1 Taj Mahal
The Taj Mahal is synonymous with India, and for good reason. The white marble mausoleum is the tomb of Shah Jahan’s most favorite wife — Mumtaz Mahal (which translates to “the chosen one” in Arabic), who was the mother of the emperor’s 14 children. One of the children was Aurangzeb, who was notorious for imprisoning and murdering his own father.
During the 17th century, most Mughal architecture was built using red sandstone. But this monument was created using white inlaid marble and semi-precious stones. Shah Jahan was immensely fond of architecture and wanted to express his love for his deceased wife by creating a tomb that was nothing less than a spectacle. He employed 20,000 laborers who worked for 20 years to build the structure. Bear in mind, modern construction machinery didn’t exist at the time; everything was done by hand.
The monument’s exteriors are decorated with calligraphy, vegetable and flower motifs and abstract forms. The design is notable for the symmetry of the cenotaph; the Taj Mahal viewed from all four sides looks identical. It is surrounded by three main gates made of red sandstone. The east gate is the VIP gate (foreigners enter from here too), while the west gate is usually accessed by local tourists and residents. The mausoleum overlooks fountains and a marble bench known as the Lady Diana bench, as the princess was photographed seated on this very spot.
There are separate lines for foreigners and local tourists (the ticket price varies too) and upon entering the Taj, one has to strain to view the interiors due to dim lighting. This has been done intentionally to avoid insects hovering around the place. A circular edifice holds the replica of the tombs, while the original ones of the emperor and his wife are kept downstairs, in an area that can’t be accessed publicly.
Open every day except Friday, sunrise to sunset. Ticket prices are INR1,000 ($16) for foreigners and INR40 ($0.62) for Indians.
2 Taj Ganj
Agra’s handicrafts date back to the Mughal empire. The emperors were culturally inclined and introduced the state to varied arts and crafts, which still thrive today, supporting the city’s economy and adding another feather to the city’s cultural cap. The best way to indulge in a bit of traditional street shopping is by exploring the area outside of the Taj Mahal, known as Taj Ganj. This area is a fascinating insight into the local life and trade of this city, which still reflects the artistry from the time of the Mughals.
Agra is known for its footwear, marble and carpet industry and a glimpse of that can be caught here. Instead of taking home a magnet, it’s best to invest in a marble souvenir. Some of these are also created with semi-precious stones. Mini Taj Mahals can be purchased too. But don’t expect much in the way of detail at this size.
Since the city hosts a large number of international tourists, it’s common to be quoted higher prices. Best to hunt for the right bargain, as shops stock similar products. Traditional footwear, known as mojdis or the famous slippers of Kolhapur, known as Kolhapuris can also be purchased here.
Agra is also known for its sweet dish Petha, made from white pumpkins. The dessert is quite heavy and often replaces meals for locals. Panchhi Petha (panchhipetha.com), one of the best shops for sweets in the city, is located at Taj Ganj as well. There are a number of cafes and restaurants offering views of the Taj around. Stick to beverages and indulge in their food absolutely at your own risk, as the dishes at these restaurants might not be suitable for sensitive stomachs.
3 Peshawri at ITC Mughal
Definitely not for the faint-hearted, a meal at this gem from the house of ITC hotels must not be missed. In true Mughal fashion, the world of Peshawri emulates the cuisine of the northwest frontier of Peshawar (which was a part of India before partition) with its rustic ambience and non-cutlery way of dining. Upon request, the staff will offer you forks and knives, if required.
Try not to eat a few hours before your meal at this restaurant, so you can thoroughly enjoy the experience. Peshawri prides itself on a variety of succulent vegetarian and non-vegetarian kebabs which are cooked after marinating in a traditional tandoor (clay pot). Try the Kastoori Kebab, made with subtle spices and deer musk, for a light appetizer. The cuisine of this area didn’t have any gravy dishes, but the restaurant lists a Murgh Makhni to appeal to all palates which can be eaten with its classic family naan bread. Its famous Dal Bukhara is slow-cooked on a simmer through the night to attain its signature flavor. ITC hotel’s Bukhara brand is only at their flagship hotel in Delhi. Peshawri is their brand name at the other properties.
Open for lunch, 12:30PM to 2:30 PM, dinner 7:00 PM to 11:45 PM. ITC Mughal, Agra; tel +91 562 4021700; Taj Ganj, Agra, Uttar Pradesh 282001, India
4 Mehtab Bagh
For a quiet and calm view of the Taj Mahal, cross a bridge to the other side of the Yamuna River. The main mausoleum can get very crowded, which doesn’t allow one to soak in the magnificence of the Taj Mahal. The Mehtab Bagh, or “moonlight garden,” is a quadrilateral complex that features an orderly layout of narcissuses, plants and fruit trees alongside walkways and fountains. The extreme end of the garden overlooks the Taj Mahal and the red sandstone gates on each side.
The garden must be visited at dawn or dusk to catch the Taj reflecting light in the most spectacular way. The size of the garden space is the same as the Taj Mahal, and legend had it that Shah Jahan wanted to build a Black Taj at this very site to hold his tomb after his death. Recent excavations and research have proved otherwise, though, as relics of a huge octagonal tank with 25 fountains, a small central tank and a baradari (a building or pavilion with 12 doors designed to allow free flow of air) on the east have been found.
Open every day, sunrise to sunset. Entry fee INR200 ($3) for foreigners, INR15 ($0.25) for Indians.
By Benét Wilson