Mike visited:

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» India
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» Swaziland
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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's got the pollution and chaos that are mainstays of every Indian city, but where it really excels is in freaking out its visitors. The persistence of the city's touts and beggars is legendary:

  • Taxi drivers typically ask for 10 times more than the normal fare price. Sometimes they even refuse to take you to your destination, telling you there's a road block or that your hotel has "burned down".
  • Trinket sellers get up in your face and stay there for twenty minutes or more, repeating desperate mantras: "Sir! Beautiful necklace for your sister, your mother, your wife, your aunt. Sir! Just look! Beautiful necklace for your mother, your sister, your friend. Sir! Beautiful necklace for your…"
  • Beggars swarm around you outside of every tourist destination and just won't take no for an answer. They walk beside you, tug on your arm, paw your clothing, and mutter curses if you manage to refuse them.

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.

In spite of the problems, Agra is one of the more incredible destinations in India. It would be criminal to skip it in favor of convenience.

they don't let you leave the country without this photo

Dancing About the Taj
"Writing about music," said Elvis Costello, "is like dancing about architecture." But I think I could dance about the Taj Mahal more evocatively than I could write about it.

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.

Agra Fort
The Forts that Akbar Built
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.

Itimad-ud-Daulah, called "Baby Taj" because of its similar design elements
Sunsets Over the Old City
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


Comments (post your own below)

I am surprised to see you talk about malai kofta and banana lassi as if you had been tasting them for years all around India. Was it maybe bhang-ana lassi what they served you instead?

Now that you mentioned religious sincretism, here's a valuable travel tip that will lead you to one of India's best kept secrets -- "AAA and HIC. South to Anantha's steps, where the Arabian Sea meets the Andaman Sea, Hinduism meets Islam and Christianism."

Posted by: cave canem on March 10, 2003 06:52 AM


I had visited Agra in 1982,
when I was a teenager,
without having much appreciation to what I saw there.

But, after reading your descriptions now in 2003,
I feel like I should revisit that place with my eyes wide open!!

Happy journey!!!!

Best Regards,

Posted by: Satya on March 10, 2003 10:58 AM

Dear Mike

Thank you so much for helping me successfully waste an entire afternoon of my "company's" time reading such an inspiring and encouraging journal.

I'm about to go solo round the world for the first time, and i'd be lying if i said i wasn't pooing my pants slightly at the prospect, but reading your entries and looking at all the incredible photos you've taken has replaced the heebie jeebies with impatience to get going and i'm definately rethinking Myanmar. Did you meet any solo women travellers whilst you were in the country?

Ooo, look at the time, time to leave the office! Anyway, truly amazing stuff. Enjoy the rest of your travels

Best wishes


Posted by: on March 11, 2003 10:29 AM

Is the "Lonely Planet" tour book accurate? Are foreigners charged Rs.960/US$20 entry to the Taj Mahal while Indians pay Rs.20/US$0.40? The guide indicates the higher price is designed to reduce damaging traffic to the monument. Are you able to verify that foreign traffic, however, is just a small fraction of Indian visitors?

Posted by: YardBoy on March 12, 2003 01:49 AM

First time poster, long term reader :). I can confirm that the entrance to the Taj is in the region of $20 for foreigners and yes the majority of traffic is Indian

Posted by: Caelen on March 12, 2003 01:15 PM

You have lucidly described the beauty of the Taj but missed the point that it looks 100 times more lovely in the moon light. I highly recommend that nocturnal experience. Also, there is a still unsolved mystery about who really built the Taj. There is convincing evidence that the main structure excluding the minarets was originally a Shiva Temple. Read the book by P. N. Oka on this subject.

Posted by: Nitin on March 16, 2003 10:35 AM

Hi Mike,
Good to see that you visited Taj, Agra Fort and Fatehpur sikri. All the three are maintained in an excellent condition compared to other places as these are classified as World heritage monuments.
Did you find Iron pillars errected for some kind of renovation work going on in front of TAJ. When I visited in middle of January they were there and that perturbed the beauty.

Posted by: Arul on March 16, 2003 01:38 PM

I have spent months in India - but mostly confined to the central and southern regions. Your tour makes me want to return to see all that I have missed!

BTW, for the readers, I have found that it is very common to charge non-Indians far more for admission to many attractions. In fact I paid the same 50x ratio to see the caves of Ajanta - and it was well worth it!

Posted by: Russ on March 16, 2003 04:32 PM

Richard Haliburton claimed to have swam in the pool. Would that be healthy today? JS

Posted by: John Smart on March 18, 2003 08:06 PM

I was there in 1982. The Taj sort of melds into the cloudy sky in monsoon season, obscuring the boundary between heaven and earth.

The only way to deal with the beggars and touts, even then, was to simply not ever acknowledge them and simply pretend they weren't there. It sounds cold, but they really wear on you after only a short while. In no other place in India were they so persistent.

I was with a group traveling by truck and we had a vegetarian meal in Agra that was just about the best Indian meal I have ever had, anywhere.

Posted by: John on March 23, 2003 03:43 PM

Was there in 84. I avoided the meat, the vegetarian meals are excellent.

Posted by: Real estate web designer on April 1, 2003 06:38 PM

Pugh, you SOB! Quoting Elvis Costello?!? Has hell frozen over?? I distinctly recall your loud, mocking aversion to Elvis' song "What's so funny about peace, love and understanding" in a dorm room circa 1991. Of course, I wont hold it against you, your special circumstances warrant immunity from past misdeeds. Nevertheless, I want to remind you (I'm wagging my finger at you) that your then outspoken dislike of the now hall-of-famer is coming back to bite you on the ass, thanks in part to my flawless memory and the torment you inflicted on me for liking that song.
As for Robert Smith, I wouldn't hold your breath waiting for his induction into the hall. ;)

Posted by: Roane on April 3, 2003 09:38 AM

Sounds like alls well for you Mike!! I hope the mountains treat you well.

Posted by: Amy D on April 7, 2003 05:10 PM

Good travels to you!- Keep up the positive travel-spirit! Ingrid.

Posted by: Ingrid on April 8, 2003 12:49 AM

"First time poster, long term reader :). I can confirm that the entrance to the Taj is in the region of $20 for foreigners and yes the majority of traffic is Indian"

That is not true, there are a lot of Pakistani's there as well!

Posted by: International Phone Cards on October 16, 2003 05:03 PM

i want map of agra at mughal time

Posted by: neel on March 9, 2004 10:58 AM

Comments closed.


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