Sunday, November 07, 2010

A Vacation In Agra - Part I

The Taj Mahal at sunriseThe Taj Mahal. Many books have been written about it and photo-essays compiled into pretty adornments for coffee-tables of the well-heeled. What more can I add to that? I lived in North India for over two decades, yet never visited this monument of love. Having read and heard so much about it, I wondered if all that hype would reduce the impact when we saw it live.But happily for me, the ethereal image of the Taj as the sun rose in the winter morning was mesmerising. And the feeling of awe deepens as you remember when it was built.

The Taj MahalWhat an impressive sight it must have been, when this poetry in marble was finally completed after 22 years of intense labor and craftsmanship! On the banks of a much wider Yamuna river (in those times) and in a landscape filled with red sandstone forts and havelis, this vision in white much have looked completely out-worldly. Even after 300 years with periods of looting, neglect and industrial pollution, it takes little imagination to see why the Taj has attracted so many tourists through these years.

The Taj from Oberoi AmarvilasI had booked us at the Oberoi Amarvilas. While I have stayed at Oberoi's city hotels, I hadn't until now been a guest at their famed resort hotels. The Amarvilas is not a very large property, but dazzles with the opulence of Mughal palaces at the peak of their splendor. We entered through a colonnaded courtyard filled with fountains. The staff in turbans and ethnic saris fit right into this regal setting!

They took us into the richly appointed lobby lounge with its elaborate chandelier and richly furnished chairs and sofas. Out through the ornate windows was our first sight of the monument of love. We sipped on welcome drinks and stood on the balcony gazing at the view of the Taj over a sea of green tree-tops.

The Oberoi Amarvilas
The Oberoi Amarvilas
The Oberoi AmarvilasOur room had exquisite furniture and furnishings that recreated the art of the Mughals. Oberoi had commissioned about 600 artisans who worked for over an year to recreate Mughal indulgence in modern settings. Artisans probably used the same tools their fore-fathers had when creating the Taj several hundreds of years back.

Traditional marble inlay work at Amarvilas
Traditional Kashmiri furnishing at Amarvilas
Turquoise and silver decor in the Amarvilas bathroomsAs the sun set over the Taj, the palatial ambiance was further enhanced as lights came on in the terraced lawns and flaming torches were lit at both ends of the pool pavilion. Sounds of classical Indian music filled the air as Kathak dancers began gracefully performing on the terrace of the pool pavilion.

The Oberoi Amarvilas
The Oberoi Amarvilas
The Oberoi AmarvilasWe started early next morning to see the Taj as the sun rose. The Amarvilas provides complimentary golf carts to shuttle its guests to the entrance of the monument. The line at the security checkpoint was long. We entered through the Eastern Gate and found the women's queue longer than the men's'. BTW, they allow you to bring in cameras and cellphone, but other electronic gadgets and/or food are not allowed, so be forewarned.

Also, to get into the inner structure of the Taj, you have to take off your shoes or use a shoe-cover. Our hotel concierge had gotten us tickets and a guide for the trip. Rizwan turned out to be articulate, knowledgeable and a very polished guide who I can recommend to both Indians and visiting foreigners alike. (You can contact him directly at:

The entrance to the Taj Mahal
Gateway to the Taj Mahal
Taj Mahal
Taj MahalThe elaborate gateway inscribed with verses from the Quran frames the Taj as you enter inside. A vast garden surrounds the Taj on three sides with the river at its back. The garden is designed in geometric patterns and has several reflecting pools and fountains.

The pink hue of the marble in the morning light turns into bright white as the morning progresses.

The Taj Mahal
The Taj MahalWe learnt about white marble from Makrana in Rajasthan. How this is marble is far harder and less porous than Italian marble. The Taj is the best testament to its durability! Eight hundred kilos of gold used to adorn doors and the metal spires, but were subsequently melted down by looters. The British added an Egyptian lamp inside and closed the gaps in the marble screens with acrylic. Apparently, the gardens originally contained fruit trees, but the British re-fashioned it with flower beds, trees and lawns.

Back in the hotel, we went straight to breakfast at the Bellevue restaurant. The restaurant serves a combination of Indian and Western breakfast items. While the cold buffet is amply stocked, all hot items are prepared a-la-minute and served at the table.

Breakfast at BellevueAfter freshening up, we again got ready for our next trip. Agra Fort. This was where five great Mughal emperors once ruled India from. Humayun, Akbar, Shahjahan, Jehangir and Aurangzeb all lived here. This is also where their great treasury was housed which included the Koh-i-noor diamond.

Entrance to Agra FortWe toured the vast courtyards, the halls of audience where the emperor met with his subjects and princely visitors, and the harems and the private mosques. While only the walls with their intricate carvings and workmanship have survived, one needs little imagination to visualize how resplendent these quarters must have been when these walls were adorned with jewels, Persian rugs and other royal furnishings and embellishments.

Deewan-i-Aam at Agra Fort
The Emperor's Pavilion at Agra Fort
Intricate jaali work in stone at Agra Fort
Shahjahan's Prison at Agra Fort
Princess Jahanara's Chamber at Agra FortWe arrived back tired from the trip and made our way to the pool. The swimming pool too was like something out of Arabian nights. Partly indoor, the pool was heated to a comfortable degree and its dark lapis blue color contrasted with the sandstone buildings. Ornate umbrellas covered the pool lounge chairs. All of this made for an atmosphere we soaked in as we sipped on fruity cocktails without getting out of water.

The Pool at Oberoi Amarvilas
The Pool at Oberoi Amarvilas
The Pool at Oberoi AmarvilasFinally, we dragged ourselves out and got back to our room. We were looking forward to the evening. We had made reservations at Esphahan, the Indian speciality restuarant at the hotel and were looking forward to it.

Coming Up: Part II of Agra


Sandeep said...

Excellent and crisp review about Taj and Oberoi Amarvilas! ...Keep blogging ..cheers ..Sandeep

Mark Bregman said...

I visited the Taj 32 years ago but now your blog has inspired me to go back. Deb has never been there so we'll have to plan a trip for next year.

Yuri said...

Brilliant post ... fond memories of my college tour up north

Shweta said...

Beautiful write-up!!

Anonymous said...

@Sandeep, @Yuri, @Shweta: Thanks.

@Mark: It is certainly time for another visit. You should check out the Oberoi Amarvilas.

Anil P said...

It's quite a sight no doubt. I remember Raghu Rai capturing it well.

Fatehpur Sikri is equally interesting, more so where Tansen performed, the Anup Talao if I remember correctly.

Anonymous said...

@Anil P: Sure is. The one thing I couldn't do is get a view from the other bank of Yamuna, which I understand is an excellent sight too. Re: Fatehpur Sikhri, yes of course. That was when the Navratnas in Akbar's court were at their peak, I guess.