Alongside the Taj, Agra is bursting with exquisite examples of traditional Indian architecture.
Often overlooked by day-trippers, Agra Fort, Chini-Ka-Rauzah Tomb and the Baby Taj (Tomb of I’Timad-Ud-Daulah) are among the finest buildings in all of India.
Meanwhile, the streets of Agra pulsate with the constant motion of commerce and poverty, tourism and tradition, color and contrast, and everything in between.
The Standard Indian Tuk Tuk/Souvenir Shop Scam
Every so often, a tuk tuk or taxi driver will hand you a comment book filled with notes from satisfied passengers. Soon after, he will tell you in with average to good English that he is a tour guide and will take you around town for what seems like a low price.
The catch is that in between historical landmarks, the “tour” stops at a series of shops that will try their hardest to turn you into a customer. Leave the store too quickly, and the driver always asks you to stay longer so he can get his bakshish (kickback/tip).
. . .
Our arrival to Agra was no different. Malik found us at the train station, drove us into town and showed us his book. We put on the usual charade of politeness and asked him to tell us about his tour, knowing that we would never accept it.
And yet there we were in his tuk tuk at 5:30am the next day. Why? Simple.
Malik said I could drive his tuk tuk!
We wanted to see the sunrise over the Taj Mahal
The Sun Rose Without Us
Oops. We miscalculated sunrise a bit and arrived at Mehtab Bagh just in time to catch the early morning’s warm glow bathing the side of the Taj Mahal.
Located on the far side of the Yamuna River, the Mehtab Bagh was once the #1 spot to photograph the Taj Mahal reflecting at dawn. However, in recent years the threat of terrorism has led to the riverbed being blocked off by barbed wire and guards.
From there, Malik took us down the road to where local Indian women were washing and beating a rainbow of saris in the Yamuna. It was a fascinating glimpse into a type of work I never could have imagined.
To the Mosques and Temples! Stop 1: Chini-Ka-Rauzah Tomb
A short drive later, we arrived at the Chini-Ka-Rauzah Tomb.
Situated on the Eastern banks of the Yamuna river, Chini-Ka-Rauzah was once a large complex enclosed within high walls, with gardens, two storied octagonal towers and also a quay. Today, only one tower and the tomb remain.
As the only visitors to the tomb at 7am, we were prime targets for the Indian guard who offered to show us around. His “tour” consisted of opening a few doors and giving Carrie and I a history lesson in broken English. We obliged by giving him a few dozen rupees of bakshish.
Next, we were joined by a group of Indian boys as we wandered around the grounds. Each one was intent on showing off his acrobatic moves and I’m pretty sure that they all instantly fell in love with Carrie.
Tomb of I’Timad-Ud-Daulah aka, the Baby Taj
Lovingly nicknamed Baby Taj, the tomb of I’timād-ud-Daulah was actually the architectural model for Shah Jahan’s Taj Mahal. The famous mausoleum borrowed many architectural features from the tomb, including it’s layout and marble walls encrusted with semi-precious stones.
Far away from the spiraling lines of the Taj Mahal, we had this historic Indian landmark to ourselves when we arrived at 8am. Our only company were workers performing repairs and a man sweeping the tomb.
The “Real” Agra
In the expanse between famous mausoleums, temples, and forts, the “real” Agra pulsates with life and contrast.
At any given moment, the city is busy, slow, crowded, dirty, colorful, fast, poor, historic, rich, and enchanting.
While wandering around the back corner of the Baby Taj, Carrie and I found a panoramic viewpoint of Agra and the Yamuna river.
For what seemed like eons, we stood there and watched water buffalo roam alongside Indian locals washing clothes, bathing, and defecating under a bridge.
I Drove (and crashed) a Tuk Tuk
Back in Malik’s tuk tuk, I reminded him that I still hoped to be able to drive for a few minutes. I guess he had completely forgotten, so instead of a wide open road by the Mehtab Bagh, he got me set up on a quiet road just barely wider than the rickshaw.
This was the moment I had been waiting for. He sat me down in the driver’s seat and gave me a few directions.
Gas is the right hand.
Clutch is the left.
Turn the clutch to switch gears.
Gently ease off the clutch and turn the gas.
Brake with the foot as needed.
Whew. Got it! Clutch. Gear. Gas. Brake. STALL!
OK, maybe go over that one more time.
Lunch and Shops Mean Bakshish for Malik
Right next to the street where I drove the tuk tuk, a beautiful garden restaurant awaited us. We sat there, getting to know our new friend Malik. One thing we learned was that every Friday he got to bring his entire family to the restaurant for a free meal: an act of bakshish for the daily parade of tourists that he brought to the restaurant.
Once we were full and rested, it was time for the shopping portion of our tour. Our stops included a marble factory that replicated the style used in the Taj Mahal, a textile shop, and a Persian rug warehouse.
When we agreed to Malik’s tour, I knew exactly what I was getting myself into and went into each shop with an open mind and an endless vat of patience. By the time we were done, I had lost both.
. . .
A funny story:
Our salesman at the Persian rug warehouse was something of a joker. When I was taking the below photo of their yarn room, he said,
“do you know what would make this photo more beautiful?”
“What,” I asked without thinking and excited by a new idea for an image.
“Your wife in it,” he replied.
Looking back on all the photos I took that day, it turns out he was right!
Take Us to Agra Fort. Now!
The shopkeepers tried every trick in the book to get us to buy something and after three intense stops, I was ready to snap. All I wanted to do was finish our tour and go home.
Thank goodness for my even-keeled wife, who was able to convey that frustration into a simple, “let’s go to the Agra Fort now, then maybe later we’ll see another shop.”
It worked, but Malik parking spot meant we had to cross 10 lanes of busy traffic to reach the Fort. He said it was to save 5 rupees and so he could have a shave while he waited. I think it was his silent protest to not being at a fourth shop.
. . .
Our 114 Degree Visit to the Agra Fort
A glorious example of traditional Indian Mhugal architecture, Agra Fort is a sprawling complex in the middle of the city. After passing through its towering red walls and gate, we were immersed in wide courtyards, ancient pools, beautiful art and architecture, and scenic views of Agra and the Taj Mahal.
Unfortunately, by the time we got there it was 2pm and 114 degrees: not the best way to enjoy a stroll around the fort.“Ooh, there’s a nice spot in the shade over there,” was a common refrain that afternoon.
Glorious photographs of iconic scenes were shot in passing: because it was just too hot to stop. At one point, we had to take our shoes off to enter a mosque. We didn’t make it very far.
By the time we left Agra Fort, Carrie and I were hot, exhausted, mentally drained and in no mood to put up the charade of caring about yet another shop.
Malik wanted to take us to more; we politely said no: it was time to go home. “Maybe tomorrow,” we lied in hopes of not hurting his feelings.
Back at our guesthouse, we signed Malik’s book, paid him for the day and said our goodbyes: or so we thought. A few hours later, while walking around looking for food, Malik found us and asked if we were ready to go to more shops.
. . .
Maybe a Little More? I considered making something up, but decided it was time for the good ‘ole truth.
“Malik. Honestly, it’s just too much. The shops are very nice and we appreciate the demonstrations, but the people are so pushy. There is so much pressure on us to buy things that we have no interest in buying.
We have to lie to these people’s face so you can get your bakshish, which is fine, but three shops is more than enough. Thank you for the day, but we’re done.”
And that was that. Malik went home to his family. We went and found dinner, happy with the sights we saw and our “bonus stops.” He got bakshish from three shops, our tour fee, and a free meal on Friday. Everyone wins.
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