Some of you who’ve been following this blog over the past few years might know about the LO. The ‘Little One’, my now-nearly-nine year old daughter, has figured prominently in my travelogues over the past several years. She is an enthusiastic traveller, and few things bring her greater joy than to go to new places, stay at nice hotels (yes, a vital part of travel for the LO) and generally let her hair down.
Agra is a place we’ve been meaning to go for a while now. Of course the Taj Mahal is iconic, but there are several other wonderful old monuments in the city that my husband and I wanted to see again, and the LO, from seeing photos of the Taj in school textbooks and elsewhere, was eager as well. What’s more, the LO’s best friend has her nanihaal —her maternal grandparents’ home—in Agra. Every few months, the kid goes off to Agra, and of course tells the LO all about it.
Given that Agra is now conveniently connected to Noida by the Yamuna Expressway, it was high time, we decided, to do the trip. We chose a long weekend, over Janmashtami, setting off on Friday morning and returning by Sunday evening.
It took us around four hours to get to our destination, the Trident Hotel in Agra (that’s not the usual duration for a Noida-Agra journey down the expressway, which ought to be about three hours; we stopped on the way, because the LO cannot imagine a road trip, no matter how short, that doesn’t involve a stop for refreshments). When we arrived at the Trident, the LO, looking at the exterior, turned up her nose at it. ‘It’s so dull! It looks like a guesthouse, not a hotel!”
By the time she’d gone into the sleek lobby, had a welcome drink, and ogled the swimming pool visible in the windows beyond, she had changed her mind. This wasn’t a bad place at all.
After lunch at the restaurant (where, as she’s managed to do consistently over the years, the LO swiftly charmed a waiter into asking after her, offering her goodies, and encouraging her to eat), we went exploring. There was a play area outside, and beyond that, a green, tree-dense area named the ‘Fairy Forest’, where peafowl stepped about, there were babblers and geese, and more. The LO was in seventh heaven.
Since much of the afternoon and evening were still ahead of us, we decided to begin our sightseeing right then.
Agra has Ola (not Uber), though, as we discovered, this isn’t really reliable. Though less comfortable, the auto-rickshaws and e-rickshaws are much more easily available. These ended up being our usual mode of transportation for the duration of our Agra trip. The LO initially hated them: they were ramshackle, rust-raddled, and when you travelled in them, you were at the mercy of not just the dust and pollution but also the loud, LOUD music blaring from every single microphone at every single temple in Agra (it was Janmashtami, remember). ‘Mama,’ said the LO, ‘my heart is beating in tune with that song!’ when we went past an especially chest-rattlingly loud temple.
Anyway, that first evening, we began by going to one of my favourite places in Agra, the exquisite Tomb of Itmad-ud-Daulah. Itmad-ud-Daulah (‘Pillar of the State’) was the title of a Jahangir-era statesman named Ghiyas Begh, the father of the Empress Noorjahan. It was Noorjahan who had this tomb built for her father, sometime between 1622-28. It’s a stunning example of Indian craftsmanship, decorated over every square inch with parchinkari (stone inlay work), carving, and paint. It’s been given the nickname of the ‘Baby Taj’, which I find flippant and silly; this beautiful mausoleum deserves more respect.
The LO did not look very impressed, but dutifully nodded and agreed when I gushed over yet another bit of inlay work or a painted vase.
Once we were done with admiring the mausoleum, we walked down to the river end of the charbagh, the square garden in which the tomb sits. Each of the four walls of this walled garden are pierced by gates almost identical to the main gate; the river-facing gate is in the form of a pavilion, and on this day, with the sun setting across a sky painted by clouds, all reflected in the Yamuna beneath, it was looking quite spectacular.
From Itmad-ud-Daulah, we went to Chini ka Rauza. This, the tomb of Allama Afzal Khan (a prime minister of Shahjahan’s) was built during the lifetime of the man himself, and is unusual in that it incorporates a lot of tilework, in a style reminiscent of that of the Middle East. On previous occasions, I’ve only ever been able to see the façade, which (to be honest), is so badly damaged, I’ve only come away feeling sad. This time, we were able to go around to the sides, which have rather more extensive tilework…
… and inside, where the painted ceiling is quite beautiful. The LO accompanied me in (we had to take off our shoes to do this, and my husband decided all that unlacing and lacing up again wasn’t for him). In the gloom of the interior, we could hear the high-pitched squeaks of bats; when I told the LO what those were, she scooted out of there very fast!
Last on our list for the day, and deliberately timed, was Mehtab Bagh. This is one of forty-four gardens that lined the Yamuna in Shahjahan’s time, and was especially important, because it was right opposite the Taj Mahal. Recently, under the aegis of the World Monuments Fund (WMF) and the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), a project has been initiated to revamp two of these forty-four gardens: one, the garden surrounding Itmad-ud-Daulah’s Tomb, and the other, this.
Mehtab Bagh has been cleaned up, paths put in, etc, but the ruined pavilions, now nothing more than just the bases left, are as is. It was a little late to walk through Mehtab Bagh by this time, so we took a quick route, down to the ‘Taj Mahal View Point’ (those view points again!).
This, our first glimpse of the Taj across the river (and the first glimpse ever, for the LO, of the Taj in real life) was fantastic, despite the many people crowding the place.
(Watch this space for part II of this travelogue).