When I first applied to the study aboard program in India, I prepared myself for the overwhelming crowds and smells. I also realized I would have the wonderful opportunity to see the Taj Mahal. This was one of the main things on my list of trips while in India and it was definitely worth it. Simply being in the presence of such an amazing monument and realizing it was built almost 400 years ago is absolutely mind blowing.
The adventure to the Taj Mahal started in Jaipur, which is another unbelievable city in the Indian state of Rajasthan. It is known as the Pink City and it definitely lives up to its name. Almost every single building in the main part of the city is painted a coral pink color that gives off a vibe that is unique to Jaipur. In the city we started our tour at the City Palace, which is still used today by the royal family of Rajasthan. The highlight of this palace was the ornate archways that opened over a royal courtyard. Each one had a unique color scheme but they all emulated a peacock’s tail. There was also a large collection of art displayed around the palace but none as beautiful as the peacock archways.
After the City Palace we walked across the street to see Jantar Mantar, which is a garden filled with massive sculptures used to measure the movement of the sun by using the sculpture’s shadow and the zodiac signs. These sculptures may look very bizarre but they each had a specific use in measuring the sun. The Indian astrologers were so precise in their measurements that these structures can be used today in tracking the sun’s movement within two seconds. Each instrument had a very precise job and it all seemed very complex to me but I am sure to a trained astrologer these instruments make total sense.
After the Jantar Mantar, it was on to the next palace called the Hawa Mahal. This palace is no longer used but it gave us excellent views of the bustling city of Jaipur. There were beautiful stained glass windows through out as well as beautifully crafted arches. Surrounding the Hawa Mahal is a massive bazaar that had everything you could ever want from India including traditional jewelry, clothes and shoes. Of course a girl cannot say “no” to a massive bazaar so we spent a few hours shopping. I acquired a large number of textiles though out the day and I even got to speak Hindi with the shopkeepers when trying to bargain! I was surprised how easy it was to communicate because I don’t exactly have the largest Hindi vocabulary but I was able to carry on a basic conversation.
After a few hours of shopping we all realized how hungry we were and set off to find a place to eat. From my time in India I have come to realize that Indian restaurants are very different from restaurants in the states. They are much more of a simple place to get food rather than attempting to create a culinary experience like so many western restaurants do. We eventually stumbled across a tiny hole in the wall restaurant that ended up being absolutely delicious. The restaurant served fresh traditional northern Indian food, which was exciting to try because most of the food I have eaten while I’ve been in India has been of the South Indian culinary tradition.
After lunch we did some more shopping and then strolled around the city museum. All of the architecture is inspired by the Arabic tradition so its nice to just wander around and appreciate its beauty.
The next day we were off to the Amber Fort, which is about 11 km outside of the main city of Jaipur. Driving up the mountain to this fortress you could tell it was going to give you exceptional views of the surrounding areas but the fort had much more than just amazing views. The Diwan-i-Am or the Hall of Public Audiences not only has spectacular views of the area below but also has beautiful arches, which hold up the platform where the king once sat. After passing through the door beautifully adorned with the image of Ganesh the elephant god, you enter into The Jai Mandir or the Hall of Victory. This hall is known for its beautiful mosaic mirrored ceiling and is surrounded by immaculate gardens. It is amazing to see all of this beauty on the top of a mountain but you have to remind yourself that the king and his court lived here so obviously their living space could not be simple. At the Jai Mandir, there are many passageways connecting different parts of the massive fort together and it is very easy to get lost. This is what happened to me and I ended up wandering though the fort alone for a good 45 minutes. It was nice to simply wander and take in the views but I have to admit a few of the passageways were dark, damp and to be completely honest a little scary. I would much rather go down those with a friend than alone but when your lost in a massive fort, what choice do you actually have?
When I finally was reunited with my friends, it was time to head to the train station where we would set off to Agra, home to the Taj Mahal. Along the way, we made a short pit stop at the Ja Mahal or the Floating Palace. During the monsoon season, the area around this palace fills with water and submerges the first four floors of the palace, giving it the allusion that the palace is floating on the water. It is quite an amazing sight and I am definitely glad we stopped to take in this palace’s beauty. After all the beautiful sights in Jaipur, we wondered how the Taj Mahal could possible top anything we had seen but we were definitely in for a surprise
The train from Jaipur to Agra takes about five hours so we arrived late Friday night and were picked up at the train station by our tour guide Raja. Raja was not your typical petite Indian man. He was probably around 6’3’’ and built like a NFL wide receiver. He strangely reminded me of my former water polo coach John Abdou, who is Egyptian not Indian but they had very similar statures. Even though he had been waiting at the train station for a good 1.5 hours, he was still full of energy and very excited that we had finally arrived.
We decided on the train that it would be cool to see the Taj Mahal at sunrise so after a five hour train, and settling into our hostel at around 11 pm, we were up the next morning by 5:30 and ready for a full day of touring Agra.
The Taj Mahal at sunrise is an indescribable experience. I was in absolute awe the entire time I was on the grounds not only because of the building itself but also the aura it gave off to the area around it. Since the monument is situated over a large area it is easy to find a secluded spot and simply sit and gaze at the building in wonder. Our guide let us wander around the Taj Mahal grounds for about two hours and even with that much time, it was difficult to leave. The Taj Mahal was undoubtedly one of the most amazing things I have ever seen in my life, a unique feeling you only get when in the presence of something truly incredible.
After the Taj, Raja took us to the Agra Fort, which is a wonder in itself. Like the Amber Fort, it was not simply built for military defense but also as a home for the king. Inside there are rooms covered in beautifully crafted stone and marble work as well as a marble mosque built especially for the ladies of the court. The fort also offered amazing views of the Taj Mahal and it only got more beautiful as the sun rose higher in the sky.
Although the Taj Mahal and the Agra Fort were absolutely breath taking, I think the most memorable part of my trip to Agra was lunch. When we were planning our trip, our guide invited us to his home for lunch and I assumed he gave this option to all of his clients because he lived close and it was convenient but this assumption was completely off.
Soon after arriving at his home a good 30 min drive out of the city, I realized we were truly in for a treat. Our guide’s wife and all of her sisters were crammed in their tiny kitchen preparing our lunch and you could feel their excitement when we entered the front door. They gave us a tour of their home, showed us how they cooked roti in a stone oven on their roof and when lunch was served, it was the most delicious Indian food I had ever tasted. After we had all stuffed our faces full of this delicious food, our tour guide’s wife gave us a tour of their village. Eventually she led us to an open field where chairs had been set up for us under the shade of a giant tree. We drank tea and practiced speaking Hindi with our tour guide’s family. They were so excited that we had come to visit and had liked the food that they invited us back for dinner, which we had to respectfully decline. Raja’s family was so incredibly generous it was amazing to meet and spend time with them. I will definitely remember this family’s for years to come and if anyone ever needs a tour guide in Agra, Raja takes excellent care of his clients!
After we said our good-byes to Raja’s family, we headed back into the city to see the Itimad-Ud-Daulah, better known as the Baby Taj. This structure was built before the Taj Mahal was even perceived and although it may not be as breath taking as the Taj Mahal it arguably has a more delicate beauty. The last and final stop on our journey through Agra was a large garden constructed on the opposite side of the Yamuna river and has amazing views of the Taj. We strolled through these gardens and eventually came to the banks of the river where you are able to take pictures of the Taj and if you go at just the right time, you can capture not only the actual Taj Mahal but also its reflection off the river. Raja, a true master of tour guiding, guided us to this point just as sunset began so we were able to capture this unbelievable image.
We had an amazing time in Agra and it was hard to imagine we had done so much in such a short amount of time but before we knew it, it was time to head back to the train station to begin our journey home.
This trip though quite a whirlwind experience was truly incredible. I cannot imagine coming to India and not making a point to stop in Agra and Jaipur. The Taj Mahal, the Agra Fort and all the other sights we saw are difficult to truly describe. Through out the day I kept stopping reminding myself to completely take in my entire surroundings because everything was just so beautiful.
peace, love, laughter