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If you find yourself in Agra, India, it is likely that your visit will include an early-morning visit to the Taj Mahal. For many U.S. travelers, the journey ends there, perhaps with a hotel bookending the experience. A surprising number of visitors to Agra miss some of the other scenic destinations in the region. Rather than just experiencing the beauty of Agra from the Taj Mahal, suggest that clients take two days to explore its other cultural sites.
1. Visit the Red Fort. Agra is home to the bastioned fortress of Emperor Akbar. The 16th-century fort, the Red Fort of Agra, was constructed during the Mughal Dynasty and features walls of red sandstone that rise above a large moat. It is one of the most obvious symbols of the grandeur of the Mogul era, and it was here that Shah Jahan, who constructed the Taj Mahal for his beloved wife, was imprisoned with a view of his majestic architectural achievement from the Musamman Burj.
Visitors should allow about three or four hours to tour the Red Fort. For those who arrive in Agra early, this is an ideal excursion to take before checking into the hotel. While the Taj Mahal should be visited as early as possible, the Agra Fort can be visited at any time of the day. Apart from the Musamman Burj, other noteworthy places to explore inside the fort include the reception rooms: the pillared Diwan-i-Am (Hall of Public Audience) and the Diwan-i-Khas. Within the complex, there are also two mosques, the Moti Masjid or the Pearl Mosque, constructed of white marble, and the Nagina Masjid, which was built under the reign of Aurangzeb (1658-1707).
2. Check Into ITC Mughal. When experiencing the Taj Mahal, a luxury hotel stay is a great way to complement the visit. The ITC Mughal offers a unique way to immerse clients in the splendors that await them. The hotel, which spans more than 35 acres, features lush gardens and luxuriously appointed rooms located in close proximity to the Taj Mahal. Its design is a fitting tribute to the great Mughal builders of the past, and the hotel is the only five-star property to have won the prestigious Aga Khan Award for its excellent representation of Mughal architecture. Its new Khwab Mahal (Palace of Dreams) wing further honors this heritage, with presidential and family suites offering private swimming pools, a massage room with a steam shower and a Jacuzzi, a large sitting area and more than 2,000 square feet of space.
Recommend that clients stay at the property for dinner to enjoy some of ITC’s award-winning signature restaurants. Peshawri, in particular, offers a unique traditional North West India dining experience. Meals feature an assortment of delicious kebabs, vegetable dishes and a variety of Indian breads. Guests dine with their hands, and aprons are used so that things don’t get too messy.
3. Sunrise Trip to the Taj Mahal. The ITC Mughal offers guests several ways to get from the property to the Taj Mahal, including carriage rides and rickshaws. Most guides recommend arriving right at or a little before sunrise to get in the line at the enterance, which can be long. The best time to view the Taj is at sunrise when the marble lights up with a pink glow. The crowds are often less intense this early in the morning, making for a better overall experience, fewer lines and with more of the day to spend in Agra.
The Taj Mahal is one of the most exquisite examples of Muslim art in India, and the circumstances by which it came into existence (it was built for Shah Jahan’s favorite wife, Mumtaz) only enhances its beauty. Its ethereal spaces and tragic love story create a sense of longing and desire for visitors.
What was once a palace for Mumtaz is now a mausoleum, serving as her resting place since she did not live to see the construction of her palace completed. Located on the banks of the Yamuna River in a vast Mogul garden, the Taj is ensconced by four minarets and capped by a bulbous dome of white marble.
Guests enter through the Darwaza, the main gate, and then head to the Bageecha, the gardens that were planned in a classical Mughal style. The gardens are definitely worth a stroll but take pictures and then head to the main chamber first to see the tombs of Mumtaz and Shah Jahan before the crowds descend. Both tombs are inlaid and decorated with precious stones.
4. Fatehpur Sikri. Visitors to Agra should not miss a visit to Fatehpur Sikri, one of the best-preserved examples of Mughal architecture in India. This is an ideal way to follow-up a visit to the Taj Mahal or can be a stop on the way out of the city.
Fatehpur Sikri sits on a rocky ridge surrounded by a seven-mile wall on three sides and a dry lake on the fourth side. Similar to the Red Fort, the building material used at Fatehpur Sikri is locally quarried red sandstone. One of the most important sites is the Buland Darwaza, the main gate, which is known as the victory arch. The Jama Masjid, or Friday Mosque, is believed to be the first building of the complex to be constructed, and the Tomb of Salim Chishti is the resting place of the Sufi saint.
It takes about two hours to fully explore Fatehpur Sikri, and visitors could easily spend half a day wandering around.
Visit the Red Fort. // © 2012 Janeen Christoff
Sunrise Trip to the Taj Mahal. // © 2012 Janeen Christoff
Fatehpur Sikri. // © 2012 Janeen Christoff