Snippets of Agra, India.
Snippets of Agra, India.
Cover photo courtesy of David Castor.
After an intense week in India’s frenetic capital, New Delhi, my travel mate Allan and I jumped on an equally hectic train to the city of Agra. Almost everything about my India trip thus far had felt like a relentless assault on the senses. Including, it turned out, the presumably simple process of boarding a train. Joining the chaotic throngs of people on our platform at New Delhi Railway Station, we found ourselves shoved and jostled as we literally fought to reach our pre-booked economy class seats.
The service from Delhi to Agra took just under three hours, by far the shortest journey of my entire Indian adventure. And the trip flew by faster still when we found ourselves seated opposite two bright-eyed young Indian men. “Welcome to India sir!” grinned the guy in the checkered shirt. We then got chatting, our newfound friends telling us about their lives working as call centre operatives in Delhi.
Every weekend they took the train home to Agra for some much needed rest and family time. The quieter of the two men, bespectacled and with a curtains haircut, excitedly told me how he was a big cricket fan. As I was British, he assumed that I was also crazy about cricket (I couldn’t care less) and proceeded to hit me with an array of questions I couldn’t answer. “Sir, how rich is Ian Botham?” was probably my favourite.
Snippets of Agra, India.
When we finally pulled into Agra I made sure to carry out the photographic honours. Then presented them both with 50 pence coins plucked from a little bag I’d prepared for such occasions. “Thank you, sir! God bless The Queen!” cried checkered shirt. And off we went in out separate directions, never to meet again.
From all the hundreds of hotels, guesthouses, B&Bs and apartments I’ve stayed at during my world travels, very few were as memorable as Agra’s filth-ridden but highly characterful Hotel Shahjahan. Our reasons for choosing the place were straightforward. 1: it was cheapy cheap and 2: centrally located within walking distance from The Taj Mahal.
We weren’t expecting much, but nothing had prepared me for the abysmal room the receptionist gave us on arrival. Nevertheless, I have fond memories of hanging out with the hotel manager, a grisly, marijuana-fuelled philosopher by the name of Guddu. That’s him straddling the motorbike above.
Guddu had a whole host of children born from a variety of women. One of his offspring could usually be found on Hotel Shahjahan’s rooftop playing with his toys in the shade. One afternoon I let him handle my growing collection of elephant figurines, during which I managed to grab this treasured shot. I had such great memories of this awful/wonderful hotel. To find out more, check out my short stories The Shithole and Same Same But Different.
The Taj Mahal.
It was from Hotel Shahjahan that we left at dawn for the atmospheric walk to The Taj Mahal. I remember the early morning light seeping into the quiet streets, monkeys hopping between the trees as we went. Arriving ahead of opening time, Allan and I succeeded in beating the infamous Taj queues to swiftly buy our tickets and pass straight through the security barriers.
The Taj Mahal really is as breathtaking as its reputation suggests. How I would love to go back one day and photograph it with the camera I have now. Construction began in 1632 upon the order of the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan, who had been left heartbroken after the death of his favourite wife, Mumtaz Mahal.
She died giving birth to their 14th child! And, as the legend goes, begged him to honour her with the grandest mausoleum ever built. It was a promise he duly delivered with a quite spectacular white marble building that took twenty one years to complete. Shah Jahan eventually ended up joining Mumtaz to rest in The Taj for evermore after his death in 1666.
The mausoleum sits in a simple but elegant Mughal Garden with a reflecting pool. The very one, you may recall, that Princess Diana famously sat in. And of course the moment was photographed, perfectly encapsulating her sense of isolation and loneliness during Britain’s royal visit to India in February 1992.
Snippets of Agra.
Getting hassled by rickshaw drivers was par for the course in India. But there was something different about Mona, a sombre, softly-spoken man who offered to ferry me around Agra for a sum of money so insignificant it seemed rude not to accept.
Somehow, I felt he was completely genuine and that he wouldn’t subject me to any of the usual lies and game playing that came with the territory of rickshaw travel. Happily, Mona didn’t let me down and at the end of the day I gave him a generous tip. I remember he reacted with just the faintest trace of a smile and a weary but appreciative nod of the head.
My main stop that day was Agra Fort, one of India’s finest Mughal castles. Mona dropped me off and told me to take my time, before climbing into the backseat of the rickshaw for a well-earned nap.
Agra Fort was built from red sandstone in 1565 by Emperor Akbar, Shah Jahan’s grandfather. It subsequently became one of the Mughal Empire’s most iconic structures, a symbol of its creator’s fearsome power.
While Akbar envisioned the fort primarily as a military installation, his grandson Shah Jahan later transformed it into a lavish palace. I’m talking luxurious living quarters, grand mosques and vast, sweeping courtyards. Once again his favourite white marble was employed throughout. Agra Fort was also where Shah Jahan spent the final eight years of his life trapped in a prison cell. Tragically, it was his own son Aurangzeb who betrayed him and left him to rot.
Cruelly, Shah Jahan’s cell window overlooked his grand creation, The Taj Mahal. I couldn’t help but take a moment to sit there myself and try to imagine the depths of his despair.
Throughout my Indian travels, I endeavoured to buy an elephant-themed souvenir in every place I visited. In Agra I found just what I’d been looking for in this tiny, shack-like store near the train station. In fact, I fell for these little marble elephants as soon as I saw them and met the store’s owners, a pair of friendly (and somewhat goofy) brothers.
Beautifully carved and worryingly delicate, I felt certain my marble elephant would break as I lugged my gear around the country and ultimately back to Scotland. Somehow though, the little fella survived.
Moreover, it remained intact when I later moved to the city of Leuven in Belgium. And then again when I moved onto the Belgian capital, Brussels. Later, it emerged unscathed once again following my move to The Netherlands. And had not even a single scratch when, some years later, I shipped my possessions to southern Spain.
Snippets of Agra.
Finally though, my beloved Agra elephant’s luck ran out one Spanish afternoon. This was when my mischievous cat Bill climbed the TV, jumped onto the shelf above it and brought the entire thing crashing down. Mr. Elephant now has a large hole in his side, but is no less adored. I was furious with Bill, but of course forgave him as soon as he shot me one of his adorable, wide-eyed looks.
Check out more of my travel reports from across India.
For a deeper look at my time in the country, have a read of my short story collection Incidents In India.
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I was re-reading one of my blogs yesterday and I had referenced the Princess Diana moment in a piece about John Terry. That’s a weird Venn Diagram, eh?
Ha ha nice one, an unlikely duo indeed. Thanks for reading and commenting Chris.
This brings memories back of our time there in Agra. The Taj Mahal was such a fascinating site we visited. Thanks for sharing this. Anita
Thanks for your comment, Anita.
So many parallels! We too found a friendly tuk tuk man in Agra – Raj his name was. Unfortunately though our visit to the wonderful, awesome Taj Mahal had the edge taken off it by the fact that a large section of it was behind scaffolding. Still a breathtaking sight though. Michaela got the Delhi belly in Agra (street vendor had watered down the sugar cane drink, and the water is, as you know, deadly). Did you also get to see the “baby Taj”, a smaller version which actually pre-dates the main one? That was fascinating too, and no crowds! I wonder where you headed next – we actually got the sleeper train from Agra to Varanasi. An Indian sleeper train is definitely a very real experience. One last thought I remember from Agra….I wondered what you have to be good at to be someone’s “favourite” wife, of his many wives??!
Hey guys, that’s a bummer about The Taj. I’ve had similar experiences in various major sites around the world, what can you do? I didn’t manage to catch the Baby Taj, looking back I wish I’d stayed longer, but we were keen to keep on moving for some reason. Call it the folly of youth. Next we went…. in a different direction.
I always thought I would like to visit India one day, but I think that is an adventure for the young. Thanks for taking me there. The Taj is indeed a beautiful symbol of love and devotion. Good description of your accommodation. I find it interesting how in our younger days, we would put up with “rustic” rooms. No more for us, I am afraid. Poor Bill likely could not understand your fixation with elephants and just wanted to get your attention (good or bad) back to him. Thanks for sharing Leighton. Allan
“rustic” is a nice way of putting it ha ha. Looking back, just getting to see The Taj was worth every single frustration I experienced throughout my Indian travels. As for Bill, I guess there’s a lesson in there somewhere. Never ever let your cat think it isn’t the single most important thing in your life.
I don’t remember the Lady Di picture but we have one of us sitting on the exact same bench I think. We have very different train stories where we shared our sleeper not with 2 loveable characters but with a family of 12 on one ticket! And let’s just say they did not like tourists one bit. I prefer your memory😊 Maggie
Oh Maggie, you did make me laugh as I tried to picture your carriage. A lot of these experiences really do come down to luck a lot of the time, eh?
These places really look incredible. I loved all the interactions you’ve had with people, and it is in my opinion some of the best things about traveling – even though, as an introvert, it is hard to start a conversation with a stranger ahah! Thanks for sharing your stories 😊
Ah, welcome to the introvert club Juliette! 🙂 As you may have gathered I was not at all introverted back in those days and far more willing to chat openly with anyone I met. I think this is where a blog comes in handy, you get to channel all that missing verbal dialogue into writing. At least that’s how it works for me. Thank you so much for following this series and reading my ‘Snippets of Agra’.
Snippets of history are fascinating. Was the son who imprisoned Shah Jahan one of the 14 he had with his favorite wife, Mahal? He must have enjoyed some seniority. Sadly, I can relate to Bill the cat. Where is the wounded elephant today? Enjoyed the quick trip.
Yes, he was indeed born of Mumtaz! What a scoundrel eh? The wounded elephant, you’ll be unsurprised to hear, is in one of my famous life boxes in The Scottish Highlands. Except the boxes are no longer stored at my friend’s laundry business, I transferred them to my mum’s loft this past summer.
Again, just to say I like the format of these latest posts, the personalized description of the photos and a mixture of facts and your own past travel experiences. Waiting for the next one!
Thanks very much Geoff, plenty more snippets to come throughout the rest of December.
I am loving these snippets, Leighton. You are so brave to have stayed in the Shahjahan Hotel in Agra! Being somewhat of a germophobe, I couldn’t have done it. I would love to see the Taj Mahal someday though. The history of Shah Jahan is interesting too. I am looking forward to more snippets.
Thanks Kellye. If I were to come across a hotel like that today, I’d just spin on my heels and skedaddle. How are you guys feeling now? I did check up on you via Facebook Messenger, but you haven’t seen it yet. Very much hoping you are both on the mend, if not fully recovered!
Aw, thank you, Leighton. I haven’t been at the computer much except to check emails. We are almost there, and I never want to have that again.
A great post for me having taken the same train journey from Delhi to Agra well before your trip. Unfortunately, for me I struggled around the Taj due to India’s well known illness—Delhi belly, but still have a vivid memory of the unforgettable experience. My photos are pathetic of the Taj. I had an Instamatic back then (if you’re even old enough to remember them).
Hey Mallee, glad you enjoyed this post, thanks for sharing your own memories. I know of and have seen Instamatics, but never owned or used one.
I would definitely plan a visit to this city and visit the iconic Taj Mahal. Spectacular! I’d also like to ride the rail services too.
I’d be fascinated to read about what a visit to The Taj looks like these days. Thanks for checking out my Snippets of Agra Marion.
I’ve seen lots of pictures of the Taj Mahal, but none of the fort! That looks like an awesome place to explore. I imagine the Taj Mahal is an instagrammers paradise nowadays.
I haven’t really been keeping up with The Taj in recent years. Obviously the building itself doesn’t change, but I’m curious as to how the whole vibe is around it now. Even the words “Instagrammer’s paradise” makes me think I’m better off not looking and keeping the memories fresh. Thanks for dropping by, Lyssy.
I could feel the bustling and chaotic energy in your India posts, Leighton– Agra is no exception. The Taj Mahal is on my bucket list to visit, although I have no idea when I’ll be heading to India. I would honestly get overwhelmed with the sights and smells of the cities, and as a woman, I have my reservations regarding safety…but sometimes, it’s worth taking a leap of faith and trying it out! One of these days, I’ll have to go, thanks to your posts!
I understand your concerns, Rebecca. Have seen quite a few blogs on India from female solo backpackers, so I guess they would be a great resource for you. Thanks for looking through my ‘Snippets of Agra’.
I’ve wanted to visit Agra ever since reading The Road to Agra in grade school. I enjoyed reading your story of this adventure and the fascinating history of the place. The “game of thrones” is played all over the world. At least Jahan was buried in his Taj.
Ta for dropping by, John. I have always meant to read ‘The Road to Agra’, but it has somehow evaded me. I do recall one of the main characters being called Lalou, which was the name of my incredible camel in Jaisalmer. More on that in a future ‘snippets’.
bill… how could he? some more super snippets leighton, the taj looks magical through your analogue lens. mona… there is a sense of sadness even from the photo, i can imagine the life of a rickshaw driver in agra is no piece of cake
Ah Stan, you’re not wrong. Mona was quite unlike any rickshaw driver I met throughout the entire trip. If I’d had the means, I would’ve happily taken him with me across the country. He must be pretty old by now, if indeed he’s still around. Guess he’s had some tough years and wonder if he’s still driving.
It must have been an amazing experience to see The Taj Mahal in person. Given that it’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the most impressive pieces of architecture in the world, especially with respect to its intricate marble and stonework, it must be constantly buzzing with throngs of visitors. Although, when I think of it, in most of the photos that I’ve seen of The Taj Mahal, a huge amount of the tourists appear to be Indians exploring their own country. Thanks for sharing and have a good day 🙂 Aiva xx
Thanks for your comment Aiva. I have never really agreed with people who say: “It’s just a building”. It has always exuded something unique, quite unlike any other historical structure I’ve seen.
Firstly, you are brave for staying in the Shahjahan Hotel in Agra! I don’t think I could have done it, but anyway, besides this, I really enjoyed reading about your experiences and interactions with people. I’d love to visit the Taj Mahal, but today I imagine it would be quite crowded, although I still think it would be worth the hustle and bustle.
I also imagine it might be horribly crowded and full of large tour groups, influencers, YouTubers, selfie sticks and all the rest of it. However, perhaps in this post-COVID landscape it’s not as bad as I fear. Thanks for looking at my ‘Snippets of Agra’ Natty.
Thanks for sharing your lovely memories of this incredible place, and interactions with so many of the locals. Your experience getting on the train reminds me of an episode of “No Reservations” with Tony Bourdain; he got on a train in India and a young boy gave him his seat, only to proceed to sit in Tony’s lap. The boy acted as if that was a common occurrence there, which it probably is. Great post as usual.
Ha! I shall have to seek out that episode Tricia, thanks. I’m certainly glad no-one tried to sit on my lap. Thanks for keeping up with my snippets of India.
It seems like your travels are such a mix of the awful and wonderful. Beautiful buildings with sad histories and lovely people in sketchy places. I love the elephant collecting! How sad that it finally met its end due to your adorable, although maybe a little mischievous cat. 🙂
One day, if/when Sladja and I finally settle, I’ll find a place for this well-travelled, bedraggled elephant. Awful and wonderful does indeed sum up a lot of my experiences in India. Cheers, Meg.
‘Reasonably rich’ made me laugh, these details are often my favourite bits in your posts. Poor marble elephant, I’m glad it survived the fall. It makes it even more valuable, because there’s another layer of memory attached to it. Taj looks incredible, must be quite a site to behold. Your experience of India is rich and stratified and full of interesting characters that one wants to learn more about.
You know, I would settle for “reasonably rich” ha ha. Thanks so much Amelie, for more on these characters, such as Guddu and Mona, check out my short story collection ‘Incidents in India. https://leightontravels.com/incidents-in-india/
The Taj Mahal looks so elegant and beautiful and I love the story behind it. Sorry to hear that your cat partially damaged your Agra elephant. Oh the joys of having a cat. I can relate. This is why we can’t have nice things.
Bill really outdid himself on that occasion. To scale the TV and then launch himself otno that shelf, the very image of the word “safe”, was quite an achievement. Thanks guys, for sifting through these ‘Snippets of Agra’.
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Thanks for the repost!
Enjoyed reliving this with you. The Taj is so much more spectacular than photos can show. I made some interesting stops in Agra, tuk-tuked around, like you, by a friendly older man. The one that has stayed with me was Sheroes Hangout, the women scarred by acid by their family or husbands.
Ohhh, I have read a few articles about Sheroes Hangout. Such an uplifting place, despite the harrowing stories behind it. I would’ve definitely visited but sadly I was ten years too early. Thanks for reading, Ruth.
Thanks for your comment.
The Taj Mahal is a magical place, the proportions are perfect and there is such a beautiful elegance about it. I wish I had spent more time there, seeing the different shades of light. Your morning light is sublime.
I wish I’d lingered just a bit longer too. Thanks for checking out these ‘Snippets of Agra’.
I’m having a good laugh at how you use the words ‘awful/wonderful’ in one sentence to describe your hotel 😀. Of course one should have a photo of the beautiful Taj Mahal when you visit India! Ha, built, not for his only wife, but his favourite wife … but it IS simply magnificent (and she should be quite happy in afterlife). Yes, I remember that photo of Princess Diana … equally sad is the story about Shah Jahan. Quite astonishing how your Agra elephant survived all those trips, but then got ‘tripped’ by your cat!
Ha ha right? To have survived so much and then be almost destroyed by such an unlikely incident. Thanks for checking out these snippets Corna. if I ever make it back to India, I’ll surely find the time for a return to The Taj. I know Sladja would love to see it too.
That definitely sounds like an adventure during your stay there! Also, the Taj Mahal looks very elegant!
Thanks for stopping by Allie.
I just came to say I think analog cameras are much better at conveying emotions and nostalgia than digital cameras! They complement your stories and become an inseparable part of them 😊
Thank you for that! I agree and treasure these old analogue shots. It’s interesting (to me at least) that today’s photographs from my iPhone will remain super crisp in 40 years from now when I’m (hopefully) old and grey. It’s almost as if those shots ought to morph into analogue images at some point along the way ha ha.
Engagingly captured memories, as always. I love how you describe your hotel as both wonderful and awful. I too was haunted by the imprisonment of Shah Jahan in a room that overlooked the Taj, unable to visit the beautiful mausoleum he had built for his beloved wife.
Thanks Sarah, I appreciate that. Oh to go back in time and be a fly on the wall of that cell. Such captivating history, I think.
As I mentioned in one of my comments, India is definitely a dream for me, but I’m simultaneously terrified by it – what you’ve been describing , the yelling, the scams, the crowds, is precisely what scares me and makes me feel claustrophobic at times. But then just looking at these beautiful photos makes it look all worthy! And of course it had to be the cat… what a lovely idea of that of collecting elephants as souvenirs! Any chance we can see in one day the full collection? (of course without the one Bill broke)
Thanks Nic for your lovely comments on this series. That elephant, and indeed all the elephants, sit in my life boxes up in my attic in the north of Scotland. It’s a real pity that all my travel treasures have spent most of their lives in boxes, but I guess I can’t have it both ways, right? One day, when we settle down, everything will have its place. I was actually thinking of doing a series of articles called ‘Travel Treasures’ focusing on all the bits and pieces collected on the road over the years and the stories behind them. One day…
I’d definitely read that – i completely understand, my little treasures are between 2 countries. But as you say, one day…!
I think a “Travel treasures” series is a brilliant idea! To relive each journey and have so many wonderful memories to share is a rare gift.
Thanks Juliet, I’m sure I’ll do that one day when I’m finally reunited with my things. Happy New Year!
great writing about my heart India.
Thanks for reading!