heritage

Agra & The Taj Mahal

Agra & The Taj Mahal

Agra & The Taj Mahal

 

Agra & the Taj Mahal are inseparable. Some call it the ultimate monument of love. Others, an ostentatious display of ill – gotten wealth in a pathetic attempt at self – aggrandization. Then there’s the theory that it’s an ancient Shiva temple. . Notwithstanding its antecedents, the Taj Mahal is truly spectacular to look at.

Neither the pictures, nor the videos depicting the Taj Mahal do justice to it. One needs to see it to believe it. The sheer scale of vision and painstaking attention to detail in its execution is mind – boggling. And to think they managed to construct it in a mere 20 odd years. Or at least that is what the ASI would have you believe. If you think that’s nothing, consider this: it took us nearly 30 years to construct the Bandra – Worli sealink in Mumbai!

Getting from Ranthambore to Agra

 

Agra is a nippy 275KMS from Ranthambore. We figured if we left early, we’d get there around lunch time, AFTER a quick stop at Fatehpur Sikri.

The Abrar Palace staff (now called the Aranya Nature Resort) packed some sandwiches, fruits and tea for us, which we carried with us as we left at 0600HRS on 24 Dec 2019. The car thermometer gave the outside temperature as 6 and we felt every one of those degrees!

We turned onto the main Ranthambore fort road from the resort and in no time were zipping along on SH 148, heading to Dausa. It took us about two and a half hours to get to Dausa, which is at a distance of 110KMS. Typically, we would cover this distance in 90 minutes at the very most. However, visibility was very poor as the entire landscape was covered in a thick blanket of fog.

Add to this, neither the Pajero nor the Creta had very effective fog lamps. I mean, they are adequate if you want to potter along at 50 to 60KMPH, but any faster, and you do so at your own risk. Having said that, we were still the fastest thing on the roads. So, maybe the fog itself was too thick for any fog lamps! Anyway, that is neither here nor there. The point is, we got to Dausa around 0830HRS.

From Dausa you turn on to NH21 and travel along this road for a further 126KMS to get to Bharatpur. As we crossed the toll after Dausa, Avantika announced she wanted to go to the bathroom. We stopped along the highway, and decided to use the open air facilities, namely, the fields on either side to relieve ourselves. Being environmentally super – conscious, we took every care to cover all offerings with loose soil. The kids collected every scrap of paper and plastic. Basically, we ensured that our presence didn’t impact the local ecology in any detrimental manner whatsoever.

“This bonnet is nice and warm!” said Aditya, as he got onto the Creta’s hood to sit while everyone did their thing and we got a move on. Taking a cue from that, we sprung the hoods of both cars to make them even with the floor. Using this as a table, we spread out the packed sandwiches on the bonnet (still wrapped in their silver foil packing) and had a feast of ‘naturally’ warmed up sandwiches and piping hot tea. The girls got innovative, stuffing the sandwiches with wafers, ‘sev’ and other snacks we’d carried along and simply upped the taste quotient! Post the impromptu breakfast, Addy got in the Creta with Simran and Sanju and we continued our journey towards Agra & the Taj Mahal.

Driving from Ranthambore to Agra
Driving through the mist, en route from Ranthambore to Agra

 

The roads throughout Rajasthan were uniformly good and traffic was quite orderly. With the sun now desultorily peeping through, the fog dissipated somewhat and we made better time getting to Bharatpur, before taking the turn off to Fatehpur Sikra. Actually, it is the same highway NH21 that goes to Fatehpur and onwards to Agra, except that just before Bharatpur it turns at right angles towards the right.

Fatehpur Sikri and Mughal – e – Azam:

 

Before getting to Agra & the Taj Mahal, we decided to check out Sikri. I love Fatehpur Sikri about as much as I hate what Bollywood has done to its memory. We stopped at a dhaba with a huge lawn. I don’t remember its name, which doesn’t matter as you’re not missing much. At least the pakoras and tea were piping hot! E – rickshaws operate from these dhabas and the parking stand, that get you to the monument. We took a couple of these and headed to check out the old town.

We hired an ill – informed local guide, bloke called Ashraf, who gave us the typical spiel on the joint. He didn’t know much about Din – E – Elahi, Akbar’s misadventure with a cohesive religion to bring his subjects together. He started off by educating us that Akbar established the city. Wrong. There are records of Babur having camped here. Obviously Sikri existed way before Akbar or his grand - dad showed up for the party. The only fact the guide got right was that Akbar briefly shifted his capital to Sikri. And the fact that Akbar built the Buland Darwaza to commemorate his victory in Gujarat. Actually scratch that. The 'Buland Darwaza' pre dates Akbar and he merely got the details of his exploits inscribed on it!

Buland Darwaza at Fatehpur Sikri
The Buland Darwaza at Fatehpur Sikri

 

We visited the tomb of Salim Chishti, the Sufi saint who probably was responsible for Akbar shifting his capital to Sikri. The tomb is in a pretty good state of repair. It's an open courtyard with qawwals singing outside the main mausoleum. The weather was great and spirituality hung like a gossamer drape in the air. The qawwals were quite good and all in all, it was quite a nice experience. That was until we went in.

Tomb of Salim Chisti
The tomb of Salim chichi that looks uncannily like a temple!

 

The actual tomb looks eerily like a Hindu temple. There is a passage to perambulate the idol. The architecture is very typical Rajputana, what with the lattice - work, flower motifs et al. It suddenly reminded me of a treatise I'd read by one Prof P.N. Oak. One may dismiss it as revisionist pseudo - history. However, the facts seem to fit in very well with his narrative! According to him Sikri was an old Rajput stronghold which Babar captured. All that we see today are original Rajput architecture, commandeered and embellished by successive Mughals!

Anarkali - the Truth behind Mughal - e - Azam

Ashraf also showed us the now locked gates that lead to underground chambers and tunnels. One of these purportedly leads to Agra, which it probably does. Accordingly to Ashraf, Prince Salim wanted to use these tunnels to spirit off the love of his life, Anarkali, when his father found out about his great romance wanted to have her captured. Unfortunately, Akbar was successful and had the captured Anarkali entombed alive in one of the rooms in the subterranean chambers. This tale uncannily mimicked the script of ‘Mughal – e – Azam.’ 

Passageway to tunnels from Fatehpur Sikri to Agra
Passageway to tunnels from Fatehpur Sikri to Agra

 

While the tale of Anarkali’s end is probably true, the story of her life as narrated by Ashraf (and pretty much all guides at Fatehpur I guess) is nothing but a fairytale propagated by ‘Mughal – E – Azam’.  The truth is that Anarkali was a concubine gifted to Akbar. She was probably of Greek or Egyptian origin (historians aren’t sure which) and the flavour of the season for the emperor. Now, Salim didn’t particularly get along with daddy. This was primarily since pops was a super – achiever. Salim always fell short of daddy’s expectations, no matter what he did. So to spite his father, Salim had a dalliance with daddy’s favourite plaything for the moment, Anarkali.

The lady in question was quite floored with the attentions of the powerful emperor and his more virile son, both at the same time. As far as she was concerned, she’d arrived. Unfortunately, Akbar didn’t quite see things the same way. He was obviously livid when he found out that Salim had been sampling wares that he’d reserved for his exclusive use. There was nothing that he could do to his own son by way of punishment. So he did the next best thing. He had Anarkali blinded and put to death.

I did try and share this piece of fact with Ashraf, but he soundly denounced it with unshakeable proof, ‘Aap Mughal – E – Ajam dekhiye. Asliyat maalum padh jayegi,’ he said, pronouncing Asif’s blockbuster as the final word on Mughal history, inasmuch as Anarkali’s tale is concerned! I think there is a lesson somewhere in there on our understanding of history as a people and its reflection on us as a nation today.

We left Fatehpur around 1230HRS and reached Agra in about an hour or so. Being booked at the renovated and newly re – opened Holiday Inn on MG road, we promptly entered the coordinates on Google maps and followed its instructions to get there. I think Google might’ve missed one or two back alleys, but otherwise took us through every conceivable hole – in – wall pathway that exists in the city, before it eventually got us to the hotel. Of course, there was s straighter road that would’ve gotten us to the hotel in shorter time, but it was 2KMS longer. Hence Google Maps took us through the shorter route, which only got us to our destination 30 minutes later than the longer route would have!

Holiday Inn: Agra & The Taj Mahal

We were greeted warmly at the porch by the GM, MR. Kapil Vig himself and he had us checked in quickly. The entire lobby was done up in Christmas decorations and he asked us to bring the kids down for carols later that evening. I’m not sure if Kapil personally greets and escorts every guest. Maybe the fact that he is an old batchmate of mine had something to do with it!

Santa at the Holiday Inn Agra
Holiday Inn Agra all decked up for Christmas, with Santa in attendance!

 

Jokes apart, the newly renovated Holiday Inn Hotel, Agra ticks all the boxes. The rooms are very well – appointed. Everything is where it should be and works as it should. The restaurant is quite spacious and as we learnt later, quite popular with the locals. The food was actually quite good. We totally feasted on the Mughlai fare that they served up for the three meals we had there. All in all, the Holiday Inn at Agra proved to be good value for money.

I must add, that I’ve stayed at the Lalit in Agra once before. Although the grandeur of that property is way more than the Holiday Inn, we found the service levels at the latter property to be far superior. Really well – trained staff, professional, courteous and eager to help. I suppose at least one of us did indeed pay attention in class when Kapil and I studied hotel management.

Next morning we were joined in by Simran’s mom and her 7 year old ward, Dipika, who travelled in by train from Chandigarh. After a right royal breakfast in the Holiday Inn coffee shop, we hopped into the cars and headed to visit the Taj Mahal.

Once again, the Holiday Inn chaps had arranged a guide for us, one MR. Joshi, who purchased our entry tickets and met us at the parking lot near the Taj. From there he escorted us to the monument.

Like I said, the Taj Mahal is to be seen to be believed. I won’t get into the mechanical details of the monument as they are better covered by those far more competent than I am. In fact, you can check out what UNESCO has to say about it at.

Of more interest was Joshi’s spiel on Agra & the Taj Mahal. He started off by extolling the salient features of true love and how having pots of money is one thing, but having the heart to spend it is another altogether. Shah Jahaan loved Mumtaz to a fault and the Taj Mahal is his ever – lasting ode to that great love, according to him. Of course there are a million and then some conspiracy theories to debunk this claim but getting into that is kind of pointless.

Taj Mahal Agra
The de rigour romantic pose before the Taj Mahal

 

Did Khurram (Shahjahaan) take Mumtaz’s sister as his wife immediately after her death? He probably did but one needs to factor in that it was a different time and era then. It was an age when the moral compass that had a completely different setting. The point is, whoever had Agra & the Taj Mahal built, it is truly deserving of every word of praise and accolade it has ever received.

As for the monument having been built on the foundations of a Shiva temple, well, once again this point is moot unless the subterranean doors and passages are opened to reveal what truly lies beneath. Of course, you could also refer to Prof. P N Oak’s book to learn more about this. Unfortunately, there are no e – book or kindle versions of this work available, but you can get your hands on a paperback version on Amazon.

Taj mahal Agra
The architecture looks uncannily Rajputana. Perhaps Prof. PN Oak did know what he was talking about!

We were eventually done with the Taj Mahal by 1500HRS. Everyone decided to head to the hotel for a late lunch and catnap in preparation for our drive into the Himalayan foothills the next morning. Ritika and I decided to check out the Agra fort. But one look at the traffic conditions changed our minds. While getting into the city the previous day, we had thought that driving sense is bad. Now, it was even worse. The traffic policemen were acutely conspicuous by their absence and all in all, things were very shoddy. A pretty sorry state of affairs for a town that houses one of the seven wonders of the world!

We spent a quiet evening in the hotel, enjoying the Christmas buffet. The sheer spread of desserts was awesome. I'm sure we all added a couple of pounds if not more, gorging on the delicacies the chef had put up.

With Agra & the Taj Mahal, we'd completed one more leg of our expedition. We retired for the night, super excited to be heading towards the mountains and another forest range the next morning.

Reading next

Ranthambore Fort: A monument to untold Valour
Club Mahindra at Corbett National Park

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