Day 3 – Agra and the Taj Mahal
Agra is a city in the northern region of India which is home to the world-famous Taj Mahal ~ a majestic architectural masterpiece built between 1631 and 1648 for a Mughal emperor in memory of, and as a symbol of his love for his third wife. After seeing the astounding building and its surrounding park, I could understand why the Taj Mahal has been declared as a UNESCO World Heritage site, a wonder of the world and an iconic symbol of Islamic Mughal architecture. It was definitely the most beautiful buildings I saw in India, and that I’ve seen in my life so far.
I am absolutely grateful that I was lucky enough to go inside the Taj Mahal as today, foreigners are now banned from entering it. But not all is lost ~ even if you can’t go inside, the Taj Mahal is definitely worth visiting. To be perfectly honest, I found the outside more impressive than the inside – the beauty of this building is unquestionably best found from the outside, where you can relax in the park and admire its reflection from its surrounding water channels.
If you’re coming from Delhi, I couldn’t recommend catching a train more! It’s only a short 4-hour train ride south of Delhi, you’ll save some money and get to experience a train ride in India which is worth something on its own.
Sadly, I had less than a day to slowly get to know Agra so I unsurprisingly don’t have much to say about Agra and the Taj Mahal but there are still some valuable tips I want to share with you 😊
The four things I did in Agra in a day
- If you’ve never caught an Indian train before, learn how to find your train carriage/cart so you know where to hop on.
- People who offer to help you carry your luggage at the train station are called ‘Coolis’ and they cost money.
- If you accept their service, do not pay more than 200 rupees.
- If you’re not used to ‘roughing it up’ on trains, make sure you get classes which have air-conditioning otherwise you will face having no space with the beautiful sound of the train machinery working and dust slapping into your face for the whole journey.
- You can get food, water and chai on the trains but only accept the food if you’re in a higher class than 3AC. I didn’t eat anything because my friend told me that I might get food poisoning from the food in 3AC class.
- Beware of all the photographers and tour guides at the Taj Mahal – they will try to scam you
- Children will come up to beg you for money. Do not give in. They usually work for someone in a criminal organisation and the money you give them funds the crime.
The Train Ride to Agra
I had a big ordeal with my luggage the day before going to Agra and the thought of having to go through it AGAIN killed me…but I had no choice but to face the horrible, painful task of carrying my luggage through the train station.
Tip #1 If you’ve never caught an Indian train before, learn how to find your train carriage/cart so you know where to hop on.
I had absolutely no idea how to do this so I decided to wing-it by looking for someone who looked trustworthy to ask. As the train was arriving to the station, a guy in front of me put his arms out and flapped his hands back to indicate to people to move behind. He wasn’t in uniform but I thought “he must be a staff member!” (boy was I so wrong!)
I was too anxious to not try taking advantage and get his help. I was getting serious anxiety because I was confused and didn’t want to miss my train, especially if it was for a reason as stupid as failing to understand how to find my train carriage.
I pulled out my ticket to show him and asked:
“Excuse me, how do you know which carriage is mine?”
The guy looked at my ticket for a second, grabbed my luggage case, balanced it on his head, walked me straight to my seat. He even slid my luggage in the luggage compartment underneath my seat for me. At the time, I thought “I’m so lucky to stumble upon someone so nice to help me so much…” but then I couldn’t help but to start wondering if he was doing it for money. He opened his mouth and demands:
I’m shocked for a second but then I start getting angry because I feel like I’ve been taken advantage of.
“No. I’m not paying. I didn’t ask you to take my bag for me.”
He looks at me with hesitation.
He stands there and stares at me in silence. I try to ignore him but it doesn’t work. At this point, I just want to get rid of him so get the money and give it to him but I am SO infuriated and frustrated.
“Who the hell does this guy think he is to take advantage of a tourist like me!”
Tip #2 people who offer to help you carry your luggage at the train station are called ‘Coolis’ and they cost money.
Tip #3 if you accept their service, do not pay more than 200 rupees.
I decided to message my Surbhi:
“I just got ripped off by someone who carried my bag for me!”
“Oh no…how much did you pay?”
“Mei…that is a normal price.”
I won’t bore you with the details about the train ride but I stayed in 3AC class which is a more expensive class. I was happy with it. I chose the window lower berth which was like a private bed next to the window. I could lie down or sleep the whole way in air-conditioning (which is a luxury in India).
Tip #4 if you’re not used to ‘roughing it up’ on trains, make sure you get classes which have air-conditioning otherwise you will face having no space with the beautiful sound of the train machinery working and dust slapping into your face for the whole journey.
If you’re interested in the different class systems and how to book a train ticket: see my previous blog here
Every so often on the train ride some guy would walk past saying “chai, chai, chai” or “water, water, water” or “pani puri, pani puri pani puri”
Tip #5 you can get food, water and chai on the trains but only accept the food if you’re in a higher class than 3AC. I didn’t eat anything because my friend told me that I might get food poisoning from the food in 3AC class.
Once I arrived I caught a tuk tuk to my homestay. I booked Sunita Homestay well in advance because it had extravagantly high ratings and amazing reviews on booking.com so you could say that I had high expectations of this place.
As soon as I walked in I received a VERY warm welcome from the host – “Hello! Welcome! Happy Holi!!! This is your home while you’re here. Please have a seat. We have some chai and a meal prepared for you. You can call me Mr Sunita.”
(by the way it was the first day of Holi, which is commonly known to others around the world as the colour festival in India).
As soon as I sat down, I was hand-delivered some chai as Mr Sunita checked me in.
I notice a unique and colourful looking tribal-like decoration in the middle of the living/reception area.
“Can I ask what that is?”
“Cow dung. We burn it for Holi”
I couldn’t help but ask more
“Where do you get it from?”
“We make it ourselves”
I couldn’t help but feel slightly grossed out by the fact that this family (among many other Indians) touch faeces with their hands – it was (and still is) a completely foreign concept to me. I definitely struggled in accepting this.
Then it occurred to me that they will be burning cow sh*t. Crap….was the whole house going to smell like sh*t??? (pun intended). I asked:
“Does it smell when you burn it?”
“No not at all.”
I found it really hard to believe them but even if they were lying, I still had no choice but to deal with the smell.
“We will be burning it tonight as part of the Holi celebrations and you’re welcome to join if you are free tonight at around 7.”
Of course I accepted their invitation. There’s absolutely no way I would miss out on the opportunity to be part of an intimate celebratory family tradition. NO WAY!
I was very excited to stay at the Homestay because of all the rave reviews. After staying there for a night, I can say with certainty that it definitely lived up to all the hype! The host family was so hospitable, the mother of the house let me watch her cook food she was making for Holi and they over fed me with delicious home-made food.
I also loved the place ~ I had a private room and the place was cosy, clean and had a rooftop with a view of the Taj Mahal.
To top it off, their place was only a 10-minute walk to the Taj Mahal.
The Taj Mahal
I ate the delicious meal they prepared for me and went to check out the Taj Mahal by myself. It was beautiful ~ I must say – you can spend hours just in the park with the view of the Taj Mahal.
Many tourists dressed in Sarees and either hired a professional photographer or paid one of the photographers selling their services there.
Tip #6 beware of all the photographers and tour guides at the Taj Mahal – they will try to scam you
The Taj Mahal and its surrounding park and water channels – you can see the difference in the tourist line vs local line, oh – and don’t forget to take your shoes off!
I managed to see the Taj Mahal only during the sunset due to time restraints (I had to rush to a wedding) but if you haven’t booked your trip yet or have time, it’s recommended that you see the Taj Mahal both during sunset and sunrise.
Tip #7 If you’re solo traveling like me and want your token shot with the Taj Mahal like me – ask a tourist to take your picture for you.
Again, there were warning signs
Again, there were heaps of tourists, local and foreign alike… and I had to pay an inflated 1000 rupee fee. But of course this again meant that I got to skip the queue.
The beginning of Holi Celebrations
If you’re a little bit ignorant like me – you’re understanding Holi Celebrations extends as far as “the colour festival where the locals throw and paint colour onto each other”.
For those who don’t know much about India’s culture or what Holi Celebrations – it’s a festival which varies in date each year to symbolise love. The festival typically lasts for seven days where all come together, put aside their differences and issues and spread love and happiness through colours, regardless of their religion
Just before going into home of the Taj Mahal (area), there were already people in colour everywhere and random guys on the streets banging the drums.
On the way back to the Homestay I got ‘stalked’ by some kid on the way home (not really, he was trying to get money from me). I swear he must have followed me for about 20 minutes to beg me for money. I kept on ignoring him but he was so persistent ~ my strategy of ignoring beggars wasn’t working. Eventually, I got fed up with him and tried a different approach – I put my hand out and aggressively yelled:
“You can keep asking me but I’m not giving you anything!” as my last effort to get rid of him.
It didn’t ☹
He kept following me and begging.
I didn’t know what else to do so I ignored him.
Luckily, he did eventually give up on…. when he realised I wasn’t lying and that was no way he was going to get anything from me.
Tip #8 children will come up to beg you for money. Do not give in. They usually work for someone in a criminal organisation and the money you give them funds the crime.
Shortly before the family began their ceremony, they told me to come down the living area to join them. We chanted, burned cow dung and painted colours onto each other. I was shocked – there was no smell. Some guys from Spain also joined us.
Watch the full experience here:
Once the celebrations finished, I decided to go back to the rooftop to have a look at the view but I forgot to account for the fact that everyone in the neighbourhood burnt cow dung as well. I could barely breathe. It was definitely a new experience for me to be suffocated by an overwhelming amount of burning cow dung.
I had an amazing time and the Taj Mahal is definitely worthwhile in seeing…but it’s not a place I would return to in a hurry. There are definitely other sites worth seeing in Agra but if you’re strapped for time, then one or one and a half days is more than enough.
Thanks for reading and stay tuned for more!