The Taj Mahal? Yes, everyone knows it. The city of Agra? Not so much. The Taj Mahal is better known than the city it is in. Moreover, Agra has a bad reputation. It has the dubious honor to be in the list of most polluted cities in India. One of the main reasons for this is public defecation, despite the public toilets. Also, the markets in the city center create a lot of garbage that is not cleaned up afterward. No wonder most visitors only visit the Taj Mahal and then continue their trip onwards to Delhi or Varanasi. I am not one of those tourists. In most cases, cities with a negative image actually have a lot to offer. In this blog post, I’ll share all the great things to do in Agra, after you have visited the Taj Mahal.
Agra things to do
go see the brother of the Taj Mahal: Baby Taj
Visit the Tomb of Itimad-ud-Daulah, better known as the Baby Taj. Just like the Taj Mahal, the Baby Taj is a mausoleum, built for the parents of Mughal empress Nur Jahan. The grave monument is seen as the model for the Taj Mahal that was actually built a couple of years later. Hence the nickname Baby Taj. The white marble, the minarets, and the Persian charbagh gardens do remind me of the Taj Mahal, but the designer put more effort into the details. The Taj Mahal is very grand on the outside, but the inside is fairly sober. This is not the case with the Baby Taj. I was really impressed with the ornamental tiles and decorative elements. On top of that, only a fraction of the tourists visits the Baby Taj.
Explore the impressive Agra Fort
The Agra Fort is the second highlight of Agra. It has a 2,5-kilometer long fortress wall that is not only impressive due to its height and length, but the red color also captures the eye. The fort is also known as the Red fort, because of the red sandstone fortress walls. It reminds me of the Red Fort in Delhi. The palaces and gardens inside the fortress exude luxury and splendor. My favorite was the Khas Mahal where you have an amazing view from the balcony over the Taj Mahal and the green landscape.
Only a small fraction of the fort is open to the public. Sixty to seventy percent belongs to the Indian army and is sealed off from the public. Since Agra Fort is a Unesco World Heritage site (since 1983), there has been some pressure on the army to leave the fort or to open more parts to the public. But so far the army is still there. Because of this military presence, a group of young cadets was marching in the gardens of the fort during my visit. They stopped at the Diwan-I-Am (a beautiful open Hall of Private Audiences) where they got the task to sweep and clean.
Get to know the story behind the black Taj
According to the old stories, Mughal emperor Shah Jahan had the plan to build a black Taj Mahal right across the white Taj Mahal. Both versions would be opposite from each other, separated by the Yamuna river. The white Taj Mahal was intended for his deceased wife Mumtaz Mahal and the black copy was his own grave monument. They even started the foundations for the Black Taj. But then the emperor was suddenly arrested and his son seized power. Shah Jahan was locked up in a small room in the Agra Fort with a view over his beloved Taj Mahal.
Truth or a myth?
Unfortunately, the foundations for the black mausoleum have never been found. So it seems to be a myth. Today it is possible to visit the ground, where the Black Taj would have been built. This area is known as the Mehtab Bagh (translation: Moon Garden). It is a park that looks like the Persian gardens that are in front of the Taj Mahal, only there is no water running through it and it looks a bit neglected. But the main reason people visit this area is for the spectacular view over the back of the Taj Mahal. It is truly stunning!
Hotel tip: staying at the Coral Tree Homestay
I enjoyed Agra even more because of the hotel I stayed at. The Coral Tree Homestay is a lovely place, painted in bright blue and yellow colors. It has a big garden and many outdoor seating areas. The rooms are nice but basis. But the best part of this homestay: every night all the guests join in the kitchen for a home-made dinner. Home-made food in India is seriously the best! The family cooked and together with the other guests we enjoyed a grand meal. I loved getting to know the other guests: a couple from Australia that was in India for a wedding, a French couple on a stopover in India on their trip to New Zealand, and a Dutch family. Yes, we Dutch are everywhere.
So, Is Agra worth exploring?
Agra is a densely populated city with 1,5 million inhabitants. The crowds, in combination with the fact that battling pollution is not a priority of the local government, create an evergrowing problem. Not only the streets are polluted, but also the holy Yamuna river is polluted. Factories in and around Agra dump their untreated chemical waste directly into the river. Even the Taj Mahal is a victim of this pollution. Air pollution is one of the reasons the white marble is getting more yellow. Agra definitely is a dirty city, but there are still a lot of interesting things to do here. The Taj Mahal, the Agra Fort, or the Baby Taj are perfect examples of this. Agra is not a city where you want to stay for a week, but it is definitely worth sticking around for another day after you have visited the Taj Mahal.
Would you visit Agra only for the Taj Mahal or would you stay a bit longer to explore more?
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