Agra: 1st – 3rd August 2019

We arrived at Agra at 5am having had not enough sleep on the train as it wound through the saturated, monsoon-laden countryside. We were immediately inundated by tuk tuk drivers, but thankfully had a lift pre-arranged to our guest house. We were obviously too early to get into our room, but the owner let us freshen up and leave our bags in his room.

We set off to find breakfast at a cafe near the Taj Mahal, but by the time we got there it was becoming stiflingly hot so we decided to visit there first before it got any hotter. We paid a pretty extortionate entry fee, which then singled us out as “high-value ticket holders” rather than Indian nationals, and discomfortingly allowed us to join much shorter queues through security. We entered through the West Gate into a large courtyard surrounded by red sandstone walls and minarets. Going through a huge gate we got our first glimpse of the Taj Mahal. It was magnificent. Long waterways and fountains stretched down the verdant lawns towards it. The green garden, the red sandstone mosques and palaces surrounding, and the bright white of the Taj Mahal ahead of us were awe-inspiring. With us feeling so tired, hungry and spaced out with sickness (we were both struggling with bugs that day) it felt unreal. We left for breakfast and went to the rooftop cafe where we were able to watch kites swooping over the dome of the Taj Mahal, a short distance away.

The following day we got up at 4:15 to embark on a ridiculous day trip involving 9 hours of train journey to see the Chand Baori step well. We had really wanted to visit it when we were in Jaipur (vastly closer!) but at the time we weren’t experienced enough with the trains to be able to plan the journey. We tried to leave the guesthouse at 5 and made the horrifying discovery that the doors were not only locked but covered with metal shutters, padlocked to the ground! Luckily there was no fire during our stay. We called the owner who quickly arrived to let us out.

At Agra station, every time we walked anywhere we were swamped by hawkers and tuk tuk drivers, despite it not yet being 6am. It was noticeably more intense than anywhere else we have been in India and we found it genuinely intimidating. We took a non-AC train (thinking it wouldn’t be too hot that early in the morning – we were wrong!) to Bandikui. Although sleeper-class has no AC, the open grills instead of windows did give us excellent views of the surrounding countryside.

Leaving Bandikui Junction station we stepped over litter and barbed wire into the street where we were again surrounded by hawkers and tuk tuk drivers. We tried and failed to find somewhere to eat, and decided to just get a tuk tuk to Chand Baori. The main road was pretty horrible; food and tea stalls with hundreds of men – only men on the whole street – yelling to get our attention, with an edge that was unsettling at best. We found a lone tuk tuk driver and negotiated a price for him to take us to the stepwell and wait to bring us back; during the negotiation we were joined by another half dozen men, all looming in such a way that Maeve felt she had to leave the group and stand alone on the other side of the tuk tuk while Jay sorted it out.

We arrived at the step well at 1 o’clock – just when you want to be at an open-air stone feature in the 40-degree desert! But we both gasped as we walked in, genuinely amazed at the sheer size and scale which hadn’t come across in the pictures and films we’d seen. With relatively few tourists, it was quite quiet inside.

Step wells are a common ancient feature in India, allowing people to access groundwater in the driest parts of the country. This one was built around the 9th century by a local Rajput king for himself and his queen as a summer palace, as well as being a gift for the local people. It is 13 levels deep, 20 metres in total. We wanted to explore the chambers but the stepwell is now fenced off to protect it from people – in contrast with many in the country which stand open and in various states of disrepair. Swallows and pigeons now live within the chambers lining the stepwell walls and the noises of the swallows crying out echoed around the tiers.

Around the edges of the stepwell a covered walkway was full of carved stone recovered from an adjacent temple. In a corner we almost walked face-first into a cluster of bats! We visited the ruined temple and then wandered back to the main road to get our lift back. All in all, we spent about 11 hours travelling for less than an hour visiting the Baori, but overall we were glad to have made the effort. It was very much a place and of an architecture that resonated distinctly with India, and we are unlikely to ever see anything like it again in our lifetimes without returning to this country.

The following day we headed back to the station to take the train to Delhi for a few days of rest and preparation with new friends we’d met back at the very start of our trip in Ladakh. While we felt privileged to have visited the Taj Mahal and especially Chand Baori, Agra itself had been quite a challenge, and negotiating the hundreds of people who all vied for your attention whenever you stepped outside the door had been exhausting. We were ready for a mini-holiday in Delhi!

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