It's the age of Instagram. It's the age of travel-influencing and constantly discovering new destinations and corners. It's the age of ditch-this-pick-that. It's the age of getting to exclusive places and uncharted territory first. It's the age of avoiding the crowds more than ever—more so thanks to the pandemic. If, today, I ask you to take a long-weekend trip to Agra, the city of the Taj Mahal, won't you snigger silently and call me an untutored traveller with opinions unworthy of anybody’s time?
If you do, it'll be the biggest philosophical paradox ever. And the biggest error of your life. Allow me to explain: earlier this year, I took a trip to the very same city whose historical sheen never seems to dull away. Driving from Delhi, we got cruising on the Yamuna Expressway, and in just under three hours, pulled up at Ekaa Villa, Agra's first, and so far, only boutique hotel. Our hosts, a couple of enterprising young men passionate about their trade, apologised for the construction work going on across the road and pushed the gates open.
We quickly settled down at Ekaa, a uniquely experiential boutique offering barely a five-minute drive away from the best-known resident of the former Mughal capital. Thoughtfully crafted and stylishly crafted, Ekaa announced its arrival into our lives for that weekend instantly. Lunch—a steamy affair on all counts—kicked off our maiden Agra experience, with kadhi chawal the centrepiece. The sides—achaars and chutneys—were from host Udit Hooda’s house-garden, and the wheat used in the wholesome rotis that delivered bliss in every bite, came from a women’s collective in Jharkhand.
Having feasted thus in the heart of a city that has known royalty and at a place that feels like a gourmand’s den, as the sun prepared to plunge beneath the horizon, we went for the Secret Taj experience. An Ekaa special, the short excursion whisked us away to a tila-top through the dusty evening of the Taj Reserve Forest, for an exclusive high tea. Our hosts, with the help of 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 on to the silhouette of the Taj Mahal. Its domes and minars, oblivious of our surreptitious private viewing session, canoodled blithely with the departing sun. As the sunset reached its crescendo and the sky grew flushed, tea and snacks were served. Stretched out on deck-style chairs, we sipped delightful coffee and polished off desi snacks—bakery-style biscuits, choti kachoriyaan, gulab jamun and samosey and the indispensable, urban-gathering and office-party staple dhokla; petha and dal moth from the house of Gopal Das Pethe Wale were offered, too, inevitably.
When it comes to Agra, the Taj Mahal can never be off the table. Be that as it may, Ekaa prides itself on delivering a unique Agra experience that bypasses the city’s most illustrious celebrity. In more ways than one, our hosts’ enthusiasm seemed like an earnest endeavour towards carving an identity for the city reminiscent of the other cultural strongholds of Uttar Pradesh—Kanpur, Lucknow, Varanasi, Prayagraj and the like. The flavour bombs churned out in the Ekaa kitchen are a testament to that very fact.
Which is how dinners, set to live Indian classical music, reveal a tasteful coming together of the city’s historical splendour and everyday culinary finesse. I am a firm believer in the fact that north Indian cuisine still has a lot to bring to the smorgasbord of Indian gastronomy, and the offerings of the thali here—paneer ki sabzi, pulao, makhaane ki kheer, multigrain rotis, tangy chaat and evanescent gajar ka halwa—make you come home to Agra. There is nothing fancy attempted here but the deftness and curation of ingredients, not to forget enough emphasis on bringing out diverse flavours and textures with controlled spice levels, bring the northern plains right onto your palate. How else would you not miss eating Mughlai sitting in the heart of a former Mughal capital?
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I am a sucker for great ambience, and the combination of the new and the old here in terms of stylistic and architectural elements was a treat to the eye. The cypress tree, signifying sustainable contemporaneity and a throwback to the city’s Mughal history, is a recurrent motif here. Deep, rich colours and vintage patterns like the chessboard floor of the foyer provide pleasing accents, as do the stylised ceiling panels and moodily shaped headboards.
Ekaa might be Agra’s first boutique hotel on paper, but the care taken of the visitor here is in line with a unique, villa feel. There is enough privacy for travellers of all kinds but also conviviality by way of the stylishly done foyer and dining area where the communal aesthetic of the hostel is summoned quite effortlessly. The hosts, engrossing conversationalists, understand the place and its culture like the back of their hand, and have curated experiences for adventure lovers, gourmands, culture aficionados and shutter-happy travellers. We were treated to a thrilling Chambal Safari—an experience I never thought I could have on a visit to Agra. The next day, we were taken for a street-food walk in the Chaat Gali and the best breakfast run of my life as I gorged on heavenly bedhai and kadaahi doodh at the Pushpak Mishthaan Bhandaar.
And then there are little touches here and there, like homemade ladoos and pinniyaan that were lavished upon us (can I forget the artisanal coffee and petha and dal moth in the in-room pantry?) that are enough to keep you coming back to Agra just to stay here.
Oh, and get your furry friends, too. They’re pet-friendly.