While, on the one hand it is possible to describe the beauty of Taj Mahal in just one word and on the other, an entire page may yet not be sufficient. Poets, writers, film-makers, lyricists, painters have all tried to capture the emotion behind this famed monument, but hardly anyone has been able to do justice to this exquisite art of work. This radiant jewel in the crown of the empress of India, needs to be seen to be believed. Just a weekend is all that one needs.
We set off from New Delhi by road. If you are strapped for time and just want to see the Taj Mahal, the Agra Expressway is ideal as it will take just over 3 hours to get there. But we also wanted to check out the well-kept, imposing forts of Agra and Fatehpur Sikri.
We chose the old route (National Highway 2) as we also wanted to visit the famed Vrindavan, a town in the Mathura district of Uttar Pradesh which falls just about 11 kms away from this highway. The place has immense religious significance, specially for Hindus as Mathura is considered to be the birth place of Lord Krishna and Vrindavan the place where he spent his childhood.
There are many temples dedicated to Lord Krishna and his companion, Radha, the oldest being Madan Mohan Temple and the most frequented-the Banke Bihari Temple.
Temples in Vrindavan
The road to Vrindavan is quite a crowded one and it made sense to leave early in the morning. We wanted to reach there before noon so that we would have ample time visit the various temples.
As we reached one of the turns into the town from the highway, touts started hounding us. There are innumerable temples in Mathura and Vrindavan and these men guide you to the one they are promoting and will tell you stories about how old the temple is and ask for some form of donation before you leave.
Anyway, every second person in Vrindavan is a ‘pandit’ and every third person seemed to be a tout. Also, every other house offered paying guest accommodation.
Since we were driving and looked unsure of where to go, we got taken to a few temples which were not the original ones but built recently. After a simple lunch, we then decided to take matter in our hands and used the GPS to locate Banke Bihari temple. We were fortunate to reach by 5.30 pm for dharshan of the deity in the ‘Tribhanga’ (meaning ‘bent in three places’) posture. One has to pass through narrow alley ways to reach this holiest historic temple. The whole area is full of shops selling religious knick-knacks and small eateries are abuzz with customers.
The ISKON Temple
We left here feeling relaxed and at peace and reached the ISKON – Sri Sri Krishna Balaram Mandir, where we had booked a room for the night for an economical Rs. 1400 (approx USD $22). The temple complex is not very huge, but is maintained well with clean rooms and good food. We went into the temple to pay obeisance and immediately felt positive vibes emanating from every corner as the chants of ‘Hare Krishna’ resonated through the halls.
Another beautiful temple to visit here is the Prem Mandir. It has a huge complex and is lit up beautifully in the night.
We had our simple yet wholesome dinner at ISKON, though there is no dearth of restaurants in Vrindavan. Sleeping in such a holy land felt good and we were rejuvenated the next morning as we set off for Fatehpur Sikri for more enlightenment.
Fatehpur Sikri – A World Heritage Site
The ideal time to visit any fort is early in the morning, especially in the summer. An hour’s drive on a not-so crowded highway and we were soon turning into an off-shoot road that led to the historical political capital of the Mughal Empire that was ruled by Emperor Akbar.
Fatehpur and Sikri were twin towns, Fatehpur (City of Victory) constructed to celebrate Akbar’s victory over Gujarat and Sikri (Shukri) which was founded by Babar (Akbar’s grandfather). It was home to the Sufi Saint, Shaikh Salim Chishti. The whole town was developed by Akbar as thanks-giving to the Sufi Saint, who had blessed him with an heir, Salim (Jehangir) named after the saint himself.
The walk to the well maintained fort from the parking is almost half a km and we were happy we were wearing comfortable shoes. Do remember to carry a bottle of water each, although its cumbersome lugging it around the huge fort.The forts in India charge differently for Indian and foreign tourists. We paid Rs 40 for entrance while foreigners are charged Rs. 510 (approx USD $8).
The red and buff sandstone fort is a beautiful blend of Persian and Mughal architecture.
Being in love with history and forts, I immediately got transported into the world of Jodha and Akbar here. This fort of Akbar, apart from the regular stories of battles won and wonderful administration, boasts of a beautiful love story — an alliance of a Rajput princess with a Muslim ruler (specially at a time when a Rajput woman would rather commit suicide than have a Muslim man even look at her) just for the sake of a political alliance.
As I walked up the ramp, I could sense the trepidation of Queen Jodha as her palanquin must have passed here, entering a totally alien environment of a different culture.
The alliance between the great Akbar and Jodha was only possible because of the amazing respect and interest shown by both parties towards religious harmony.
Jodha’s palace and Panch Mahal, where Akbar used to relax, is still the most beautiful part of the fort.
Its central carved pillar is a masterpiece of Mughal architecture
A visit to the most revered tomb of Salim Chisti to offer prayers — ask for any wish while tying a thread at the marble windows of this Dargah — is a done thing along with evoking your spirituality.
And on my way out, as I finally stopped at the Buland Darwaza, to survey the landscape below and looked at the shrine behind me, it was with mixed emotions that I left this architectural wonder — a testimony to the reverence of a Mughal Emperor and to the architectural excellence of an era gone by.
We sat in silence in the car for some time while it sped towards Agra, an hour away. It does need some time to get over so much history!
We reached Agra on time to have lunch at Jahanpanah and try out some authentic Awadhi cuisine. Maybe we were starving, because the food seemed heavenly at least to me.
We then checked into Taj Resorts, which is walking distance from the Taj Mahal and immediately left to see this beautiful monument as the closing time for tourists is 6.30 pm. (Do remember however that the Taj Mahal is closed on Fridays.)
To avoid pollution near the Taj, the parking for vehicles is a little away and one can either walk or board a non-polluting electric bus from this point to the gate of Taj.
Taj Mahal – Crown of Palaces
Although we had booked our tickets online (Rs 20), we faced an amusing yet serious moment at the entry gate. As is with typical youngsters these days, my ‘super-fair’ complexioned nephew had pony-tailed hair and with his ‘geeky’, ‘yo-man’ accent got the ticket-checker confused. He refused to allow my nephew to enter, convinced that he was a foreigner and insisting that he buy the ticket meant for foreigners (Rs 750)! The commotion at the men’s line that ensued as this stopped traffic for sometime, was something I won’t forget. Since my nephew was not carrying any identification papers, he was made to converse in ‘non-accent’ Hindi as a form of proof!
The grand, ornamental gateway itself had a sobering effect on us when we read the inscription on it: “O Soul, thou art at rest. Return to the Lord at peace with Him, and He at peace with you,”
As we entered the precincts of this world-famed, white marble mausoleum, the aesthetically maintained symmetrical gardens started filling up our senses with awe, beckoning us further inside till a bend in the path brought us face to face with the most arresting man-made epic monument of the world, built by the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan in loving memory of his third wife, Mumtaz Mahal!
The first glimpse of this magnificent structure just stopped me in my tracks and a remark by the British painter, Hodges, immediately crossed my mind, “It appears like a perfect pearl on an azure ground. The effect is such I have never experienced from any work of art.”
If this was not love… what else could it be?
We were asked to remove our shoes before we climbed up the stairs to circle this wonder.
Beautiful architecture in marble
Behind the Taj, flows the Yamuna quietly and seems to respectfully acknowledge this tribute to timeless love.
The actual resting place of Mumtaz Mahal is not accessible to tourists and what we saw was just a replica.
We left this ‘epitome of love’ in a sombre mood as it was getting dark.
Not having had enough of Mughlai cuisine, we headed to The Silk Route Restaurant for dinner. The ambience may not have been the best, but the food was great.
Agra Fort – A UNESCO World Heritage Site
Although we were very happy with Fatehpur Fort, we just had to take a round of one of the finest and well-maintained Mughal forts in India; the Agra Fort, also called Lal Qila, Fort Rouge or Red Fort of Agra (since it was built using red sand stone) – a symbol of power, strength, resilience and in later years; tyranny.
Also because after seeing Shahjahan’s love, we also wanted to check out the place where he was imprisoned by his son, Aurangzeb, for 8 years and spent his last years looking out at the tomb of his beloved.
The fort was initially built as a military structure and later palaces and many more beautiful buildings were added.
Incidentally, part of it is out of bounds for the general public as it is still used by the Indian military.
Like all forts, it had the Diwan-ai-aam, the Diwan-ai-khaas, the Ladies Bazaar, the Sheesh Mahal etc with the exception of the Shah Burj (The tower where Shah Jahan was held captive).
I left here feeling very poignant and wondered at how human relationships disintegrate in the face of ambition, power and authority!
A lovely weekend indeed and as advised, we made a bee-line for the market to pick up the famed ‘angoori petha’ and ‘daal-moth’ before we headed back to New Delhi and this time by the Expressway!