If there’s any city within India that is tainted by tourism, Agra is it. All the westerners I’ve encountered affectionately call the city “Agro.” Of course, people come to Agra to see the Taj Mahal, perhaps the most recognized building in the country. This isn’t to say we didn’t have fun — in a wacky and cynical sort of way.
As we worked our way through the city we began to play a game to see how many scams and swindles we could identify. First it was the money changers and their attempt to short change (don’t change money in Agra). Next it was people selling film and then postcards. In restaurants we noticed a “Special Agra Service Tax” as it was worded on our bill. This “Special Agra Service Tax” increased as we got closer to the Taj Mahal and started to appear in all transactions — though there was no consistency in what it was; some places charged 10% while others charged 25%. The funniest thing was when you asked about it no one knew what it was!
Then we tried to go to the bus station but were instead taken to a gem shop where they didn’t want us to buy gems but rather asked us to “carry them” to Holland. The icing on the cake came when the shop owner’s 2-year old daughter came out of the back and pleaded with us to carry the gems; and, when this didn’t work we were threatened with violence. This sickened me beyond what I can write. There are so many beautiful palaces and temples in India worth a visit: the palace in Mysore, Orchha, and the temples of Khajuraho. But — I dare say — the scams and blatant illegalities turned me off Agra and the Taj Mahal.
Our tour itself was whirlwind: the Fort (built between 1565 and 1637 by Akbar and his grandson Shah Jahan), the Diwan-i-Am (Hall of Public Audiences), and the Octagonal Tower (built by Shah Jahan for his wife Mumtaz Mahal). It was here that Shah Jahan’s son Aurangzeb (the same ruler who marched his people to Aurangabad and then decided they had to march back) imprisoned him. The Octagonal Tower has a great view of the Taj Mahal and it was here that Shan Jahan died in 1666 after 7 years of imprisonment.
The Taj Mahal was last on the tour. It is a tomb, constructed by Shan Jahan in memory of his wife Mumtaz Mahal. The two of them had 14 children together and when she died after 17 years of marriage he was heart broken. It took 22 years (1631-1653) and a total of 20,000 people to build the Taj. Experts were brought in from Europe to help with the construction: these included the Frenchman Austin of Bordeaux and the Italian Veroneo of Venice. The main architect was Isa Khan who came from Shiraz in Iraq. It is rumored that Shan Jahan wanted to build a second Taj Mahal from black marble but before he could start his son Aurangzeb imprisoned him. The tombs inside (which are not the real tombs but rather decoys) are Mumtaz Mahal and Shah Jahan side by side.
You have to be patient to get to the temple with the 15,000 other anxious tourists who also wait in line to see the tomb. The line itself wraps itself around the building and out onto the grass. If it’s a good day you can ask the gate keeper how long it will take to get to the tomb and he may say “today.”