AGRA, Uttar Pradesh — After a three-hour, road construction-laden drive, we arrived in Agra in the late afternoon. Our guide Som offered us a sneak peek of the Taj before our tour the next day, and everyone in our tour group eagerly agreed. After embarking on a complex journey on electric — not gas — tuk tuks through Agra and arriving in the middle of a residential area, we followed Som and scaled several flights of stairs that exited onto a rooftop restaurant. There, we laid our eyes upon the Taj Mahal. The rooftops of Agra in the foreground and the pristine building in the background provided an uncommon view to the sanitized view that usually depicts the Taj. As the sun began to set, the azzan from a nearby madrasa rang out, and pigeon racing and kite fighting dotted the sky. It is a scene that I will never forget.
To beat the infamous crowds, we departed early the next morning for the Taj Mahal, which is actually a sprawling complex with multiple buildings. The morning fog/smog obscured the Taj’s clarity, but the hazy scene made the Taj appear even more mystical. Built by Shah Jahan from 1632 to 1653 to enshrine the body of his beloved Queen Mumtaz Mahal, the Taj Mahal took 20,000 workers and 1,000 elephants to build. Expecting this famous monument to be mainly hype like many other famous monuments, I was stunned by the intricacy of the inlay design and precise architecture. Due to the way the sunlight refracts off of its surface, each view of the Taj is different based on where people stand, the time of day, and weather.
As we visited the Taj over Christmas break, many Indians were touring as well, and several of them requested to take selfies with the other young travelers and me. It was my brief brush with celebrity status.
After leaving the Taj, we departed — via horse-drawn carriages — for Agra Fort, which was the seat of the Mughal empire for four generations. The fort was a mix of both military functionality and palace splendor. Shah Jahan’s fierce son, Aurangzeb, famously imprisoned his father at the fort after a power struggle with his brothers. Also, during the Indian Rebellion of 1857, the fort hosted nearly 6,000 British citizens as they sought to avoid violence from the rebellion.
We then had lunch at Sheroes Hangout, which is a restaurant operated by women who were acid attack victims. The causes for these senseless attacks vary, though men are the vast majority of the perpetrators. According to the Indian Journal of Clinical Practice, “Refusal of marriage proposals accounted for 55% of acid assaults, with abuse from husband/family member (18%), property disputes (11%)” as other major reasons. Society often ostracizes these women because of their external disfigurement, but the restaurant was a testament to their internal ability to overcome such momentous stereotypes.
This evening, Som hosted us for a street food tour in a bustling Agra market. The food ranged from incredibly spicy to overwhelmingly sweet with very few items in the middle. Jalebis and masala-dosas received the best overall prizes from me.
Indian cities are unique but similar. The landmarks, food, landscape, clothing, and architecture make Indian cities unique, but Indians’ kindness and welcoming disposition are ubiquitous. Once again, the people aspect of this city will endure as a memory far longer than views of the Taj. With all its glorious monuments and landmarks, India bears a history like no other, but it also bears a people like no other. The people of India will undoubtedly leave a far greater impact on visitors versus some buildings. So, if you travel to India, make sure you don’t “miss the forest for the trees.”
Next stop: Khajuraho.