In and Out of Agra, India, Home of the Taj Mahal
You'd think that Agra, India would be a city you'd want to linger in, to savor. Home of the Taj Mahal, Agra Fort, and other impressive Mughal monuments, Agra is one of the most spectacular cultural destinations in India.
But Agra's got a nasty reputation. Most people treat a visit to the city like a military reconnaissance mission: in and out as quickly as possible.
A Leader in Hassles and Annoyances
Agra was also home to a food poisoning scam a few years ago in which doctors and restaurants deliberately poisoned tourists and then treated them – and split the insurance money. This scam was broken up by European insurance companies a few years ago, but most visitors are still extremely wary of food in the city.
Dancing About the Taj
As I stood gaping and grinning before the monument, I began speaking openly to myself. "Good Lord! This is just… just…" but even in that very private (and forgiving) audience, I couldn't find a single word that didn't seem like an insult. Magnificent. Majestic. Stupendous. Might as well slap your mother in the face. The Taj is bigger than words. It demands to be seen, and to speak for itself.
The greatest of all Mughal rulers, Akbar the Great's shadow still looms over Agra. He and his sons created the template for the city's architecture and design, and their fascinating and brutal history (complete with genius, betrayal, murder, and polygamy) now borders on legend.
A Muslim, Akbar was famously tolerant of other religions. He had three wives – a Muslim, a Hindu, and a Christian. He even invented a new religious philosophy that asserted the commonalities in all religions.
The stories behind Akbar and his family come alive when visiting Agra Fort and Fatehpur Sikri, magnificent fortified cities in and around Agra. Constructed in the 1500's and 1600's, these forts boasted ingenious systems for air conditioning, plumbing, and defense, and were magnificently decorated with paintings and marble inlay. The splendor that the privileged residents of these cities enjoyed (thousands of concubines, enormous rosewater baths, private markets, games played upon giant marble boards using concubines as pieces, sport fishing with bow and arrow, nightly concerts...) must have rivaled the richest and most advanced empires throughout history.
At the end of each day in Agra, I'd sit on my hotel's rooftop, enjoy a big bottle of Kingfisher, and watch the sun set over the Taj and the old city. And Agra didn't seem so bad. I even managed to find a good restaurant: Joney's, an old city hole-in-the-wall that serves the best malai kofta and banana lassi I've ever had.
As for the hassles and annoyances, well, they seem to be the price of admission for many of the world's great destinations. And, when you consider the rewards of a city like Agra, the inconveniences are a small price to pay.Posted on March 10, 2003 12:16 AM