There is really only one reason to go to Agra – the Taj Mahal. We ticked that box within a few hours of our arrival. After navigating to our hostel, which was close enough to be inside the green zone which had restricted vehicle access. We wandered over to the nearest entry gate for a sunset view. Getting there was a bit of a hassle, as Agra touts were persistent, and exhibited a tendency to list all of the traits of their product or menu, rainman-like, until a better Western target aproached. “Very good, yes?, very cheap, cold beer, kingfisher, heinekin, red wine, white wine, juice, good food, curry, chicken …..you eat!?” One youngster didn’t even wait for us to respond before cutting his prices repeatedly, every step getting closer to the pathetic “5 rupee” guy in Jaipur. Then there were the guides, official and bogus, trying to convince you that without them the Taj would make no sense.
We managed to give them all the slip and, after passing through security, wandered with the crowds towards the mausoleum. It is famously proportional, and ornately carved, but mostly, it is very white. The gardens and approach are filled with groups of people selfieing away, jumping into the best spot, grumbling at the professionals who take tonnes of time posing the couple or family, checking the images, posing again.
We were free to wander around on the marble and join the queue to view the cripts inside. While the inside is decorated with elaborately jeweled screens, unfortunately it was poorly lit and even phone torches were forbidden.
The sun set, hardly giving a show of colours, and we set off home past the touts. We would end up coming back through them again as we searched out places to eat, as the hostel cafe had closed down. Each time we came through the cycle would repeat as the tenacious touts, seemingly oblivious to their previous failures, pitched it all over again. M finally lost it and shouted “Just Stop!” at the three talking over each other as the three of us tried to orient ourselves. It startled them enough to actually work!
Day two in Agra was spent going out to the mughal ruins at fatpur sikri. Once again we engaged our airport taxi driver who had some 25 years local experience. He was pretty relaxed about the usual upsells, but he seemed very dubious that we could navigate this site with just our guidebook. We held firm and followed the signs through the market to the bus into the main ruins.
By now corona in China was seriously affecting tourist numbers, so the touts seemed extra sticky. They walked with us giving insider tips we didn’t need and repeating their stall number so we could shop on our return.
To be fair to our driver, the LP map was shit and for the first 30 min we looped around. But as we did we listened to various guides giving completely different explanations of each building so we were happy to keep making up our own version. We also got to overhear some quite different political commentary on the current political situation with the Citizenship Amendment Act from Muslim guides as compared to the Hindu perspective further south.
The Fatpur Palace ruin was fairly typical, although a bit more focused on wives and concubines than most. He was apparently very religiously tolerant with wives from every faith, but we also toured a huge stable designed for 1000 concubines.
The adjoining Sikri mosque complex includes an active Sufi shrine with an indeterminate mix of tourists and worshipers creating an unusual level of relaxed reverence. And one quarter was closed off due to a massive beehive in the ceiling!
On our way back to town we stopped at the Agra Fort, which had apparently been mostly destroyed by the British and wasn’t in great repair but had impressive views back to the Taj.
Back home our host had a bit of good gossip to share – the Donald and Modi were coming in a week so he and all his staff were interviewed by US Security teams. Just because they would be driving past the front gate. We ended up talking politics awhile and learned his boss, the owner, had worked in the prior opposition government and was no fan of Modi. Wonder if the secret service uncovered that?