It must be hard living in someone/something’s shadow. It must be even harder when said person/thing isn’t even half your size. But that’s the reality for Agra Fort – a colossal stronghold across the river for the world famous Taj Mahal, and a worthy destination in its own right.
While the Taj is known for its delicate white marble and inlaid stones, the Agra Fort would comparatively be considered utilitarian; at least by Indian standards. Its mammoth facade is made of reddish sandstone, and what it may lack in luxury it more than compensates for in size. Some 70% of the 94 acres are currently occupied by the Indian military and therefore off-limits to tourists. Regardless, both the sprawling grounds and hazy views of the Taj Mahal across the way make visiting this fortress worth the price of admission.
If all you want to do is admire the architecture, a guide will not be necessary. If you care to know anything about what you’re looking at, I would highly recommend hiring one. Doing so will bring the various halls, courtyards and apartments into context and enhance your appreciation for what you’re seeing. Yeah, it doesn’t have the same romantic backstory as the Taj, but that doesn’t mean it’s without a decent plot line. The most interesting twist was finding out that the builder of the Taj Mahal, Shah Jahan, was eventually deposed by his son and imprisoned there in the fort – allegedly in full sight of his masterpiece just across the way. Lovers of irony and or tragedy will no doubt prefer the “unhappy ending” version of events. Romantics might want to just stick to the Taj.
While not as ornate as the aforementioned diva, there is great detail in the architecture -especially the doorways, columns and arches. There is perhaps no greater display than at the Diwan I Am, or the Hall of Public Audience. This is where the emperor du jour would hold court and interact with his subjects. Nowadays it’s filled with tourists snapping up pictures with whatever space is left on their memory cards after visiting the Taj Mahal.
Depending on one’s speed and stamina, the highlights of the fort can be seen unhurriedly in less than half a day. Often guided tours will take in the Agra Fort in conjunction with the Taj Mahal and sometimes the nearby abandoned city of Fatehpur Sikri. While that’s a lot to take in, be sure not to skip this monument that if it were found in any other city, would be considered the star of the show. Just because it’s nearby to that other famous monument doesn’t diminish it in the least. I suppose that if you’re going to be overshadowed by something, it might as well be the most beautiful building in existence. Yet, here in Agra, the Agra Fort may be second fiddle, but I promise you’ll never see another sideshow looming so large.
“It appears like a perfect pearl on azure ground. The effect is such I have never experienced from any work of art” – British Painter, Hodges
“Not a piece of architecture, as other buildings are, but the proud passions of an emperor’s love wrought in living stones.” – English Poet, Sir Edwin Arnold
“A massive marble structure, without weight, as if formed of ether, perfectly rational and at the same time entirely decorative, it is perhaps the greatest art work which the forming spirit of mankind has ever brought forth.” – German Philosopher, Count Hermann Keyserling
The Taj Mahal has received its fair share of accolades. All are entirely appropriate, I assure you. But when I joined the ranks of those fortunate travelers who have seen this magnificent tribute both to love and human endeavor with their own eyes, my quote might be considered far less eloquent. It goes as follows:
“Thanks a lot, hotshot! How am I supposed to compete with that?” –Travel Writer & Jealous Husband, Ben Pastore
Yes, widely considered to be the greatest monument to love, the Taj Mahal is an edifice truly without equal. The problem, you see, is that in constructing this crowning achievement of artistry and architecture, the emperor upped the ante for all future husbands, many of whom – like myself – are a few tens of millions of dollars short of competing, regardless of how deep and true our love and devotion to our wives may be.
Like I said. Thanks a lot.
Yet all is not lost. No husband since Shah Jahan (1592-1666) has been able to trump this particular card, and most wives have been able to get past it. Built essentially as a tomb for his beloved wife Mumtaz (who died while giving birth to their fourteenth child – apparently despite being royalty they didn’t have cable TV), this white marble jewel on the banks of the Yamuna River was erected to memorialize their great love. Ironically, being dead, she wasn’t around to witness the marvel he created in her behalf, leaving him to miss out on scoring what I’m sure would’ve been major brownie points. You fellow husbands can take comfort in knowing that despite all his efforts, the Shah ended up in the same boat as the rest of us, namely, that there’s just no winning.
Instead of just reciting facts and figures about the Taj that you can find in any Google search, I’ve decided to to present this piece as a guide to what to expect when visiting. For all you husbands, the first step is making sure that you tell your wife that you love her – perhaps that might soften her disappointment when she compares all you’ve done and given her with what she’s about to see. As for you wives, your first step should be to remember that very few women actually get to be an emperor’s wife, and you probably shouldn’t use the Taj Mahal as a legitimate gauge as to the depth of your marriage. Oh, and don’t be surprised if your husband starts buttering you up before you walk inside. He’s just trying to temper your disappointment in him.
The Taj Mahal receives many thousands of visitors daily, many of whom arrive in mid to late morning. To avoid the heaviest crowds and also catch the best lighting, come early and if at all possible, hire a guide. Doing so means that you won’t miss out on the myriad of intricacies and nuances that could easily be overlooked by someone who doesn’t know all there is to take notice of. They can also double as a marriage counselor should the need arise.
This world being what it is, one must pass through a security checkpoint and metal detectors before proceeding on to the main attraction. But you’ll get over that real fast as your see the gleaming white dome poking over the high walls leading to the entrance gate. If you’re prone to getting goosebumps, this is likely where they’ll start.
Passing through a dark tunnel, the Taj is framed by an archway that opens up to a viewing area that will give you your first glimpse at its ethereal splendor. Much like the dignitaries quoted above, describing accurately the sight of this pearlescent structure isn’t fully possible and you’ll probably burn through a thesaurus or two before even coming close.
As for myself, I remember thinking ‘I cannot believe a building could be so stirringly beautiful to look upon’. Glancing to my right and noting the look of awe in my wife’s expression, that thought was followed by ‘Man, am I in trouble’.
Due to the prevalence of wood-burning fires coupled with pollution, the skies of Agra have a gauzy, hazy quality, which when viewing the Taj Mahal give the tangible sensation of walking through a dream. Seeing the building reflected in the elongated pools in front of it, and the open-air backdrop (deliberately designed so that no other structure would be visible to spoil the view) it could also be compared to walking through every post card you’ve ever seen of it.
At the far end of the first pool is a raised marble platform offering more of the classic panoramas made famous in books and movies. Along the way are various vantage points dispersed throughout the manicured gardens where tourists can have their portrait taken for reasonable prices, and by doing so possibly score some points with the wife – maybe.
When you finally approach the building itself, you’ll be required to don the pair of slippers you’ll have been supplied with earlier when you entered, by fastening them over your shoes, thereby protecting the marble base and simultaneously polishing it as well. Here you will be struck by an overwhelming sense of symmetry as you contemplate the minarets (slightly off-plumb so that in the event of an earthquake they would fall outward, away from the tomb), arches and geometric designs. Boldly embossed on the fascia is a quote from the Quran, cleverly constructed in such a way that the text appears uniform despite the laws of optics that would dictate that the text at the top should appear smaller. I’ve got to hand it to the guy. He might have made life harder for the rest of us husbands, but he sure knew how to pick a winning design.
Yet it isn’t just the size and scope of the undertaking that leaves one so impressed. Examining the artistry up close to see the intricate designs in bas relief and the opalescent sheen of figures composed of semiprecious inlaid stones, I couldn’t blame my wife for being so impressed. It would take me a lifetime to replicate even one panel, yet it took only about 22 years to make the whole thing. Granted, Shah Jahan imported an entire army of artisans to work on it (of whom many of their descendants still ply the trade in craft factories and tourist traps just outside the grounds) but even so, considering the technology available at the time, that in itself is an amazing feat.
Inside the mausoleum there are a pair of (empty) cenotaphs for the Shah and his wife. I guess that’s sort of romantic if you don’t focus too closely on why they’re there. As far as final resting places go, it certainly trends to the opulent, once again putting me and every other husband I know at a disadvantage.
When it was time to leave, my wife posed the inevitable question as to what I would do for her in the event of her untimely demise. Feeling dreadfully inadequate, I calculated my best estimate and offered to build her an honorary gazebo. She didn’t say anything, but I got the distinct feeling that she wasn’t all that impressed.
The Taj Mahal, more than any other building on earth, is one of those places that must be observed in person in order to fully grasp its beauty. Sure, it might put a strain on your marriage but hey – so does football season. You wives must be prepared to forgive your husbands for their inability to match the tangible token of the immortal love of Shah Jahan and Mumtaz. And you husbands, bring your wives to see this wonder of the ancient and modern world even if you have no shot to compete. Maybe the fact that you’ve brought here will help her recognize that you’re really not such a bad guy after all.
One of the numerous upsides of traveling to and around India is the tremendous value that could be had, and I don’t necessarily mean just low prices. For example, though one can find lodging for around $3 US a night, how many of us would want to stay in at the kind of place that can cover its expenses by charging $3 a night? The value is in finding excellent options (lodging, tours, food) at low prices. Perhaps nowhere was this more evident on my trip than when I stayed two nights in the luxurious Samode Haveli in the pink city of Jaipur.
The hospitality industry in India offers the opportunity for guests to stay in what are called heritage properties. This means that visitors can stay in former palaces and mansions (a.k.a. havelis) built long ago and refurbished to accommodate modern travelers. The Samode Haveli is one such place, belonging to a former nobleman, and providing an oasis of luxury among the dusty streets of Old Town Jaipur. (for info on what to see in Jaipur, see my blog post: Like Playing Chutes & Ladders with a Maharaja)
From the outside it seems quite unassuming—aside from the finely dressed doormen waiting to allow access. Once inside, guests are treated to the sight of a gorgeous courtyard with tinkling flower-petal shaped fountains and an outdoor dining venue. And this is just one of several courtyards to be found in the sprawling pale-yellow complex in the heart of the city.
There is an outdoor pool and bar area tucked away in one wing of the hotel. Covered and cushioned cabanas are there for those looking to relax with a drink in hand after cooling down from a day of touring. At night the discreet lighting and evening breezes make this a tranquil spot to unwind.
For those wishing to dine indoors (though as mentioned before, the outdoor dining in the main courtyard is a beautiful setting) there is an equally-gorgeous restaurant inside the main building. To say the decor is ornate would be like saying Arizona in the summer is ‘a little warm’. The artistry from times past is always on display on the Samode Haveli, which brings me to the best part—the rooms.
Just as in most homes each individual room has its own unique style and decor (as well as function) this ‘home’ offers a multitude of rooms each with its unique style and decor as well. From decorative arches, ornately-painted pillars and artistic tile-work, every room is different—a refreshing change from the homogeny of modern chain hotels. The only constant is a sense of history and architectural imagination. Try getting that at a Holiday Inn Express.
To continue with that vein, one of the nicest features of this heritage property is in fact the architectural nuances that permeate the buildings. A short stroll will lead to narrow, curving stairways, engraved flourishes in the corners, hidden fountains, and as is common throughout Indi—one-of-a-kind doors and doorways. All this contributes to a character that is often imitated but never fully grasped by new construction.
If the Samode Haveli were located in New York, London, or Tokyo, for a certainty the nightly rates would be astronomical. But since this is India—home of the $3 hotel—rooms can be had in the neighborhood of $200 a night, which is well below the going rate for a luxury hotel in any of those cities.
So if you’re planning a trip to India and wish for a little variety in your accommodation, speak to your travel agent or tour operator about the possibility of staying at a heritage property. And if you are going to Jaipur, I heartily recommend a stay at the Samode Haveli. It will cost more than $3 but the difference is well worth it.
Perhaps it’s a sign of conceit that I’m hardly interested in visiting anyplace that, well, just doesn’t sound all that interesting. Sure, I’ll still go, but there’s no doubt that I am a bit jaded, and these days, a little bit harder to impress. You can thank India for that. In fact, I do, & here’s why:
India is a fascinating, sometimes overwhelming, never bland or boring, assault on the senses. More than anywhere else I’ve been on earth, travelers run the risk of stimulus overload. Your eyes will be dazzled by the vivid palette that encompasses entire cities—such as Jaipur, the Pink City; Jodhpur, the Blue City; and Udaipur, the White City. The detail in the architecture is an explosion of curves and flourishes, and I’m convinced you’d be hard-pressed to find even one blank surface in the entire country.
You ears may not find as much pleasure as your eyes, since in all but remote villages, the sound you’re most likely to hear is a cacophony of beeping horns—all day and all night. When in the midst of things, you’ll also hear the sound of hordes of pedestrians, bleating cattle that wander freely through the streets of even major cities, and extroverted shopkeepers haggling in the market.
With all the poverty, you would think your nose would end up with the worst lot, but in reality, aside from the diesel fumes while crawling along in the most intensely absurd traffic imaginable, the smell of burning wood (and sometimes plastic) fills the air, making even the most urban setting smell rustic. And when you venture into a dining venue, things will just get better for your nose and then some.
Yes, your tongue will compete with your eyes when it comes to stimulus overload. Indian cuisine is much like its architecture—bold, saturated with flavor, and on occasion liable to bring tears to your eyes. Even the street vendors with their open-air woks that may not look like the kind of place you’d want to eat without really good health insurance, serve up delicious samosas and local fare that leave you not caring about where you got it. You’ll just want more.
So if I seem a bit blasé about “normal” destinations like Cancun or the Dominican Republic—don’t blame me. Blame India. It isn’t beginner travel, but if you’re open to new experiences, not agoraphobic, and wish to be dazzled, put India your bucket list. Your senses might be up all night with information overload, but along with your photo album, will thank you for it later.
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