradise, lead from these to the tomb at the center of the square. The south gate is the largest, with four white marble chhatri-topped minarets which are similar to (and pre-date) those of the Taj Mahal, and is the normal point of entry to the tomb.

The third Mughal Emperor Akbar the Great (1542 1605), himself commenced its construction in around 1600, according to Tartary tradition to commence the construction of one's tomb during one's lifetime. Akbar himself planned his own tomb and selected a suitable site for it, after his death, Akbar's son Jahangir completed the construction in 1605-1613.

About 1 km away from the tomb, lies Mariam's Tomb, the tomb of Mariam-uz-Zamani, wife of the Mughal Emperor Akbar. But I did not know about that one and did not go there.

I admire this man's confidence, he is obviously a caretaker of these monkeys, but I was never comfortable with these creatures.

We were not interested in a guide, but for once wanted the see the tomb on the inside (knowing that it probably was a bare affair). We had to take off our shoes and had become accustomed to this procedure. A man walked up to us, stating he wasn't a guide but was proud of the tomb and Akbar the Great so he offered to tell something about it; he said he didn't want any payment for this. But he started running dates and events so we declined his help.
Inside was a grave (symbolic I think, Akbar is buried deeper in the tomb) and a caretaker asked us to throw flowers on Akbars's grave and speak an Islamic statement; he himself spoke in a loud voice that particular statement to illustrate the remarkable acoustics inside the mausoleum. I felt uncomfortable with a statement of a faith I don't subscribe to, so I put a few rupees down (the caretaker's face showed disappointment) and we left. We shouldn't have come here.
On the way out we passed the outstretched hand of the "I am not a guide"-person and ignored him.
It is the Indian way that people are out for your money, even when they say they are not.
If I pay at the entrance, I think that should cover the costs of a visit, but that is probably my Western way. It all adds to that feeling you have to be constantly alert here in India.

Obviously not all gatehouses are in good condition.

The morning began cool and hazy. Families were out and enjoyed themselves.

Maintenance on the temple
Looking at the amount of decorations and the size of the structures, it is incredible to see maintenance taking place by one person, working painstakingly precise and slowly. Note that blue clad woman illustrating the size of that gate house.


Back to the streets of Agra, on our way to the next tomb.
Traffic is again of the Indian variety.



A good place obviously, to meet and talk things over.



Visit to Itimad-Ud-Daulah 


Itimad-Ud-Daulah is not a name that sits easy in one's memory. Try 'Baby Taj'...
Note that man working on the top of the tomb.

The mausoleum was commissioned by Nur Jahan, the wife of Jahangir, for her father Mirza Ghiyas Beg, who had been given the title of I'timād-ud-Daulah (pillar of the state). Mirzā Ghiyās Beg was also the grandfather of Mumtāz Mahāl (originally named Arjūmand Bāno, daughter of Asaf Khān), the wife of the emperor Shāh Jahān, responsible for the building of the Taj Mahal.


The walls are white marble from Rajasthan encrusted with semi-precious stone decorations - cornelian, jasper, lapis lazuli, onyx, and topaz formed into images of cypress trees and wine bottles, or more elaborate decorations like cut fruit or vases containing bouquets. Light penetrates to the interior through delicate jālī screens of intricately carved white marble.


Many of Nur Jahan's relatives are interred in the mausoleum. The only asymmetrical element of the entire complex is that the cenotaphs of her father and mother have been set side-by-side, a formation replicated in the Taj Mahal


Located on the left bank of the Yamuna river, the mausoleum is set in a large cruciform garden criss-crossed by water courses and walkways. The mausoleum itself covers about twenty-three square meters, and is built on a base about fifty meters square and about one meter high. On each corner are hexagonal towers, about thirteen meters tall.



Back to the streets of Agra
Back to the streets


A happy face
Pictures like these are priceless to me!


Awaiting business


Rickshaw repairs
Street barbershop in Agra
The streets have a lot to offer. I noticed the auto rickshaw undergoing repairs. And that open air barbershop was seen flashing by.



The following day we had come to the long-awaited day of a visit to the famous Taj Mahal.
Transfer to Taj Mahal

We had to leave our personal belongings behind with our driver; we were only allowed a wallet, camera gear and a mobile phone. But no charging equipment of any kind. Then we transferred to an electric vehicle, as no fuel-fuming vehicles are allowed near the Taj Mahal. As if that helps in the constantly polluted air here.

The hawkers are particular oppressive here, they will storm you with their products (for some reason they all sell the same things!?). It is best to ignore them, avoid eye contact and continue in a brisk walk. Not a very relaxing few minutes, but it will pass.

The gate to Taj Mahal

The gatehouse is 30 meters high and made of sandstone. It is inscribed with verses from the Qur'an (Quran, Qur’ān, Koran, Alcoran or Al-Qur’ān)

And there she is: Tāj Mahal
There she is..


Faces of India
Faces of India...

The Taj Mahal attracts from 2 to 4 million visitors annually, with more than 200,000 from overseas. Most tourists visit in the cooler months of October, November and February. The grounds are open from 6 am to 7 pm weekdays, except for Friday when the complex is open for prayers at the mosque between 12 noon and 2 pm. The complex is open for night viewing on the day of the full moon and two days before and after, excluding Fridays and the month of Ramzan.
For security reasons only five items - water in transparent bottles, small video cameras, still cameras, mobile phones and small ladies' purses - are allowed inside the Taj Mahal.



Taj Mahal, Agra
Detail of Taj Mahal

Agra's Taj Mahal is one of the most famous buildings in the world, the mausoleum of Shah Jahān's favorite wife, Mumtāz Mahal. It is one of the New Seven Wonders of the world, and one of three World Heritage Sites in Agra.
Mumtāz died while giving birth to her 14th child (b.April, 1593 - d.17 June 1631).

Completed in 1653 CE., the Tāj Mahal was built by the Mughal king Shāh Jahān as the final resting place for his beloved wife, Mumtāz Mahal.
Finished in marble, it is perhaps India's most fascinating and beautiful monument.
This perfectly symmetrical monument took 22 years (1630-1652) of hard labour and 20,000 workers, masons and jewellers to build and is set amidst landscaped gardens.
Built by the Persian architect, Ustād 'Īsā, the Tāj Mahal is on the bank of the Yamuna River. It can be observed from Agra Fort from where Emperor Shāh Jahān gazed at it, for the last eight years of his life, a prisoner of his son Aurangzeb.
Verses of the Koran are inscribed on it and at the top of the gate are twenty-two small domes, signifying the number of years the monument took to build.
The Tāj Mahal was built on a marble platform that stands above a sandstone one. Shah Jahān's tomb was erected next to hers by his son Aurangzeb. [Wikipedia]


The guide explains..
Our guide explains the details of the fine inlay work, incorporating semi-precious stones.
Inlay detail
Plant motifs


The Taj Mahal was constructed using materials from all over India and Asia.
Over 1,000 elephants were used to transport building materials during the construction.
The translucent white marble was brought from Rajasthan, the jasper from Punjab, jade and crystal from China. The turquoise was from Tibet and the Lapis lazuli from Afghanistan, while the sapphire came from Sri Lanka and the carnelian from Arabia. In all, twenty eight types of precious and semi-precious stones were inlaid into the white marble.


Taj Mahal mosque or masjid

At the far end of the complex, there are two grand red sandstone buildings that are open to the sides of the tomb. Their backs parallel western and eastern walls, and these two buildings are precise mirror images of each other. The western building is a mosque and its opposite is the jawab (answer) whose primary purpose was architectural balance and may have been used as a guesthouse. [Wikipedia]
The guide told us 'the other building' (guesthouse) was dedicated to Christian religion, settling the balance (Muslim, Hindu & Christian) for Shah Jahan was an enlightened Ruler.


A nice place to read your Lonely Planet guide for details.
A powerful place
At the corners of the plinth stand minarets, the four large towers each more than 40 meters tall.
These towers are designed as working minarets, a traditional element of mosques as a place for a muezzin to call the Islamic faithful to prayer.
Each minaret is effectively divided into three equal parts by two working balconies that ring the tower. At the top of the tower is a final balcony surmounted by a chattri that mirrors the design of those on the tomb.
Each of the minarets were constructed slightly outside of the plinth, so that in the event of collapse, a typical occurrence with many such tall constructions of the period, the material from the towers would tend to fall away from the tomb...
One more look


A Working Cow..


The gate and flowers


Back to the streets of Agra.
I had to withdraw cash again, but found ATM's not working. No.3 worked ok.

Riding dad's motorcycle The child looks sharp and keeps a firm grip.
Dad is relaxed: he has only one hand at the handlebar, in spite of his son's precarious position.


Women never wear helmets
Women never wear helmets and they seem to have an uncanny balance.

The Fort of Agra


The fort
Inside the Agra Fort
Agra Fort (sometimes called the Red Fort), was commissioned by the great Mughal Emperor Akbar in 1565, and is another of Agra's World Heritage Sites. A stone tablet at the gate of the Fort states that it had been built before 1000 but was later renovated by Akbar.
The red sandstone fort was converted into a palace during Shāh Jahān's time,
Closer look at decorations

At the end of the tunnel


The Fort
Agra Fort
The great Mughal Emperor Akbar commissioned the construction of the Agra Fort in 1565 CE., although it was converted into a Palace by his grandson Shah Jahan, being reworked extensively with marble and pietra dura inlay.
The fort is a typical example of Mughal architecture.

Divine Light

Gardens at Agra Fort

Akbar's fort was positioned by the River Jamna, as though it were a garden. The two ladies palaces (zenana),the Jahangiri Mahal and Akbari Mahal, have paved internal courts rather than planted gardens. The Anguri Bagh was rebuilt by Shah Jahan by 1637 and has raised walks leading to a platform for a central pavilion.

Fort with a view


Luxury unimaginable
Inside the Musamman Burj, where Shah Jahan spent the last seven years of his life under house arrest by his son Aurangzeb. The decorations and inlays are astounding.


Watching passers by
Back to the streets...

Waiting for what
gulMohar Enclave

We returned to the GulMohar enclave and the Lamba Guesthouse. We did a little walking and shopping (groceries) again. We met another Dutch couple, from The Hague, who also had booked with but had a slightly different itinerary. I have to admit they faced the 'Indian inconveniences' a little more relaxed then we did! It was good to compare experiences and talk about other travel destionations.
We would meet them again in Varanasi.

Selling oranges
I think the seller is considering an offer..

Traffic in Agra

Weel stocked market

Parakeets fly in the wild here!

The beds and room unattended, an isolated location and the open air seating facilities spoiled by laundry... Oh well, I guess that is (Indian) B&B for you. I later learned that in some smaller hotels, if you ask they will clean your room, but they will not go in without your permission - thanks Danielle!
The owner, retired Lt.Col Lamba, was found to be a kind man, of quite another world than ours. Breakfast and dinner was excellent, every time.
I quite enjoyed learning about the news in the world again, thanks to the tv satellite reception, about the financial crisis expanding into a world wide economic crisis (which was also felt in the Indian tourism industry) and the nearing inauguration of US President Barrack Obama.

This sitting area was most often occupied by another, Indian elderly couple, they seemed relatives or good friends.

Sitting outside was a mixed blessing as most times the mosquitoes were out in force. We kept up our vigil for dengue fever and faithfully applied repellent several times each day. We also used desinfectant gel on our hands when we were about to eat and our alertness for our health, hygiene and belongings kept us out of harm's way the entire vacation.

In Jaipur we had telephoned Virgin Atlantic to see if we could return home earlier, but found flights fully booked. So instead we revised our itinerary and booked return air tickets Delhi - Varanasi. Though quite saturated and fulfilled with 'the Indian experience', we had one more place to go to: Varanasi.




Helpful links: (Dutch)
Lonely Planet