The Agra-vating Road To The Taj Mahal


We left Ludhiana early in the morning and drove three hours back to the Chandigarh Airport, catching a flight to New Delhi, and then meeting a car to get to Agra, home of the famous Taj Mahal. Sounds simple, right?

Our weathered and easy-going driver, Shanti, agreed with us when we said, “It takes about three hours to get to Agra?” Oh yes, he said, three hours. Or maybe four or five….Ava and I exchanged looks.

Four or five? We’d already travelled for five hours – the difference between three and five seemed enormous. Also, how is it that our driver doesn’t know how long it takes to get to Agra? Little did we know the drive would take EIGHT hours! Eight gruelling, seat popping, nausea-inducing hours. We were a complete wreck by the time we got to Agra, but Shanti was in good spirits saying things like, “We are here now ma’am, you happy now?” or “Yes, eight hours! It’s a lot of time!”

Of course it was still totally cool to see Indian village after village on the voyage.

But after the 27th town, it did get old. The next day we discovered that there is a super-highway that goes to Agra and takes about 3 hours. But Shanti would have spent about two hours in Delhi traffic to get to the entrance of that highway, and figured the smaller road would be just as fast. Bad judgement call. What are you gonna do?

Along the way we saw a lot of men and women with red string wrist bands that looked handmade. We asked Shanti if they signified anything and he said they were just fashion. But much like knowledge of efficient navigation, cultural phenomena are not Shanti’s thing. We found out from this lovely lady below that the bracelets signify sibling love and protection, and are given during a Hindu holiday called Rakhi Purnima.

Next we ventured out to the first wonder of the world, driven by Shanti and guided by Bittu, an Agra native who has a dozen brothers and sisters. We had the choice of taxi, horse and carriage or camel ride to get to the actual Taj Mahal from the main street. Guess which one we chose?

Here’s a shot of Shanti seeing us off on our camel ride, and an elegant close up of the cheeky Raja, named after a Bollywood celebrity. Here’s Shanti below with Raja. He really was a sweet old man.

As soon as we got past security (full body frisk) and saw the entrance gates, we knew it had been worth the painfully long trip.

Here’s the white mausoleum itself peeking through the entrance doorway.

And……ta da!!! The white mausoleum, built by Mughal emperor Shah Jahan for his wife Mumtaz Mahal who died giving birth to their 14th child. Who says 13 is unlucky? Anyway, it took 22 years to build and it’s got gardens and gates and pillars all completely symmetrical and in patterns of multiples of four and eight because it was believed there are eight gates to heaven. Which is obviously where you go when you have fourteen children because clearly you’re already a saint. The Shah loved her so much he went bananas with this thing.

Everyone was taking photos like crazy, obviously, and for some reason I just had to snap along with this family photo. The little kid is looking right at my camera, probably wondering what the hell I’m doing taking pictures of his family.

After we took a million photos, made little videos for our families and listened to Bittu’s guide speech, we sauntered past this casual corridor on the right below, and made our way down the garden path toward the buidling itself.

Then it was time to put on our little booties and walk on some white marble! Yes, white booties. Although once we got in there, all the Indian people were just in bare feet which made me wish I’d done that.

I love this photo even more than the classic ‘mall’ shot because it really gives you a sense of scale and perspective. This thing is monstrous. Look how tiny the people look! And by the way, the columns leaning outward is not an optical illusion – they were constructed that way in case of an earthquake, so that they would fall away from the main building, sparing it.

Then you have to walk up a steep claustrophobic stairwell…

And you get another spectacular view!

And a great view of another wife’s tomb and a ‘guest house’ (just to keep things symmetrical) on either side…



The intricate inlay was created with painstaking stonework, with dozens of types of stones. Not pictured here are the inlays inside the tomb, in which they used actual precious stones – rubys, emeralds, etc. While we were in there, Bittu shone his mini-flashlight directly into the inlay and you could see it light up with clear color. Very cool.

Then Bittu took this cool picture from the inside looking out, before we came out the other side to view the river.


 The view of the Yamuna river wasn’t really that interesting until Bittu told us the story about the Shah and how he was planning to build a black Taj Mahal right across the river here (who knew), before his son imprisoned him for squandering tax payer’s money for things like….well, building a tomb that took 20,000 people 22 years to finish.

As we were walking around, Ava pointed out that there were so many colorful dresses and saris parading around. So I snapped a few fashion pics.


Then we posed in one of the corridors.
On the way back, we finally got to ride in a tuk-tuk! And this is Bittu, our excellent guide.
Then we had a wonderful lunch at the opulent Oberai Hotel, and asked Bittu and Shanti to join us. Bittu tucked into the huge buffet right away, but Shanti looked like he felt really uncomfortable. I don’t think he liked the client / driver relationship lines blurring this way. He ordered a small tomato soup and said he didn’t want anything else, but then I kept putting food on his plate and he ate everything I gave him. It was kind of cute. Thankfully Bittu pointed out that he had no teeth, so I only gave him mushy things.
On the way out of town we saw these cheeky little monkeys hanging around – I made the pictures big so you can see them – monkeys in the city! And now we go back to Delhi once more to connect to Dharamshala. See you in the land of the Dalai Lama!


  1. Staggering photos. I’d totally barf after eight hours. But talk about worth it! Watch out for the monkeys. Some bite. Give my love to the Dalai Lama.

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