When my friend Dora and I squeezed our entire visit to India into three weeks, it was with the understanding that we would follow our itinerary exactly, lest we be made to cut something out. You can understand how worried we became when we “missed” our train from the capital of New Delhi to Agra, home of the Taj Mahal, thanks to a hustler who convinced us he was a railway employee long enough for it to leave the station without us.
After all was said and done, we arrived in Agra nearly half a day late, which left only about eight hours for sightseeing before our scheduled return to Delhi. Although we ended up being made to book a hotel room as part of the scam we got hustled into, this isn’t par for the course: seeing all that Agra has to offer doesn’t even require you to stay there overnight.
Getting In and Out
From a tourist trail perspective, Agra is on the way from the Indian capital of Delhi to the Hindu holy city of Varanasi — or vice-versa, depending on which direction you’re going.
Agra-bound trains departing New Delhi railway station (NDLS is its abbreviation, should you need to consult the Indian Railways Online Timetable) run approximately hourly between 5 a.m. and 8 p.m. The journey, which takes between two and four hours depending on the age of the train you board, lets you off at Agra’s Cantt (AGC) Railway station. Take the first departure, if possible, to arrive in Agra around the time of sunrise.
Your options from Varanasi (BSB) are more limited, with one train per day departing the city’s station to each of Agra’s stations, the other being Agra Fort (AF). Both of these departures are scheduled to leave between 4 p.m- 6 p.m. and take about 13 hours.
Train durations are the same when leaving Agra, although it’s important to pay mind to which station you intended to leave from if you’re bound for Varanasi. Namely, the train departing the Agra Fort station is scheduled to leave more than two hours before the one that departs Agra Cantt, at around 9:00 p.m. and 11:30 p.m., respectively. Beyond making a reservation, the best way to ensure you can make your journey is turning up at Agra Fort station first and if you don’t get a seat, heading immediately to Agra Cantt to maximize your chances.
As is the case anywhere in India, train times are subject to change — and almost always do, usually for the later. Although I’d never recommend you arrive any less than 15 minutes prior to a scheduled departure, I strongly implore you to bring reading material, games or some other form of entertainment with you.
The Taj Mahal Experience
Built in the mid-17th century by Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan to commemorate his third wife Mumtaz Mahal, who died during childbirth, the Taj Mahal is perhaps the greatest monument to love ever constructed. Still, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t considering skipping it before we brokered an alternate journey to Agra. Starting the moment we arrived in the dilapidated parking area, where camels outnumber automobiles two-to-one, I was extremely glad I decided to press on.
By the time you get to Agra, you’ll probably be extremely use to locals trying to take advantage of you — and defensive when you suspect someone is moving in for the kill. The increased price for foreigners at the Taj Mahal, however (Rs. 750 per ticket vs Rs. 150 for locals) is completely legitimate.
What can I say about the Taj itself that hasn’t already been said? It’s stunningly preserved, its white marble exterior maintained daily by a staff of hundreds to the point where it looks fake both in person and in pictures.
I advise you to snap all the shots you intend to get before you step inside the mausoleum. Although staff won’t confiscate your camera prior to entering, photography is strictly prohibited — and I suppose, when you consider the story of the monument, kind of disrespectful.
The Agra Fort and Fatehpur Sikri
The second stop for the majority of travelers who visit Agra is the city’s eponymous fort, which sits slightly down the River Yamuna from the Taj Mahal. The Fort, which was first captured by Mughals in the early 16th century and declared their capital shortly thereafter in 1558, offers incredible views of the Taj and the Yamuna from the Musamman Burj tower.
Of course, this is ironic when you consider the fort’s history: after succeeding him, Shah Jahan’s son Aurangzeb imprisoned his father in the fort — and reputedly in Musamman Burj. As I admired the backside of the Taj from the tower’s balcony, I couldn’t decide whether Aurangzeb’s having imprisoned his father here was sadistic or sympathetic.
Either after or before you visit the Agra Fort, you’re stop at Fatehpur Sikri. The Mughals’ first planned city begun in 1570 under the reign of Emperor Akbar, the present day site is a collection of palaces, courts and the stunning Jama Masjid mosque. As was the case with the Agra Fort, the Fatehpur Sikri complex once served as the Mughal Capital, specifically from 1571 until 1585, when its water supply became insufficient to meet the needs of its population.
The “Marble” Myth
If you arrive to Agra before or just after sunrise and start with the Taj, you should finish up at Agra Fort or Fatehpur Sikri with at least a couple hours of daylight remaining — just in time for the earlier of the two Varanasi-bound departures, if you’re headed there. Head straight to the train station unless, of course, you enjoy streets so crowded with pedestrians, rickshaws and cars that you can’t walk or breathe, since they’re little more than packed dirt.
If you don’t specify a destination when you get into a taxi or tuk-tuk, the driver will almost certainly take you to one of Agra’s many “marble” shops. No matter which one you visit, the owner will tell you that all the stone he sells is of the same origin as the marble that comprises the Taj, reportedly the hardest in the world.
He will then explain to you the painstaking process by which the thousands of workers who completed the Taj were made to carve out indentations for the millions of semi-precious stones inlaid within the monument — and then assert that each of the items he sells was made with the same TLC.
This is not to say I doubt that legitimate marble shops exist in Agra. After all, the Mughals didn’t import that shit. This being said, if you want to buy good marble in Agra, research your options in advance and tell your driver where to take you. Otherwise, you’ll end up like Dora and I, spending hours being shuffled between shady storefronts that sell only soapstone.
Robert Schrader is a travel writer and photographer who’s been roaming the world independently since 2005, writing for publications such as “CNNGo” and “Shanghaiist” along the way. His blog, Leave Your Daily Hell, provides a mix of travel advice, destination guides and personal essays covering the more esoteric aspects of life as a traveler.