Agra: The Old Capital City

What can be said for Agra? It has the Taj Mahal, one of the 7 New Wonders of the World, and it’s the 8th most polluted city in the world. Both will take your breath away, but for very different reasons.

It was the old capital of India before being moved to Delhi. But for the Indian city that has some of the most foreign tourists every year, they’re certainly riding on the coat tails of the Taj Mahal for tourism. The streets, the restaurants, the bars, the attractions – all very overpriced and underwhelming.

It was an early departure at 4.30am to get to the Taj Mahal and to avoid the queues. But on arrival, there were no queues – there were barely any people actually. I realised later that the better-informed folk were coming at sunrise, when the grounds actually open to visitors. I suppose the smaller crowd was also marginally effected by it being off-season for India.

No photo posted on social media brags “I’m in India!” better than a photo with the Taj Mahal. So despite the lack of crowds, people were literally chomping at the bit and frothing at the mouth to get first opportunity at having their photos with the Taj Mahal to post within the hour. Worryingly, some even grew peculiarly aggressive. I was stunned by this animal-like showcasing, and thought to myself that if only we could parlay photos with the Taj Mahal into solving world hunger and poverty, then the world would be a better place as a result of these determined heroes!

There are a few things that are present all the time at the Taj Mahal, and not just between sunrise and sunset. Firstly it’s the smell. It’s awful. The Yamuna river which circumscribes the mausoleum is riddled with litter and waste, leading the air which blows off of it to be down right repulsive. Sadly, the photos don’t allow for the smell of the place to be experienced. There’s reports of the air pollution making the Taj Mahal discoloured – a finding which is not as surprising as the Mirror article makes it out to be.

Second is the gardens in the temple. There’s litter strewn all over the gardens being most likely the result of an apparent lack of rubbish bins on the grounds. Surely some of the money for entrance goes to maintaining the grounds and litter control? To be fair, the litter does add character to what could possibly be the most dull garden in the world – especially for it being the garden surrounding one of the 7 New Wonders of the World. There’s grass, trees, dirt patches, and weed-like flowers. I only noticed the garden as it was so starkly plain. Again, surely some of the money for entrance should be going to grounds keeping?

Thirdly, it’s the mosquitos. Those lovely troughs of water which reflect the Taj in all the photos are for aesthetics, are also where they are apparently farming mosquitos in multitude . There are millions of the insects feeding in the water, flying around the grounds, biting and harassing the Taj gawkers. So when you do go visit the Taj – take bug repellent with you.

But aside from these short comings, the Taj Mahal itself is beautiful. It’s an awe to stand next to such a beautiful and majestic building, and actually fathom being there in person. Noting the detail and architecture styles meshed together, I put my shoe covers on and proceeded to touch it to confirm I was actually there in person (see below evidence). I then went full tourist (in mocking sense, of course), and ran around taking random photos of anything and everything – birds, people, the trash, the Taj and Me, the Taj and you, people making weird poses, people trying to get a bragable Instagram post etc. Never go full tourist – people can tell.

I struggled to understand our guide’s English, so after nodding, making eye contact and pretending to understand for a good 15 minutes, I Googled some facts about the Taj Mahal and was genuinely intrigued. Amongst other favourites, the most intriguing fact was that during WW2, the dome of the Taj was covered in bamboo to disguise the building as a bamboo stockpile rather than something worth bombing (the hooks on the dome still evidence this). Not the best plan given the scale of the building, but apparently an effective one – the building is still there.

After trying to get my best George Harrison replica shot with my GoPro, we headed out. Bucket list – check. En route, I again had a photo with some of my Indian fans (See below shot of me and the gang).

For lunch, we headed to Sheroes Hangout . Its a cafe which is staffed by victims of acid attacks. Truly a remarkable place which allows for the staff who work there to have the confidence to face the public and not be ashamed of the way they look owing to someone else’s cruel, selfish, unjustified and absolute bullshit actions. Its super inspiring to see these ladies smile when they serve and have the confidence to just be themselves after having gone through such a traumatic and life-altering event. It definitely puts trivial things such as “getting the perfect selfie with the Taj Mahal” into perspective. They showed us a documentary which detailed the women talking about their respective attacks and the path they’ve taken to getting to where they are now. Just an amazing place filled with such courageous individuals! Definitely worth a stop! The food and drinks they serve – without bias – are great too.

We then had drinks at a local hotel bar (‘Glassy’) who’s afternoon bar music, whilst being completely empty, can only be described as “Death by Techno”. Everytime I asked they turn it down, it went louder. I guess it was so loud they couldn’t hear me properly, and thought I wanted it louder. Catch-22.

In the afternoon we went and were underwhelmed and overcharged by the Baby Taj, and the gardens across the Yamuna River with a view of the Taj Mahal. The gardens were nice to relax in, but apparently they use the same landscape company as the Taj Mahal, the one that’s specialising in grass, trees, weeds and insect breeding. They did mix it up with a barbed-wire fence to keep us animals in the garden and away from the river (they probably know how us tourists get with the Taj Mahal and photography!) Decide if you like it for yourself, but let me warn you again – take bug repellent.

It’s no surprise that I was keen to leave Agra and in true style, India was having none of it – I suppose train delays are beyond the reach of Ganesh, the remover of obstacles. After a 6 hour train delay from our 10pm train, we lay exhausted on the station floor in true local style for a further 2 hours, before boarding our train and eventually departing at 6am. I climbed into my bunk and was out immediately.

Don’t get me wrong, the Taj Mahal is a marvel worth being on the list of wonders, and worth seeing. All I’m saying is that I’m glad I’ve been to Agra and seen it, so I don’t have to go back again.

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