After the oasis in Khajuraho and Orchha’a, Agra meant going back to the India we had known a few days before: big city, traffic, and noise. Agra was the capital of the Mogul empire for a century, and the heritage of that time makes them be a popular destination for travellers all around the world: the Taj Mahal. One of the non-argued Wonders in the world, and which can be a reason on itself to put India as your next destination.
The Taj Mahal is considered one of the most expensive and beautiful (from a material perspective) proofs of love in the history of Humankind. It was ordered to be built by the Emperor Shah Jahan as a memorial for his wife. A colossal white marble building that can be seen from several spots in Agra, and which looks fascinating from all of them. If you see the video, you can see one of the most hair-raising moments of the trip, when you cross a gate and the Taj Mahal appears in front of you… It is hard not to immerse into the picture-taking hysteria around you. When getting closer to the building itself, you are jealous of not being able to take the same famous picture as Lady Di with an empty complex, although we did a homage to it.
As this was one of the main drivers to come to India, we carefully planned our stay in Agra around Taj Mahal. We stayed just 1 km away from the least crowded gate in a hotel with a swimming pool with views to the Wonder, we made sure not to be the day it closes, and we were before the daybreak to make sure we could avoid the hordes of visitors, and if possible, we could see the magic building change its look minute by minute, as the sun lights it from different angle. Some piece of advice for you regarding this: if the day is foggy (quite frequent), there will be no such thing as those changes, and it may not be worth to get up that early. Moreover, instead of queuing to be the first ones, you can easily be there 30 minutes after they open the complex, and you will avoid queues… If you are not a morning person, don’t thank me for this advice.
The century of ruling the Empire from Agra left the city a few more stimulating spots apart from the Taj Mahal. Its fort is one of the most refined ones in our stay, as it incorporated styles and tastes from different dynasties, which combined the red and the white stones with a noteworthy result. Also, if it was not for the proximity of the Taj Mahal, the known as Baby Taj would be a major highlight in Agra.
Before leaving to Jaipur, also by car, we asked the driver to stop in the Fatehpur Sikri complex, which is in the outskirts of Agra. This complex lies in a high hill, and it is formed by a fort (yet another one!), and a mosque. The fort is a concatenation of buildings and vast halls, with very few people inside. If I were more into art or architecture, I may have discovered the subtle differences with the other forts in India… but it is not the case. On the other hand, the mosque was a terrific choice. Its entrance, facing a vast valley, and steep steps gives you the feeling of entering a rural major mosque, full of tourists, and probably because of that, full of activity.
A pleasant way to finish our visit to Agra, home of the Taj Mahal, which we will for sure remember regardless of how many years go by. A more than justified Wonder of the World.
Khajuraho is a small town at a night-train distance from Varanasi, and it is the perfect stop after the intense and touching Varanasi: no traffic, less people, and a relaxing atmosphere… but that is not why we go there. We go there because of the 22 temples older than 1000 years, and which were built by the Chandela Dynasty. The legend of the birth of this dynasty is closely linked to the temples: the most beautiful lady in town (legendary stories do not happen with regular people, remember) is taking a bath in one of the nearby lake, when Chandra, the Moon God, sees her, and decides to come down to Earth in the form of an attractive gentleman (again, only attractive men have such an effectiveness) and she falls in love. After that night, the Moon God disappear, and she later gives birth to a child, who later became the founder of this Dynasty.
With such background, it is not surprising that the temples walls are covered by fine figures picturing the main activities at that time and the most important values for the dynasty: war and erotism. War figures are quite basic, but the latter covers all possible spectrum in the most specific way. Some guidebooks say this is the origin of the famous Kamasutra book, but it is actually not linked to it.
These figures represent the union of the masculine and feminine energies, which signify the magical protection needed to guarantee the successful life of the temple. Apart from these details, the temples are kept very nicely, and their perfect alignment to East, put into the perspective of the time of building, is breathtaking.
There is enough time to explore the surrounding areas, and we followed the advice of the people in our hotel (by the way, quite more easy-going than the ones in other places), and we let our tuk-tuk driver bring us to the Panna Tiger Reserve. The 45 minutes ride was the most rural part of the whole trip, and was worth it to see closer the massive nature, and the rural life… The real differences with our home countries became clear, as women had to walk long distances for water, food and life seemed to be slower for those sitting on the curb looking at any vehicle that crossed the road. The destination offered us some fanciful formations that water and limestone has created, with impressive waterfalls up to 30 meters.
From Khajuraho, we took a car (with driver) to go to Orcha’a, another small town with even less activity than Khajuraho, but blessed with a river. There we visited their two forts, Raj Mahal and Jehangir Mahal, massive buildings, empty of any furniture, with many rooms and a big open-air halls, as many others we had seen. The feeling here was a bit different as these complexes were on a hill in a big green valley governing a vast territory. Apart from the forts, Orchha’a also hosts a complex of chaatris, at the riverside, which are memorial buildings, acting as tombs of former kings.
After Orchha’a, we went to Jhanshi, which is a bigger city nearby, with a bigger train station, and where we took our train to Agra, home of the Taj Mahal.
The first impression of Delhi, the capital of India, when you arrive is that it is a hectic city with almost 10 million people continuously moving, provoking constant traffic jams in the main roads. When you arrive there, you may be prone to get immersed into the city, and decide to walk to the closest spot from your hotel. We did that too, and those were the worst 2 km that I have walked in a long time. My first recommendation would be to avoid doing that: Delhi (and in general, India) is not thought to have people walking long distances. Instead, take its wonderful subway, you will be pleased with its modern network, and its tidiness.
If you happen to stay near the diplomatic area, your first stop is the Gate of India. It reminded me to the Puerta de Alcalá, but in a nicer promenade made to emphasise the presence of the Parliament. If you are there after the sunset, you will find a hectic environment: local tourists taking themselves selfies with the monument (hard with the light conditions), and some others offering all kind of services (pictures, water selling, sweets, …). The building might not impress you much, but the leisure atmosphere is a nice beginning.
From there, you can would head to Connaught Place, another particular spot of the city: well known brand (and expensive) shops, tons of restaurants and bars, bazaars in the street, and mostly young people make it the top destination for evenings out, and some decent -but expensive- shopping.
The real visit to Delhi starts with Old Delhi, and there the main attraction is the Red Fort: the first fort in India was also one of the biggest in the country, and if you started your trip now, you will enjoy this kind of palaces (after a few more, you may be looking for something else): a fort is a sort of palace with military defences. Forts are a good way to understand the aesthetic taste at different ages in the history of India, and you can imagine the rulers having their receptions or living there, walking like we can do now in their vast and well preserved gardens.
When you go out of the fort, crossing a busy bazaar, you will arrive the the Jama Masjid, an impressive mosque, able to host up to 25000 people. If like me, you find mosques captivating with their vast open spaces, you can enjoy its atmosphere of retreat, so needed even if it is only the first day in Delhi. You might be luckier than we were, and have a successful visit to the nearby bazaar and the spice market… We did not enjoy it much. Either we did not go to the right place, or my expectations were not the right ones. Bazaar and spice markets bring me to two places in this world: Istanbul and Marrakech, and that was not what we saw there.
To complete the day, you can visit two wonderful monuments; both of them are memorials of different rulers. The first one is the Safdarjang’s Tomb, and as it is not in the centre, it is not crowded, and its visit becomes a relaxing experience, where you can even take a short siesta to recover from the jetlag. The second one was the Humayan’s tomb, which is almost as crowded as the Fort. This memorial inspired the Taj Mahal in Agra, and it is a huge red marble building with several tombs inside. Taj Mahal is a clear must, but visiting Humayan’s tomb boosts the appetite to arrive to Agra.
Before the sunset, you can still be convinced by a crazy tuk tuk driver to go to the Lotus Temple, a modern building in the outskirts of Delhi, which hosts the Bahai House of Worship, aiming to close the gap between different religions… Not that interesting inside (a few minutes to reflect, pray, etc.), but really nice from the outside.
A great farewell from Delhi can be the Loddhi Park and buy some curry and tea. The park atmosphere was very similar to the one you can see in any big park in the world: my dear Retiro park in Madrid, Englischer Garten in München, Central Park in New York, with only minor differences (like the remains of a mosque inside): people jogging, couples, friends, and even BBQ’s… Life in megacities are the same in any place in the world: we are not that different in the end.