6 months of living in Agra ten years ago and then a memorable trip last year weren’t as fulfilling and enriching as this particular trip was.
A travel review assignment thanks to the IndiaisCalling initiative and HolidayIQ and I was back in the ‘City of Taj’ that had first given me the hands-on experience of working in a hotel. Only this time I was looking at it from the other side – as a tourist.
I always knew that there is a lot more to Agra than the Taj Mahal and yet somehow I’d never been able to visit anything other than the marble wonder and the Agra Red Fort. Luckily, this trip was all about these other attractions.
I made a list of places that were otherwise often ignored by the quintessential tourist and Mother and I set off to explore the city. The filth of the city did not deter us, and list in hand, mobile phones charged, we set off to explore the Agra we had barely known as yet.
At the end of the trip, we left far richer in experiences and in knowledge.
Here are 5 places that I would recommend you visit instead of the Taj Mahal.
- Mehtab BaghThe Mughal gardens laid behind the Taj are a reminder of the love that the Mughals had for aesthetic monuments and lush gardens. Built on the other side of the Yamuna, Mehtab Bagh was built for the purpose of viewing the Taj in the moonlight. It was very much a part of the original construction plan for the Taj Mahal and is in perfect symmetry with the Taj on the opposite side of the river.The Gardens are a favoured site for film and still photography that involves having the marble mausoleum as the backdrop.
I had always wanted to visit the spot and see the Taj from the other side of the river as the gardens offer a perfect view of the Taj, albeit from a short distance away, free from long queues and maddening crowds. Even though there isn’t much to see in the gardens right now (there is a plan in place to revive the Mughal grandeur and glory) I would highly recommend a visit to this place, if only for the views of the Taj.
- Tomb of Mariam ZamaniAs we walked away from the main road roaring with vehicles and towards the Tomb, a strange quiet settled around us. With not a tourist in sight, and the only sounds audible being the chirping of birds, I felt transported to another era.The tomb of Akbar’s wife – Heer Kunwari, the Hindu Rajput princess of Amer was Raja Bharmal’s eldest daughter, and who was conferred the title of Mariam-uz-Zamani (contrary to the popular belief, Mariam Zamaani is not her name) – was constructed by her son Jehangir. Initially an open pavilion, it was later converted into a mausoleum and the monument expanded as per Mughal architectural motifs.
It is easy to imagine the life and times of the bygone era among tall trees swaying beside majestic arches and landscaped gardens.
Inside the small but aesthetic complex, the pathways and gardens were well maintained despite the obvious lack of revenue from ticket sales.
- Tomb of Akbar the GreatThe tomb of India’s most loved Mughal emperor – Akbar, is at Sikandra, about a kilometer from the Tomb of Mariam Zamaani.
Located within a huge complex, it houses a hunting lodge from that era – Kanch Mahal, and the Tomb of Sikandar Lodhi.The site and plan for the tomb were finalised by Akbar as was the Mughal custom of doing so in one’s lifetime. Construction of the tomb was later completed by his son Jehangir.
Again the wide, clean pathways flanked by green gardens and swaying trees welcome us and off-set the negative impressions of a badly maintained entrance (due to some restoration work in progress.)
Upon walking further in, we were greeted by more such surprises. A patch of wilderness on the left of the complex is home to the peacocks, the near-extinct black buck and the graceful spotted deer. It was a delight to see them sunning themselves on a wintry afternoon.
The tomb itself is inlaid with beautiful designs in the form of wall paintings and encarvings similar to the ones at Taj Mahal and Red Fort.
- Sur Sarovar Bird Sanctuary and Keetham Lake’Be prepared for a long walk,’ said almost all the articles that I read online. Exactly how long was neither specified nor anticipated. Fortunately for us, we had come wearing sports shoes. Unfortunately, that wasn’t enough preparation as the walk inside is at least 2 kms if not more and the isolated road can be scary and tedious.
But don’t leave this place, that inspired famed poet Surdas to write the ‘Bhakti Kavya’, out of your itinerary.
The bird sanctuary is apparently home to many migratory birds and this despite being the perfect season, we were unable to spot any.
The tranquillity that the tall trees offer just before you spot the imposing lake, that stretches out till the eye can see, is to be experienced. As if that wasn’t enough, spot the languid sloth bears that were rescued from road show performers, frisky monkeys, and the lithe deer exist in perfect harmony at the Bear Rescue Centre, which is located within the complex.
- Sheroes HangoutThe Café had been on my wishlist for long. And yet, like all other spots on this list, I I was unable to visit it for lack of time during my previous visit. This time, however, I was really keen and with more time on my hands, we made it a point to ensure we included it in our itinerary.The café has a unique concept of ‘pay what you like’. It is run by the survivors of acid attacks and the NGO that runs it is Stop Acid Attacks, an initiative of Ms. Lakshmi who herself is an acid attack survivor.
On the way to this place, I had told my mother about the Café and the people who run it. Knowing her well and anticipating an emotional breakdown from her, I tried to warn her about disfigured faces and unsightly surgical scars. She had nodded stoically. But the truth is no amount of forewarning could have prepared us both.
As we approached the café entrance, we saw a lady standing at the entrance. Expecting an attractive, polite, hospitable hostess, we stepped forward to greet her. “We’ve walked a long way to come here,” my mother laughed.
The lady looked up with one unmoving eye. Her angry scars scowled at us. The sight of her disfigured face seared through our hearts. We averted our gaze to avoid staring at her.
She bowed low in response to my mother’s remark and gave a heartwarming smile with her twisted face. I don’t remember when I had received a warmer welcome. Even now, the sound of her tinkling laughter followed by her sweet voice chirping ‘Welcome’ rings in my ears.
After our meal, while clicking a picture with them, the differences between us were glaringly obvious and the realization hit me hard. Having worked in the hospitality industry, I know how critical it is to look presentable. Appearances matter. Looks are important.
And so, I adjusted my hair and re-applied my lipstick in preparation for the photograph. The girls had already stepped out at my request and simply stood around, waiting for the photograph to be clicked. Overcoming my embarrassment, I smiled at them only to note they were not in the least bit ruffled by my actions. My faint smile was met by warm grins.
As I look at the photograph now, another realization dawns on me. The brushing of my hair and the fresh application of lipstick clearly was of no use because my doled up pretty looks pale in comparison to their dazzling smiles. Yes, the difference is hard to ignore.
A visit to this Café fills you up with more warmth and love than any Taj Mahal can.
As a friend rightly says, ‘there’s something about this place that changes you forever.’
I hope your next visit to Agra isn’t just about the few Things You Must Experience in Agra because there are other such architectural and experiential treats waiting to be explored by you.
Have you visited any of these places in Agra? What was your experience like? Share your comments and experiences using the comment box below.