Delhi and Agra: Mughals, mosques and mausoleums

Posted on 26 March 2012

My first taste of India was the drive from Delhi’s airport to our hotel in Connaught Place. Road markings ignored, indicators never used and hooting the equivalent of checking your rearview mirror: in short, it’s a bit mental. All vying for a spot on the road were camels, cows, rickshaws, tuktuks, and a bicycle going the wrong way down the four-lane highway. It was the chaos I’d expected but nothing really prepares for India until you’re actually there.

I was in India on a five-week trip – half-holiday, and half-assignment for Getaway International. India had been on my bucket list for awhile, until, with itchy feet after a trip to Malawi last year I just decided to take all my leave at once and book a ticket. Spontaneous travel decisions are the best, aren’t they?

Since I’ve been back from my trip, I’ve been asked ‘How was India?’ countless times, to which I reply in one-word answers: ‘Amazing. Fantastic. Intense. Overwhelming. Incredible.’ It’s hard to really condense five weeks of travelling through the mind-bogglingly huge country into a short, packaged response to that question.

So instead, I’m going to write blogs, starting off with Delhi, my first Indian city, and Agra, home to the much bucket-listed Taj Mahal.

With only two nights in Delhi, we were whisked through capital’s sights through a haze of jet lag. marvelling at the Jama Masjid – the biggest mosque in India, which can hold 20 000 people in its courtyard. Built by Taj Mahal-famous emperor Shah Jahan in 1644, it’s my first experience of the wonderful symmetry of Islamic architecture, and of the fascinating history of India’s Muslim conquerors – the Mughals. My mum and I walked over crusty pigeon poo in our hospital-like white sock coverings (you have to take off your shoes when entering the mosque) and took in the red sandstone and white marble structure, its spires delicately swathed in the pollution fog which encircles Delhi in winter.

The serenity of the Jama Masjid was in stark contrast to the chaotic streets of Chandi Chowk, the main road which leads into the hart of Old Delhi. We took a bicycle rickshaw through grey, dirty streets punctuated with bright flashes of colour – a basket of thick orange marigolds, a table of jewel-coloured pomegranates, a grey blanket piled with gorgeous veggies (red carrots, green beans, okra and bunches of fragrant coriander), a stall selling golden, syrupy jalebis, and a TV in one shop blaring a glitzy Bollywood movie.

Our other Delhi sights that day involved death (as I came to discover, a lot of India’s tourist attractions are death-fixated). Humayan’s Tomb was built in the 16th century by Haji Begum, a wife of the Mughal emperor, Humayun. A precusor in design to the Taj Mahal, the tomb’s symmetry is so calming and a walk around the red sandstone and marble building, set among peaceful gardens, is a great antidote to crazy Delhi traffic. A pilgimage spot for millions of Indians, Raj Ghat is a memorial park where Gandhi was cremated and is frequented by suitably sombre visitors paying their respects to the great man.

An early morning train to Agra the next day (memorable moments: a free rose handed out before breakfast and seeing my first public defecation along the train tracks) felt like travelling through a sepia photograph. The fog was so thick at 5.30 am that we could barely see 20 metres beyond the window. The fog persisted through the morning, and we visited Agra’s Red Fort instead of the city’s more famous monument, in the hopes that the day would clear up later on. Our guide conjured up images of boiling oil being poured on invaders from turrets, royal processions through courtyards covered in flower petals and bejewelled concubines hidden in the womens’ quarters. It’s hard to picture whilst in the throngs of a Japanese tour group, but you do get an idea of 16th century Mughal life.

Sometimes famous world monuments are over-hyped and you arrive at one of them expecting to be overwhelmed by the awesomeness of a building or landmark that’s been on your bucket list for years, only to wish it was bigger or cleaner or shinier. The only way the Taj Mahal could be disappointing was if you imagined it to be floating on top of a giant water lily. It’s bigger, more beautiful and strangely goose-bump-inducing and just awesome, in the true sense of the word. Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore has called the Taj ‘a teardrop on the cheek of time’. The pearly white marble is a bit teardroppy (perhaps Mughal royals actually cried pearls instead of tears – wouldn’t be surprised really) and apparently when it’s a full moon the whole Taj Mahal is luminescent. (Tip: Try and visit the Taj Mahal over full moon for said luminescence. During the full moon is the only time when the Taj is open at night). The afternoon is a good time to visit – we were there for over two hours and watched the white marble change colour from a boiled-egg-white to a soft gold. It was magical.

Agra is a bit of a dump – one night there was more than enough for us – so after a day of being awed by the Red Fort and the Taj Mahal, we were off to Rajasthan, India’s most romanticised state.


Some interesting Taj Mahal facts (impress your friends at the next pub quiz):

The Taj Mahal was built by Mughal emperor Shah Jahan for his beloved third wife, Mumtaz Mahal, after she died in childbirth (giving birth to their 14th child) in 1631.

Construction of the Taj started in 1632 and ended in 1653.

In 1666 Shah Jahan died while under a house arrest imposed by his murderous son Aurangzeb and his body was transported along the Yamuna River and buried under the Taj next to his wife. This was never part of the plan, so his tomb is the only unsymmetrical aspect of the whole Taj Mahal complex.

The Taj was discoloured by pollution and was cleaned in 2002 with an ancient concoction of soil, cereal, milk and lime, which was once used by Indian women as a face mask.

More than three million tourists visit the Taj Mahal each year.

* Source: The Lonely Planet’s Discover India


Tim Durham from Colours of India organised my five-week trip to India and I really recommend him and the local agents he uses. You can contact Tim on tel 021-813-9778, email [email protected] or

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