There is nowhere more welcoming in the world than the Oberoi Hotel in Agra. After our journey from Gwalior, and a long day’s sightseeing, it was just bliss to be taken to our room, with its wonderful view of the Taj Mahal; to sit on the balcony with some chilled white wine purloined from the minibar, and to observe the immaculate gardens, the inviting pool, and of course Shah Jahan’s immortal temple to love on the horizon. Once we were thoroughly relaxed, we headed down to the bar for a Tanqueray 10 and tonic in the best setting you can imagine, before going for a meal. Every time we’ve been to this hotel before, I’d always failed to get into the Esphahan restaurant for dinner – it had always been fully booked. I wasn’t taking any chances this time, having booked it a couple of weeks before we left the UK. It was as sumptuous as I’d hoped.
This time in Agra, we thought we’d try something different. We’d agreed with our travel agent that we would do a different kind of tour – a walking tour of old Agra, seeing some well-known sights from different angles; getting to see some of the places that tourists don’t always visit. It was called C The 4 is For Your Eyes, and our guide for this half-day experience was Meghan.
We’d been to Agra Fort before but this time we started at the “back entrance” – the Army gate, built in 1080. It’s still formed from that familiar red stonework, but is a much less impressive and formal entrance, used only by the army. Nevertheless, you still get a good impression of the fort’s grandeur and size. From there we walked a little way to see a monument to the father of the Indian Constitution, Dr. B.R. Ambedkar. He stands halfway up a spiral staircase, as if to portray his rise to success from a humble background.
Next we took a bicycle rickshaw into the depths of the old city. The strength of these old men who carry portly westerners about is extraordinary! We ended up at the Jami Masjid Mosque, built in 1648 by Shah Jahan’s daughter, Jahanara. It has a grand, imposing frontage, but once you walk inside it’s surprisingly plain; it’s primary reason is to act as the Friday Mosque, so it is designed to be able to accommodate the largest number of worshippers as easily as possible. From there we headed into the market streets, where we saw a wide range of products on sale; primarily fabrics and clothes, but also sweets, flowers and jewellery. It was fun to just dawdle and learn from Meghan all about the fabrics, the sweets and so on.
There was a fascinating shop by Daresi Road that sold garlands made from rupee notes that are worn by a bridegroom for good luck – and for the fortune that they contain, of course. Naturally I had to try one on. They’re quite bulky, because they contain so many notes, that you would find it difficult to do much else whilst wearing one! We walked past Mankameshwar Mandir, a temple dedicated to Lord Shiva, but we didn’t go in – can’t quite remember why. I think it may simply have been too busy. We stopped off and had a delicious cup of marsala chai instead.
Our bicycle rickshaw man was waiting for us and conveyed us out of the market area back on to the main streets and towards one final sight – the Taj Mahal – but from the other side of the River Yamuna. There’s a large garden, almost meadow area there, called the Mehtab Bagh, where you can wonder round freely and enjoy superb views of the Taj Mahal without having to wrestle with all the other tourists.
We spent ages just idling around, taking in the views and the peace, and generally relaxing before Meghan finally called us and arranged for Mr Singh to collect us. It was a very enjoyable and different way of seeing the city and we’d definitely recommend it. Not that you should avoid the Taj Mahal if you haven’t properly visited it yet – it’s a must.
Where next? Mr Singh took us due south-west to visit the tigers of Ranthambhore.