Agra: The Taj Mahal and one of the Shittiest Places in India

on Thursday, 31 October 2013.


Well, we made it.  We survived Agra.  What a dump. It is very strange. One of the most exquisite buildings in the world, the Taj Mahal is surrounded by the most squalid, polluted city, the air full of industrial effluent and the people seem to be the most aggressive and dissatisfied we have met so far. It has a reputation for not being particularly pleasant there and our experience confirmed it.  Even the traffic there was worse than Bombay or Delhi.  It was sheer madness which made the 30 mile journey we did to Fatehpur Sikri rather a travail, especially for me mum.

We took the train down to Agra, which was great.  Our first train journey in India.  The train was an hour late but when we got on, we met a nice Indian woman and her child, who we talked to all the way to Agra. It was one of the first opportunities to talk to an Indian who wasn’t interested in making money from us directly or indirectly, which was nice.

We woke at dawn to walk to the east gate of the Taj Mahal, and bought our tickets for entry.  By the time we had done that another long line had formed at the entrance, full of English people on a tour of India. They were mostly in their 60’s and this would be their first foray in India, no doubt protected from the daily mayhem by their tour guides. I talked to a few of them and they couldn’t quite figure out how I could choose to spend four months in India!

The Taj never disappoints – although we could barely see it as we walked in to the compound, the fog and the building merging into one, and only really differentiated as the sun rose, the building moving from a grayish pink to a pale yellow hue. The fog lingered longer than we would have liked but it didn’t really matter. It still evoked a mystical allure in the early morning haze. We spent about three hours there, taking way too many photographs, along with everybody else. Even though it was busy, it didn’t feel too much, there was a lot of space just to take it all in and see the building from every angle. My mum said that it would likely look just as nice in a photo, implying some form of disappointment. I couldn’t believe she said that after I had been chaperoning her throughout India – not an easy task when even crossing the road in Delhi was a serious undertaking. “Just walk and trust” I would say, but how can a 75 year old English ex-headmistress understand the dance of Kali that one embarks on when wandering around any Indian city.

After we left the Taj, we rented a car and were driven to the tomb of Akbar, the great Moghul king, famed for his religious tolerance and for his Dionysian ways – apparently he had a huge harem, many wives, concubines, female slaves etc to keep him occupied when not conquering kingdoms across most of middle and south Asia.  The tomb is quite beautiful, but we still have to deal with the “voluntary” guide, the shoe walla (as we have to take our shoes off in all Muslim and some Hindu mosques/tombs etc) and also this other guy who when we enter the actual tomb, sings out “Akbar” so that it echoes in the chamber. He then asks for some “charity” and mumbles something like “100 rupees”, so I give him 10 and then 10 for the shoe walla and 10 for the “guide”. It never ends. Everybody wants to guide us everywhere.  You get out the car – “Sir, Madam, guide?” they don’t take no for answer, and by the time the 5th guide comes to you, it’s enough.