A little history about a great place
The town finds mention in the epic Mahabharata when it was called Agrabana Paradise. Ptolemy, the famous second century A.D. geographer, marked it on his map of the world as Agra.
Founded in 1504, the golden age of Agra began with the Mughals. It remained the capital of the Mughal Empire between 1526 (battle of Panipat) and 1649. After the decline of the Mughal Empire, the city came under the influence of Marathas and Jats before falling into the hands of The British Raj in 1803.
Since Agra was one of the most important cities under the Mughals, it witnessed a century of building activity, due to the Mighals vanity that their capital should outdo other marvels of their time (Samarkand, Herat or Kabul).
The streets and the traffic
Agra is a city with 1,7 mill. inhabitants, but the roads are narrow with pedestrian, rickshaws, bicycles and cows. Expect some slow traffic, especially around the tourists spots like Taj Mahal and Agra Fort.
Visiting the Taj - The Ins and Outs
Here's the scoop on visiting the Taj Mahal...
First things first, FRIDAY doesn't work. The Taj Mahal is closed on Fridays, so for goodness' sake, don't set yourself up with one day in Agra and have that be Friday. IMHO, you need to be in Agra at least two days, if you want to get a good look at her treats.
The hours of operation for the Taj are sunrise to sunset, Saturday through Thursday.
Admission price for the Taj Mahal depends on where you're from. If you are an Indian national, the charge is nominal, something like 50 Rs. (That's about US$1) If you are not an Indian national - translation, you're a tourist from abroad - then the admission fee is 750 Rs, which presently is about US$16. There has been a lot of griping among career backpackers about the cost of entry being "so high", apparently it used to be much lower. But for my opinion, it's well worth the cost of entry, especially when you realize much of the increase goes to maintenance and protection of this architectural treasure. And besides, they "lowered" the price. At first, they'd priced entry at 900 Rs for tourist. The clamor of protests succeeded in getting it lowered to the present 750 Rs.
There is a separate Taj Mahal museum, and entry for that is 150 Rs. We didn't go into the museum, preferring to enjoy the grounds and building itself for our entire time there. The museum hours are 8 am until 5 pm, Saturday-Thursday.
If you want to make videotapes, there is a 250 Rs charge for that. I chose NOT to do video - I wanted to concentrate on photography. IMHO, home video just can't do it justice... perhaps if I had a high-def camera. Looking over the scores of photos we came home with, I think I made a good choice. :)
There are three gates to the Taj. They are the <> East Gate, <> West Gate and <> South Gate. There's no north gate, the north side of the Taj faces the Yamuna River. I'm told that the view from the other side of the river is both unique and free. We didn't get a chance to get over to that side, but if another look at the Taj - especially a free one - suits your fancy, then enjoy. :)
I don't know a lot about the West Gate. But, the South Gate enters the Taj "straight on" from the village of Taj Ganj. Taj Ganj is the area built up with the workers who originally constructed the edifice. So, for 400 years, the Taj Ganj area has had one of the better "free views" of the Taj. Unfortunately, the hotels in this area are more of the lower grades, and may not be to the liking of many visitors.
The East Gate is the closest access to the Taj for people staying at the more upscale hotels over on Fatehebad Road. (We were at the Trident. This would also be the closest gate for the Mughal Sherator and the Oberoi Amarvilas Hotel, one of the world's greatest - and most expensive - hotels) There is a small village of shops around the East Gate, and it hosts the usual cadre of "touts" looking to sell you anything and everything.
With all the gates, you'll have to access them via local transportation, there is no real parking for private cars right at the gates. This is all part of an effort to keep traffic and pollution further away from the Taj. We parked at a lot maybe 1/2 km from the East Gate, and then rode "electric buses" from the parking lot on up to the East Gate.
You buy your tickets, and video camera tickets if you're going to need it, outside the gate and then get into a security line. The security at the Taj is pretty tight, at least compared to the other sights in India. There will be a "male" and "female" line because you're going to get both an xray check and a physical pat-down. Apparently, there are a lot of rules about what can and cannot be taken into the Taj grounds. For example, you are supposedly prohibited from taking candy and gum into the grounds, because they don't want them dropped or littered within the Taj walls. OK confession time here.... I forgot that I had 1/2 a roll of breathsavers (peppermint if you care) in my pocket. I was fully prepared to throw them away if they were discovered, but the security guards missed them. :) Speaking of your tickets, they're quite nice - a great souvenir. Very large with a splendid photo of the Taj emblazoned on the front. You can also buy bottled water, nice and cold, outside the East Gate. (I assume the same is true for the other gates)
For more information, try this phone number: +91 562 233 0498
Tired of seeing cows doing what they want wherever they want, I was surprised when I saw two of them, in the Taj Mahal, tied to a car... working! Wrong impression - caws worked in the old Portugal, not in India. They were bufalloes, of course.
Bateshwar Fair, Agra
Bateshwar lies on the banks of the Yamuna river around 70kms from Agra. During the October and November there is a large fair which happens between Shashtki of Kartik month to Panchami of Agrahayan month. Because Bateshwar is an important cutural and spiritual centre, devotees come to the town en-mass to worship Lord Shiva and also take holiday dips in the Yamuna River. The usual market atmosphere is around and some serious buying and selling of livestock also takes place.