Monumental Days in Delhi & Agra

Posted by on Dec 10, 2011 in General Travel, India | 2 Comments

[December 10, 2011]  After a quick visit to the Bay Area for Thanksgiving, we’re back on the road and I’m writing this post from Bangkok. I’m pretty jetlagged and apologize in advance for any typos and nonsensical passages, but  it’s definitely time to finish up our last post about India. So, here goes:


On November 6, we finally got our chance to board an Indian train for the journey from Haridwar to Delhi. Like most places in India, Haridwar’s train station was a noisy, chaotic mess: food vendors, passengers, transients, dogs, pilgrims, and yogis packed the platforms. We tracked down our train and assigned car, only to be told by the ticket agent that we were sitting in the wrong seats. Apparently, there were two sets of seats labeled #3 and #4 in the same car. Go figure!

Just like the hi-tech marvel that we wish we had never boarded in Turkey, this train averaged about 30 or 40 km/hr and stopped at least 5 times an hour — for nothing. A small mouse made its home under my seat, and it darted across the aisle every 10 minutes to gather food from other parts of the wagon.


Wait, where's Platform 2? Which way?

On the 7th, we hired a car and driver to take us to Agra, site of the Taj Mahal and several other incredible monuments. While much of Agra is not particularly attractive, our “home base” for two days was essentially just that: a room in a family’s wonderful house called Heritage Homestay. In addition to a bargain price for an enormous room, they fed us delicious homecooked meals, and then sat with us while we ate and told us about the history of the Sikh faith. It was fantastic!

We started our visit with Agra Fort, a group of red sandstone buildings that are decorated with intricate carvings and are stunningly beautiful. That’s also the spot where we were more or less accosted by dozens of members of India’s armed forces so that they could take countless pictures with tall, skinny foreigners (see pictures at the end of our prior post).

Agra Fort

Agra Fort's main gate.

Agra Fort

One of the buildings within Agra Fort's compound.

Carved sandstone details at Agra Fort

Carved sandstone details at Agra Fort.

After our lightning-quick visit of the fort, we drove to the Taj Mahal to catch the sunset. We foreigners got tickets for 750 rupees (about $15 each); Indians pay 40 rupees, or 80 cents. A young man hanging out at the ticket office convinced us to bring him along as a tour guide for $5. While he didn’t contribute much to our knowledge of the building (we already knew it was built in 1632-1653 by Shah Jahan after his beloved 3rd wife, Mumtaz Mahal, died delivering their 14th child), he was a nice guy and became our professional photographer, posing us in several cheesy pictures in front of the building. He also defended us from the obnoxiously pushy (literally) people behind us in the absurdly long line to get inside the Taj.

First glimpse of the Taj Mahal

First glimpse of the Taj Mahal.

Great view of the Taj from the main gate

Great view of the Taj from the main gate.

Oh, that's original!

Oh, that's original!

Once we were finally inside the building, where photos are not allowed, the sun had set and we couldn’t see much. Our eardrums, meanwhile, were assaulted by the sound of security guards blowing whistles as loudly as they could. If you’ve never had to hear eight different whistles being blown at the same time inside a very small space, consider yourself fortunate. The whistles were the guards’ way of saying, “whatever it is you’re doing, stop it,” and given the sheer quantity of tourists doing stupid things, the sound was constant — and horrendous.

The light begins to dim

The light begins to dim -- significantly!

The next morning, we awoke at 5:00 am to get back to the Taj in time for sunrise. This turned out to be a much better idea than visiting in the evening: the crowds were smaller, there wasn’t a single whistle to be heard, there were no lines to get into the building, and the sunlight provided for some great pictures:

Inside the Taj a little after sunrise

Inside the Taj a little after sunrise. Many of the marble screens are carved from a single slab.

Detail of the "pietra dura" work all around the Taj

Detail of the "pietra dura" work all around the Taj. The entire structure is covered with motifs encrusted with precious and semi-precious stones. The surrounding marble is carved out, and the cut stones are inserted, glued into place, and polished flat.

Semi-precious stones glimmer in the morning sunlight

The Taj's semi-precious stones glimmer in the morning sunlight. Since the entire facade is covered in these beautifully carved stones, you'll occasionally see their glow when sunlight hits them just right!

A quiet part of the Taj Mahal in early morning

A quiet part of the Taj Mahal in early morning. The day before, this section of the building was mobbed with visitors.

Outside the Taj Mahal, early morning

Outside the Taj Mahal. We're wearing disposable booties so that we don't have to take off our shoes (which might get lost amongst 2,000 other pairs).

Later in the day, we visited the “Baby Taj” (the tomb of I’timād-ud-Daulah), went to the Oberoi Amarvilas hotel for a drink (and to take our beer picture for India with the Taj in the background), and then stopped at Akbar’s Tomb on our way back to Delhi.

The "Baby Taj" in Agra

The "Baby Taj" in Agra. It's actually a little more ornate than the real Taj, and the quality of the craftsmanship is extraordinary -- though the building is not as grandiose.

Akbar's Tomb on the outskirts of Agra

Akbar's Tomb on the outskirts of Agra.

Back in Delhi, we drew up a crazy, whirlwind itinerary and hit the road for our last full day in the city: The Red Fort, the Jain Bird Hospital, Jama Masjid Mosque, Humayun’s Tomb, Gandhi Smriti, and some serious shopping. What better way to do all these things than to hire a crooked tuk-tuk driver who charged us 3X the normal rate? Yes, we were seriously scammed by our driver, but $16 for about 5 hours isn’t too much to complain about.

Robin at the Jama Masjid mosque in Delhi

Robin at the Jama Masjid mosque in Delhi. She didn't have to cover her head, but had to wear this muumuu-like thing instead.

Humayun's Tomb in Delhi

Humayun's Tomb in Delhi. The Obamas toured this monument (and only this monument) when they visited Delhi in November 2010.

Sign outside Humayun's Tomb in Delhi

A sign outside Humayun's Tomb in Delhi. It's common for foreigners to pay anywhere between 10X and 25X what an Indian visitor pays!

The Bird Hospital at a Jain temple in Delhi

The Bird Hospital at Digambar Jain Temple in Delhi. Jain principles teach non-violence toward all living beings, and that includes rescuing injured animals. Leather items (shoes, belts) are typically not allowed at Jain temples.

An owl at the bird hospital

An owl at the bird hospital. Non-vegetarian birds are treated if injured, though they are often housed in a separate section of the hospital.

One of the more interesting sights of the day was the Gandhi Smriti (aka Birla House), site of Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination in 1948. Gandhi was living here in the months before he was killed, and the house exhibits many of his possessions, along with photographs and a modern art section. Cut-out footsteps mark the path Gandhi followed that fateful day, from his bedroom to the so-called Martyr’s Column.

A set of footprints marks Gandhi's path to his prayer meeting

A set of footprints marks Gandhi's path to his final prayer meeting.

Gandhi's spectacles

Gandhi's spectacles, mounted upside-down on the wall in the museum.

We completed our excellent Delhi tour with time to spare. Since our flight to Hong Kong was scheduled for 1:00 am, we spent a few hours having dinner on a secluded rooftop overlooking the chaos in the streets below. While we ate the city’s power was cut, and an almost eerie, dark calm settled over the neighborhood. But such peaceful moments don’t last long in India, and 3 minutes later the power was restored, the lights came back on, and life went back to “normal.”

We arrived at the airport well before our flight, but a final example of India’s insane bureaucracy greeted us at the door: a couple of security guards demanded to see a printed flight confirmation. We didn’t have one — we had e-tickets! We went to another door, whipped out the iPad, and showed the guards the flight info on the screen. That’s nice, they said with a standard Indian head-wobble, but you still need a printout. They directed us to the far end of the airport, and told us that we’d be able to print out the flight info for 60 rupees per page. 20 minutes (and much aggravation) later, we emerged with 2 fresh printouts. The guards looked at them, didn’t even bother to take them, and let us into the airport. Go figure!


  1. Ed
    December 10, 2011

    Robin–I can see your simpatico with the Jainists, but if you ever get religion, don’t do that one! I love the Bird Hospital, though…

    • Robin
      December 10, 2011

      Interesting you should say that. Curious to hear why, since I don’t know a whole lot about it other than what I saw in India (which seemed okay to me).


Leave a Reply