Let me come clean: at first, I failed to find myself positively charmed by the prospect of visiting the Taj Mahal for the first time. Packed-like-sardines would be an understatement to what our vengeful travel selves had done to the marble mausoleum—which suffices for India on most calendars and brochures—with the pandemic still at large. That coupled with the last surviving shreds of pioneerism and an elitist aversion for crowd favourites almost made me go, ‘Gah—Taj?’ But then I woke up one morning and left for Agra on a fogless December morning. And that was it.
Akbarabad, as it went by a few hundred years ago, was the city of the shayar Mir Taqi Mir (some bad students of history are hell-bent on having it renamed Agarwala). First referred to as Agra by the Greek polymath Ptolemy, this city was a Mughal capital for close to a century. It was here that Akbar desired to erect palaces of copper and it was here that the marble mausoleums of Itimad-ud-Daulah and Taj Mahal were later raised. It’s one of three vertices of the hallowed Golden Triangle. Every year, thousands of foreign tourists pack their bags and set off for a trip to India for Agra alone, bravely ignoring every stereotype that you have sold and bought about travelling in this country.
But as we drove through the dusty roads depositing you into its unassuming tier-II environs, none of that crossed my mind. Wherever I threw my somnolent gaze, shop after shop selling more authentic Panchhi petha than the last slapped my field of view with the persistence of the tangawalas of Meena Bazaar. Thankfully, before long, our hosts at Ekaa Villa intervened, telling us that there were just two original Panchhi Petha outlets in the city—the original ones could always be identified by their distinctly green branding and a woman toting a carry bag.
Going Behind its Back—Literally
Initially, choosing to not visit the Taj Mahal was without reason and probably too dramatic and self-important, but I realised Agra had much to see after our first evening experiencing high tea at a tila-top. We drove through a veritable dust bowl of the Taj Reserve Forest and got down just before the access to the said perch. Our hosts, a couple of enterprising gentlemen assiduously carving out a new dawn, a ninth life for Agra in a pandemicked world, along with a staff member, had a table laid out at the edge of what is a rather low precipice. Was this the same Agra whose heat and dust Babur had complained about in his memoirs?
Our gaze issued from higher up, where we stood close to a mazaar, and ricocheted off the snacks table onto the silhouette of the mausoleum. Its domes and minars, oblivious of our surreptitious private viewing session, canoodled blithely with the departing sunset. The eavesdroppers were caught without arrest and punished without harm. Anyway, in no time, the damned cameras, lenses and polarisers came out, mine included, and the familiar rush to catch the celebrity’s gorgeous back as the sun went down behind, began. The table stood right in everybody’s field of view as an interesting detail in the frame but secretly hoping the party would soon land at its shores.
That happened when the sun finally sank behind the monument. For me, personally, the return to simple desi snacks—bakery-style biscuits, choti kachoriyaan, gulab jamun and samosas and the indispensable office-party staple dhokla—was the most charming part of the deal. The platter was indulgence at its plainest best, indulgence reminiscent of casual snacking after a knackering game of eight-grade football with no fear at all of getting fat. Petha was inevitably offered, and so was dal moth—I don’t need to tell anyone that the couple are to Agra what chaat and chhole bhature are to Dilli.
Panchhis and Patrons
We chewed the sweet, fragrant, candied pumpkin cubes with the refinement that we thought only a sarpech- and-attar-wearing Mughal ruler could exercise with the sweets in his mouth. The chalk to this cheese was the tangy, spicy, slightly wet crunch of dal moth that is an incredibly versatile snack consumed all over UP. Different people credit Lucknow, Agra and Farrukhabad with its invention, but when in Agra, you know how the dal moth crumbles. It is had with puris, on top of rice or palmfuls with chai in a steel tumbler.
Coming to petha, on the surface, it is the second flagship offering that Agra has for the undiscerning visitor. For the others, there are no frontmen really in this ageless boy band. The rapid proliferation of the Panchhi Petha brand has also meant that connoisseurs have come to place exceptional trust in Gopal Das Pethe Wale that goes back a century.The legacy shop has quite a few variants available and the brand doesn’t believe much in aggressive expansionism. As for what’s happened to the other petha patron, I think a lot of credit goes to the catchiness of the name itself—Panchhi, which means birdie.
Agra is full of such names. Rambabu Paratha Corner at Belanganj. Pushpak Mishthaan Bhandar in the city’s old quarters. Gopal Das at Tajganj, Civil Lines and Fatehabad Road. And Panchhi? They’re perched on every branch. But if you’re one to hanker after the real thing—and trust me there is such a thing as a real thing if you don’t want to start hating petha. The crowded promenade of the Sadar Bazaar, near the Chaat Gali, has one of the two original Panchhi outlets in the city. Buy during the day, and in the night, just take a left in under a hundred metres for a taste of some of Agra’s perkiest street food. We tried the aloo chaat, ras malai and kadahi doodh on our second night in the city, and we didn’t need to bother our friends for dinner.
On our final morning in Agra, we would be up early and driving through the cold morning past benign colonial structures and the curious old buildings of the oldcity, to savour bedhai, another rather special Agra heirloom. The fare at Pushpak Mishthan Bhandar sells like hot cakes and no matter what the actual origin of the eatery’s name is, it sure is a great illustration of why the flying chariot of the Ramayana was called so: it’ll make you fly; it’ll make you come home. As the server hands you a dona,warm with piping hot aloo ki sabzi, you wonder why another marble monument could have been dedicated to this delicious darling.
It’s after you’ve polished off the bedhai and washed it down with a kulhad of thick kadahi doodh, that you realise it’s probably because monuments are made for the dead.
Croc-Spotting and Hoax-Busting
Of course, Agra is more than just the Taj Mahal—in fact to keep repeating that fact defeats its undeniable validity. But Agra is more than the stand-ins—Fatehpur Sikri, Agra Fort, Chini-ka-Rauza, Itimad-ud-Daula’s Tomb and Sikandra—as well. Excursions and heritage tours to the crafts market of Gokulpura and the heritage buildings of Holipura are stimulating experiences. An hour’s drive away is the bustling glass bangle-making town of Firozabad.
Itimad-ud-Daulah’s Tomb and the nearby Aram Bagh merit a visit not just for their calming environs but also to experience the closest version of the original idea of the tomb-gardens, which the arrival of the British turned into landscaped and manicured lawn-style gardens.
No, don’t expect to see the free-growing foliage of the Mughal-era charbagh, but at Itimad-ud-Daulah’s Tomb—the striking mausoleum of Nur Jahan’s father Mirza Ghiyas Beg—the information hall at the entrance does a good job at briefing the visitor so they don’t miss the minute architectural details on the structure and the fledgling restoration efforts in the riverfront gardens. In the same way, enigmatic structures are to be found all over Agra, from Akbar’s Church, said to be commissioned by the Mughal emperor at the close of the 16th century, to a huge iron water tank constructed during British rule that never rusted in the old city.
The second day, we had to relinquish our haveli walk in Holipura, which has for some time been on the radar of Agra tourism authorities as a rural tourism hub, owing to fears expressed by locals about a couple of Covid cases that had come up in the village. So, we drove due south towards the border with Madhya Pradesh and reached Chambal Wildlife Safari Lodge, a calm, unperturbed oasis of considerable verdure near village Jarar. The director, Kunwar Munendra Pal Singh, an unassuming man with a passion for horses, showed us around the farmstay-style cottages painted in mud green, and then sent his motorboat operator with us for the safari. Singh, from the local zamindar family, expressed his desire to promote his place as a domestic destination wedding venue, but also considered our suggestion that visitors’ pillaging and littering ways might not make it a very good idea.
The next lap was a short drive to the town of Pinahat, which is the base for the safari. I walked down to the bank entranced by the dance of sunlight on the Chambal’s ample belly, feeling already the full breeze that rose from the heart of the river, and hardly expecting to see gharials. The Chambal divides the states of Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh here, and my excitement was pretty much limited to wading through the river astride the hood of the MP border. But as the boat forged ahead, harmonising with the steady current, the spiky ridge of the river reptile’s tail materialised from behind a bush.
There were more of them to be seen as we went deeper—the little craggy islets one after the other looked scarcely different than their sunbathing inhabitants. Save for a couple or three, the gharials all stayed largely beneath the water, revealing only their cockle-warming snouts, while the crocodiles lay deader than their lonely island homelands and threw themselves heavily and resignedly into the river only when the boat drew closer.
Of Grand Anticlimaxes
Stranger things happened later in the day. First, having feasted comprehensively on the delicious north Indian platter at the Ekaa kitchen and feeling the need to take a lengthy stroll and the desire to spend our hard-earned money on some knick-knacks, we set off for the Taj promenade. Having sauntered half of its length, we asked a shopkeeper about the whereabouts of Meena Bazaar. “Sir, what you get in my shop, you get everywhere in Meena Bazaar,” he said wisely before proceeding to shatter our naïve illusion of the old-world grandeur of the said market.
Giving it our best shot at looking unfazed, we floated further into the quagmire, increasingly emboldened against the soliciting wails of the tangawalas. Curiously, it seemed to be shutter-down time for shops on both sides selling clunky marble living-room decorations and jootiyan embroidered in no specific style. Before long, the massive West Gate of the Taj Mahal appeared, and as we drew closer, we stole a peek at the majestic central dome of Agra’s most illustrious resident through the arch of the gate. No wonder the walk back to the hotel proved especially difficult.
The poverty of novelty at Meena Bazaar affected our minds, accustomed to Dilli Haat and Tripolia Bazaar in the other vertices of the hallowed Golden Triangle, such that we could only realise later what we had come looking for. It was Agra’s unrivalled leather goods; footwear emporiums can be found all over the city, be it the ‘Leather Street’ in Sadar Bazaar or standalone establishments named Berry Shoes and Dawar Shoes where the ambience and distinct school of bohni hustle—and probably the prices, too—are a throwback to the early 2000s if not the late 1990s. The next morning, we dropped by at one of these showrooms, picked up a leather bag and set out of the city, thinking of the different ways to describe our raid once we got back home.
How to reach: Kheria Airport, though closest, is only occasionally serviceable. Instead, fly to the IGI Airport in Delhi (165km or 3hrs away via the Yamuna Expressway). Do check for any travel restrictions or required tests before departure.
Trains to Agra runs from Delhi, Udaipur, Varanasi and Jaipur. Within Agra, electric buses and cycles on rent in the Taj Ganj area are available.
Where to Stay
Ekaa Villa & Kitchen, Agra’s only boutique hotel at this point, has 13 well-appointed and tastefully done rooms across four categories. All-inclusive packages with curated tours are available.
Hotel Clarks Shiraz, 3km away from the Taj Mahal, offers a luxury experience with 237 rooms and 25 Taj-facing ones (in-house restaurant and business centre available).
The Oberoi Amarvilas on Taj East Gate Road blows the budget but offers a bespoke luxury experience.
What to Eat
Panchhi’s kesar petha will reinstate your faith in the no-frills sweet and Gopal Das Pethe Wale will top it off with spicy dal moth and ghevar.
Ekaa Villa does decadent meal platters bursting with authentic north Indian flavours and textures, with eclectic varieties of achar and bathua and makhana raitas and some exquisite classical music to boot.
Hit up Pushpak Mishthan Bhandar in the old city—the bedhai and kadahi doodh here are to die for, but also try the novelties of makhan ka samosa and makhan ka tarbooz.
At Chaat Gali, you’ll have all your cravings satisfied, with unique flavour spins to the offerings available here.
What to Do
Try Ekaa’s Secret Taj Experience and the Secret High Tea away from the city, and with an unparalleled view of the Taj with no fellow tourists in sight. Or what we call social distancing done right.
If you’re one of those that are always on the lookout for cheap leather shoes and bags, Sadar Bazar has a Leather Gali with several shops selling dirt-cheap but acceptable-quality products. Dawar Shoes has great picks that attest to the city’s status as a leather hotspot.
Revealing a fresh facet to Agra’s heritage appeal are the havelis of Holipura, a village on the outskirts of the city, and the Gokulpura crafts bazaar.
A trip to these parts can just as easily be a wildlife retreat—Chambal Wildlife Lodge in Jarar (84km) has nice cottages with mod cons. Don’t miss the Chambal safari; excursions to Ater Fort and Bateshwar Temples could also be undertaken.