Saturday, February 20, 2010

Agra = The Taj Mahal


Well, not entirely true. Agra is a whole lot more than just the Taj Mahal. Don’t get me wrong. The Taj and everything from its history to its architecture is exquisite. But that shouldn’t be the only reason for you to visit Agra. There’s so much more to the city (unlike what most people think). Agree, the rest of the things seem rather insignificant in comparison but it’s in these small things one finds immense joy.  Am going to jot down a couple of interesting tit-bits, do’s and don’ts, things and places to see…basically our experiences when we visited Agra and Fatehpur two weeks ago.  In the hope that when you visit next, you’ll do more than just visiting the Taj Mahal. And enjoy it.

-    Spend an evening ‘Sadaring’: What’s that you ask? So did we when we were enthusiastically told, “You can’t come to Agra and not go Sadaring!” Well, Sadar bazaar is the most hip and happening (as per simple Agra standards, so all you city people don’t expect much) stretch of shops. Every evening, young girls and guys, families and a lot of tourists walk up and down window shopping, shopping, eating etc. And the Agra’ites’ have fondly named this favourite past-time of theirs ‘Sadaring’!
It’s something like us Mumbaiites Cartering, Bandstanding or maybe..errr...Colaba Causewaying? :)

-    Of Daalmoth and Petha: No, this isn’t Greek or Latin. For all you people who haven’t heard of or tasted either of these, you’ve missed out on some very important North Indian food items. Daalmoth is a very commonly had accompaniment with evening tea (chai) for North Indians, all over India. Light, yummy and very addictive. Petha is more for those with a sweet tooth! Actually, make that sweet teeth. You have to try it to know what it feels like when the sugary syrup explodes in your mouth with the first bite. Both of these should be, and I repeat, should be bought only from ‘Panchi Petha’ at Sadar Bazaar. It apparently has the most authentic Petha in town.

-    Binge on Agra’s famous chaat: While on the topic of yummy food, do ensure you stop right outside the chaat lane at Sadar bazaar (don’t worry about missing it, it’s the only chaat lane there). But don’t just eat at any of the stalls. The best and oldest is *drum roll* Agra Chaat House. Their aloo chaat is exceptional and so are the dahi bhallas. But don't restrict youself to just these two...go crazy…it’s all a treat! The Agarwal Chaat House, right next to it has a bunch of rather grim looking men obviously not happy with their slowing business. Then again, the crowd always outside their more famous counterpart explains the reason for their grumpy expressions. 

 -    Leather designs straight out of Marie Claire: All you leather product lovers, Agra is your paradise. Not only will you get the purest leather products, but at very, very reasonable prices. We got two pairs of shoes for just 900 rupees. No, not 900 each, 900 in all.  Mr. Srivastav (the able old man who makes these for a living out of his small chawl), saw my handbag, read the label and said, “Charles aur Keith hai aapka bag? Maydem, humne aise bahut designs banaye.” Promptly took out the last issue of Bazaar, Vogue and Marie Claire and opened dog-eared pages in each to show me the designs that had inspired his creations. They were shockingly exact! With a smile he said, “Yeh bags hazaaron, laakhon ke hain. Mere waale sirf 500 rupees se lekar 1500 rupees tak zyada se zyada.” Amazing! Our friends here are busy racking their brains trying to figure what brand they are and how much they cost. Little do they know, a man in some remote lane of Agra is the brand. So don’t forget to grab your shoe, bag or jacket before you head out of there. 

-    Pleasant surprises: Who would have thought we would end up seeing our first-ever dog show in Agra. The day after we arrived, Hotel Clarks Shiraz was hosting a BIG dog show. We are huge dog lovers and just our luck that we managed to get some passes and headed straight for it. What a show it was! From St. Bernards to Syberian Huskies, Shitzus to Basset Hounds, and of course the lovable Labs. You name the breed and it was there. Sheer delight. The point here being that check with the locals if anything important is going on in the city when you get there. Not all books will tell you that. Agra is a really small place and everyone knows about everything. You never know, you may strike gold like we did and end up going for something unexpected and interesting too! 

-    The Mughal Experience:  If you want to see one of the biggest chandeliers of the country and experience one of the best spas in Asia, then a stay at ITC Mughal is a must. Because the facilities at their Kaya Kalp spa (which by the way is an experience that will remain etched in your memory forever), cannot be availed by anyone else but the hotel guests. So if you can loosen the grip on your wallet a bit, go for it.

-    Beware of: The shops right outside the Taj. Do not buy any of the marble souvenirs or gems there. Most of them are fake. The ‘marble’ is in all probability soapstone and the ‘gems’ are coloured stones. Unfortunately there’s no telling which ones are genuine and which aren’t considering most of us don’t have the knowledge but its best and safest not to go for them. Also stay away from buying the ‘Chaadar’ at Fatehpur Sikri. We were told it’s apparently a big racket and none of the money goes to ‘poor children, widows, slums, food for the needy etc.’, as we were told. Don’t fall prey to any guilt. Buy the rupees 21 worth of prasaad and flowers and that should be it. After all, God doesn’t care how much money you spent to pray to him now, does he?

And last but definitely not the least.

-    The Taj Mahal & Fatehpur Sikri: I know you’ll visit these must visit spots. You know you should visit them. So what do I say about them that the books and websites haven’t told you already. The rest, your guides there will handle. Speaking of the guides, they are fabulous. Informative, entertaining and surprise surprise, great photographers! Can handle any SLR, can compose shots probably better than you and know exactly against what back drop to click you. So rest assured, you and your beloved will return with some pretty interesting (at times corny) photographs.

-    Every photographer’s muse: It’s no hidden fact that every monument of Agra is a treat to shoot (with the camera that is). Even the Taj Mahal has its best time to visit options. Early mornings are perfect as its emptier and the rising suns rays reflect off the marble beautifully, giving it a pinkish glow. If you are one looking for the whole ‘part of the crowd’ feel, the afternoons are when you should visit. However, you don’t get clean shots, as there are people everywhere. One can also visit the Taj at night. Mind you, this is allowed only on certain days (a day before, after or on a full moon night). It’s a totally different experience watching the Taj, in all its splendour, under the moonlight. The number of people allowed in is limited so book your entry in advance or else it’ll all go waste. 

So there you go. No history lessons, no rocket science and definitely no cliches. Just my simple list of 'when in Agra, do as the...


  1. Just because this is one of the most heartfelt, sweet, simple and insightful view of Agra that I've read, I couldn't resist from checking all three reactions. The post was definitely informative, interesting and very nicely put :) You do make me regret the decision of NOT having spent more time in Agra. Maybe if you'd have written this post earlier, I'd have made dad read it and add at least a night in Agra which would've done justice to the place. One piece of information which I'd like to add for those who don't know is that Pethia/ Petha has awesome shelf life of almost 2/3 months and its relatively cheap as compared to other Indian sweets. Accordingly travelers can prepare themselves to buy in bulk, if they can't resist the product.

    Can't wait to read more about destinations which you've been to.

    Manish :)

  2. Thanks Manish. Really appreciate it and hey, thanks for the added trivia on Peitha!