After visiting the Taj Mahal at sunrise, we continued our tour of Agra and environs with our tour guide, Mahesh from https://www.discoverydreams.com/about-us. You will be happy to know that the first thing we did was find a restroom and I was able to fully cleanse my bird-soiled hand before we continued our tour around Agra. Much better. As we exited the complex we stopped for photographs of a lovely red sandstone outer building with an arched passageway:
Mahesh explained a bit more about the recent history of Agra. Just a few decades ago, the city boasted a population of 6 million whose lives were centered not around its famous monument, but around numerous local factories. Unfortunately, these factories contributed heavily to the locally polluted air, and the government determined that the beautiful marble facade of the Taj Mahal was suffering as a result. Given the value of the Taj as a tourist destination, the decision was made to relocate a number of these factories in an attempt to clear the air. This led to an anomaly for India: a declining local population. Agra is now home to about 2 million people.
Eventually, as so often happens, recognition bloomed that perhaps the relocation efforts had gone too far, and Agra was a city in decline. So, the government decided to use financial incentives to promote the various local arts to the city’s 50 million+ annual tourists: carpet making, marble carving, and jewelry made with local gems among other items. The next part of our tour included artisan demonstrations in each of these areas, along with the inevitable pushy sales pitch. Did I cave and buy something? Read on to find out….
Artisan Shopping in Agra
The showroom of Diamond Carpets (https://www.diamondcarpets.com) is located in the middle of downtown Agra. Our visit began with a quick explanation of the process of weaving wool and silk into beautiful rug creations. We were shown photos of the main carpet factory located a few miles away.
Next, we were taken to the display room, which housed hundreds of gorgeous rugs. One might say they rolled out the
red blue carpet for us…
I made the crucial ‘mistake’ of asking the price, assuming it would be completely exorbitant, letting me off the hook with a quick “no, thanks that’s out of my price range”. For reference, last year on a cruise stop in Istanbul, Husband and I attended a similar carpet factory display, where the small but beautiful rug I admired could have been mine for a mere $20,000. So, that was my expectation here. I have a puppy at home, so the rugs tend to come from Wayfair and Home Goods. But… thanks to the government incentives, which included free shipping to the US, the price on the rug I liked was just a fraction of my prediction.
We negotiated the price a bit and I got another 15% or so off the original quote. Mahesh had told us to always negotiate in India! When you buy a rug, you sign the back to ensure that the one you receive is the one you chose. This lovely rug now sits in my office below my desk as I type, a wonderful memory of India. I have no regrets.
As our day continued, we also visited a marble carving exhibition and a jeweler, making a few more small purchases. Hopefully we helped the local economy.
Today’s agenda included the two less famous but equally historic buildings in the Agra area: 1)Agra Fort, and 2)the Tomb of I’timad-ud-Daulah, also known as the “Baby Taj”.
Agra Fort, an enormous red sandstone complex, dates to the 14th century and once housed the members of the Mughal ruling family. At the time of the Fort’s construction, Agra was the capital of this northern region of India now known as Utter Pradesh, to be replaced by Delhi about 100 years later.
Covering roughly 94 acres, Agra Fort borders the same Yamuna River as the Taj Mahal. The Fort is full of both Islamic and Indian architectural influences, as well as much of the same carved marble as seen at the Taj. In the heat of the midday March sun, it’s not difficult to imagine royal court members seeking cool shade in its many arched, open air corridors.
After a quick traditional Indian buffet lunch, we wrapped up the day at the the tomb of I’timad-ud-Daulah, nicknamed the Baby Taj due to its similar architecture: a central marble dome surrounded by four tall minarets. Given the nickname, we made the natural but erroneous assumption that this much smaller monument was inspired by its larger cousin. Nope!
I’timad-ud-Daulah was an exiled emir of Persia, and also the grandfather of Mumtaz Mahal, Shah Jahan’s favorite wife who is entombed in the Taj Mahal. Baby Taj was commissioned by one of I’timad-ud-Daulah’s daughters in 1622, almost 10 years before construction began on the Taj. Both buildings represent a period in which local architectural trends had shifted toward more white inlaid marble and less red sandstone.
Like the Taj Mahal, the grounds of the Baby Taj include symmetrical gardens criss-crossed with water courses and walkways.
Perhaps the most notable difference between the Baby Taj and its more famous cousin is lack of maintenance. The structure’s interior shows its true age like a Real Housewife without her makeup.
Unlike the heavily trafficked Taj Mahal, here a visitor can get close to the monument to inspect the beautiful carvings, take interior photographs, and experience the peaceful setting. Despite the damage wrought by age (and gem thieves), the authenticity of this structure shines through.
Our long, hot day in Agra came to an end in the late afternoon, as Mahesh transported us back to the Doubletree to relax before tomorrow’s journey back to Bangalore. Once again we reflected on the divergence between the tourist-filled, opulent royal structures surrounding this former capital city, and the lifestyle of its current inhabitants.
Evening in Agra, with puppets!
A review of our day in Agra wouldn’t be complete without mention of the late night entertainment. Too exhausted to explore any further, we dined at the Doubletree’s restaurant, Kebab-e-Que (https://www.hilton.com/en/hotels/agrdtdi-doubletree-agra/dining/) where a guitarist played the same 4 chords on every song. I kept hearing “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”, which became tomorrow’s ear worm, because of course it did. We left the restaurant full of good food and wine and ready for bed, only to find the lobby decorated with candles and greens and the number “60”. Shamefully, we did not ask what this was about. Maybe the 60th anniversary of the hotel?
The lobby festivities were highlighted by a young Sikh performer who showcased his family’s handmade animal menagerie. Waiting for us, alone, he could not contain his excitement at finally having an audience.
Our new friend had also set up a stage for a very unique puppet show. He invited the boys to don turbans …
If you are my age, you may remember ultra-kind Mr. Rogers and his somewhat creepy puppet show in the Neighborhood of Make Believe? This was kinda like that.
Our time in Agra truly came to a memorable end! Once again I would like to thank Mahesh and Shakul at Pacific Classic Tours India (Trip Advisor Link: https://www.tripadvisor.com/Attraction_Review-g297683-d6758183-Reviews-Pacific_Classic_Tours_India-Agra_Agra_District_Uttar_Pradesh.html) for arranging a fabulous trip to all of Agra’s highlights. In addition to checking off an ultimate bucket list destination and a Wonder of the World, we learned so much more about India’s history and culture. We were also once again surrounded by kind, friendly, colorful people who helped create the best travel memories.