The Taj Mahal? Yes, everyone knows it. The city Agra? Not so much. The Taj Mahal is better known than the city it is in. Agra has a bad reputation. It has the dubious honor to be in top most polluted cities in India. One of the main reason for this is public defacation, despite the public toilets. Also the markets in the city center create a lot of trash that is not cleaned up afterwards. This image is the reason most visitors only go to the Taj Mahal and then continue their journey onwards to Delhi or Varanasi. But this negative image did not stop me from seeing more of Agra. Secretly, I like cities with a negative image. There must be more to it than that. And you know: I really recommend sticking around in Agra for a second day. In this post I will give some tips on what to do and see in Agra after you have visited the Taj Mahal.
Visit the brother of the Taj Mahal: Baby Taj
In full it is the Tomb of Itimad-ud-Daulah, but within the tourist world it is better known as the Baby Taj. Just like the Taj Mahal the Baby Taj is a mausoleum, built for the parents of Mongol empress Nur Jahan. The grave monument is seen as the model of the Taj Mahal that was built a couple of years later. That’s why it is has 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. There is also a lot more color to see here, while at the Taj Mahal everything is white or black. On top of that, only a fraction of the tourists visit the Baby Taj. So you have this great monument almost to yourself!
Wander around in the impressive Agra Fort
The Agra Fort is the second highlight of Agra. The 2,5 kilometer long fortress walls are not only impressive because of its height and length, but the red color also captures the eye. The fort is allso called the Red fort, because of the red sandstone fortress walls. It reminds me of the Red Fort in Delhi. Unfortunately, I did not visit the red fort in Delhi, but I did visit the fort in Agra. The palaces and gardens inside the fortress all 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.
Good to know: only a small fraction of the fort is open to public. Sixty to seventy percent belongs to the Indian army and is closed off from the public. There has been put pressure on the army to leave the fort or to open more parts to the public, because the fort is an Unesco World Heritage site (since 1983). But so far the army is still there. Because of this military presence I got to see a young group of cadets marching in the gardens of the fort. They stopped at the Diwan-I-Am (a beautiful open Hall of Private Audiences) where they got the task to sweep and clean. They also loved taking photos with tourists.
Get to know the myth of the black Taj
According to the old stories Mongol emperor Shah Jahan had the plan to 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 diseased wife Mumtaz Mahal and the black copy was his own grave monument. They even started the foundations for the Black Taj, until he was suddenly arrested. His son seized power and locked Shah Jahan up in a small room in the Agra fort with a view over his beloved Taj mahal.
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 build. 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! Only the ground you are standing on, is a bit sad. A piece of grass, with barbed wire along the water and a pile of stones where the excavations still seem to take place.
Hotel tip: sleeping at the Coral Tree Homestay
I enjoyed Agra even more because of the hotel I staying at. The Coral Tree Homestay is a nice cozy hotel painted in bright blue and yellow colors. It has a big garden and several seating areas everyone can use. The rooms are nice but basis. But the best part of this homestay: every night all the guests join in the kitch 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 an extensive meal. I loved getting to know the other guests: a couple from Australia that were in India for a wedding, a French guy couple on a stopover in India on their trip to New Zealand and a Dutch family. Yes, the Dutch are everywhere.
Conclusion: is Agra dirty and ugly? Yes and no. Agra is a city with 1,5 million inhabitants and it is densely populated. The crowds, in combination with the fact that pollution is not in the list of top priorities of the local government, creates an evergrowing problem. Not only the streets are polluted, also the holy Yamuna river is polluted. Factories in and around Agra dump their untreated chemical waste directly into the river and also the sewage system ends right up in 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 and more yellow. Agra definitely is a dirty city, but there is still a lot to see 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?