4:30 AM. As I stood in the open doorway and the train pulled into Agra Fort train station, I was amazed. The platforms in the massive station were already teeming with people even at such an early hour. Practically sleep-standing after staying awake most of the journey to make sure I got off at the correct stop, I hopped off into the crowd as soon as the train was moving slowly enough. Next order of business: to get in a tuk-tuk to the hostel and go to bed as soon as possible – not even a Taj Mahal sunrise could tempt me to stay awake any longer. The tuktuk driver didn’t speak much English, though, so I nearly ended up at the Taj Mahal anyway – a quick translation from a passerby on the street set my driver back on course to my waiting bed!
Agra is a city in the north Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, the most populous state in India – if Uttar Pradesh were a country, it would be the seventh largest in the world! The city is situated on the banks of the Yamuna River in a region where pollution from industry and agriculture tends to concentrate during the dry season. In fact, the smell and taste of the air were some of the first things I noticed while riding that tuk-tuk through town the morning I arrived. I don’t think I have visited any other place where the air was so foul – I can best describe it as a combination of rotten eggs and smoke. My lungs were happy I only had one day planned there!
As Agra was once the capital of the Muslim Mughal Empire, the main sights are remnants of that era. The Agra Fort was the seat of power for the Mughal emperor. Sitting atop a hill overlooking the Yamuna River, most of the fort is constructed of red sandstone, but the most impressive parts are those made of white marble. These sections were built by Shah Jahan, a Mughal emperor with a love of architecture. Contained within the perimeter of the fort’s walls are a massive durbar (reception) hall, a marble room covered with small bits of mirrors to a beautiful effect, pavilions lined with intricately-carved marble screens, and other royal residence and administration buildings. All the areas of the fort are connected by landscaped gardens that feature pools of water feeding small channels that radiate through the gardens in a geometric pattern characteristic of Islamic aesthetics. As Agra is within easy reach of all of India’s politically-tense border areas (China, Kashmir, Pakistan), it is home to one of the country’s largest air force bases. So, though the Mughal Empire is long gone, part of the fort is still used by the government for administration of the Indian military.
Looking out along the Yamuna River from the marble pavilions of Agra Fort provides a beautiful view amid the city’s pollution. Rising up from the tree-lined Yamuna River floodplain is the country’s most famous landmark – the Taj Mahal. The Taj Mahal is simultaneously as beautiful and as crowded as I always imagined it to be. After making my way through the masses of people pushing through the tight security, I emerged into an outer courtyard facing a monumental gateway leading to the main attraction. Upon passing through the gateway, I was confronted with crowds of selfie-takers jostling for a place on the steps leading down to the Mughal gardens. Finally, I emerged onto a pathway leading between the small canals of the gardens, where I was able to take a nice, people-free selfie!
The Taj Mahal is a mausoleum built by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan for his favorite wife, Mumtaz Mahal after her untimely death. The massive structure and the surrounding grounds and other monuments took two decades and an outrageous amount of money to complete. While the white marble structure of the mausoleum is impressive from afar, I was most impressed when I got closer to see the details. Intricate Arabic calligraphy adorns all of the main archways, while most of the other surfaces are filled with floral patterns made of colorful precious stones and expertly inlaid in the marble. The craftsmanship is so precise that when you feel the decorated walls, there is no gap or change in texture. The inside is similarly-decorated, but not quite as impressive – it is rather dark, and is really only intended to house the tombs of Mumtaz Mahal and Shah Jahan. Though they are happily united in the mausoleum now, Shah Jahan had a rough life after his beloved wife’s death. First, his son overthrew him, then threw him into prison for the rest of his life. The prison, fortunately or unfortunately, was Shah Jahan’s own marble palace in the Agra Fort – the same palace that has such a nice view of the Taj Mahal. He lived out his days within sight, but just out of reach of his wife’s grave and his masterpiece.
A few hundred kilometers upstream of Agra on the Yamuna River lies another rather large city (most cities in India are rather large). Situated in the Union Territory of Delhi, the city of Delhi has around sixteen million people (excluding the surrounding region) and is the capital of India. The city center has two main parts: Old Delhi, which was the original Mughal city, and New Delhi, which was built by the British when they relocated the colonial capital from Calcutta. The trains were still running on a delay – ten minutes turned into an hour and by the time my train pulled in to New Delhi Station, that had cascaded into two hours. But that’s okay; for me, this was the end of the line, my final stop in India.
The streets of Old Delhi are crowded, fly-ridden, and coated in a thick layer of trash, but it’s fun to explore. The area is home to some delicious street food and a lively collection of vendors and touts selling anything you could want in narrow market streets. The crowning monument of Old Delhi is the Red Fort, a Mughal fort built on – you guessed it – a hill above the banks of the Yamuna River. In between dodging unwanted selfies and shielding myself from a sandstorm that was blowing in, I had a chance to explore most of the royal buildings in the fort. Built largely of red sandstone and white marble, the Red Fort is strikingly similar in form and appearance to the fort in Agra. Not surprisingly, Shah Jahan of Taj Mahal fame also had a hand in the construction of portions of the Red Fort. Though – and maybe I was biased having already been to the Taj Mahal or maybe the sandstorm altered my perception – I was less impressed by the Red Fort than the Agra Fort.
Another remnant of the Mughal influence in Delhi is the monumental tomb of the second Mughal emperor, Humayun, who ruled in the sixteenth century. Humayun’s Tomb is a beautiful red sandstone structure with tall archways and an onion dome on top – the design of Taj Mahal, built half a century later, was influenced by Humayun’s Tomb. Inside and around the monument are the graves of not only Humayun himself but also several later Mughal emperors and members of their families. The grounds around the tomb are laid out in typical Mughal fashion, with geometric gardens and water canals. With far fewer tourists roaming around than at the Taj Mahal, I had a much more enjoyable visit at Humayun’s Tomb.
Just a few Metro stops away from the turbulent streets of Old Delhi is the master-planned network of wide boulevards built for the British colonial government – New Delhi. The centerpiece of the government district is the India Gate, a ceremonial arch dedicated to the Indian soldiers who died in India’s wars between 1914 and 1921. Nearly every surface of the arch is inscribed with the names of soldiers. Beneath the arch are the flags of the different branches of the military flying over the tomb of the unknown soldier and an eternal flame. The Rajpath Marg boulevard radiating west from the India Gate leads past several government office buildings and is the main route for official parades. At the head of the road, atop a hill, sits Rashtrapati Bhavan, the residence of the president of India. While in Delhi, I met up with another friend and former colleague, Rahul, who helped to arrange a tour of the president’s residence for us. Originally built for the colonial governors, Rashtrapati Bhavan is built in a unique style that combines both Indian and classical European features. The president of India mainly serves a ceremonial and figurehead role, while the prime minister holds most of the executive power. Therefore, the interior of the president’s residence contains a series of ceremonial reception halls and meeting rooms, which are elaborately decorated and furnished to cater to the highest government officials as well as state events such as the presentation of awards.
With my tour of the capital complete, and feeling exhausted after nearly six weeks in the country, my time in India has come to an end. There were many small challenges that either forced me to change my plans along the way, or generally made the journey more difficult. Considering that India is a developing country dealing with a growing population of over 1.3 billion people, I can’t say I blame the country for being a little rough around the edges. However, my trip has been fascinating despite the challenge; there is so much diversity and history in India, and though I covered a lot of ground, there is much more to experience in this vast country. I’m ready to move on for now, but I’m sure I will be back again someday. I spent my last night in India walking around the streets of Old Delhi and enjoying the crazy chaos and delicious street food one last time. Then, I was off to the airport to fly to Hanoi, Vietnam, where my next adventure awaits!