A framed photo of mine stands by the bedside. There is lemon and honey on the table in the morning, just as I like it. The paper has been delivered. My mum would be at peace seeing the bunch of safety pins in the bathroom. Dad would appreciate good old Isabgol by his bedside. It feels just like home. Except.

Except that the lemon-honey comes to me in an exquisite copper tumbler alongside some aromatherapy vials for me to put on my pillow. And the safety pins rest in a plush marble inlay box quietly glowing under remote-controlled lights — a first for me. Home does not have a bathtub, a rain shower, or a platter of nuts dipped in chocolate for my delectation either. Nor do domestic pillows feel like billowy clouds stuffed into pillowcases.

I am in a kind of dream sequence of Mughlai splendour and twenty-first century hospitality. I’m at the ITC Mughal in Agra. The weighty grandeur of this heritage could crush, or elevate, anyone. Agra is the place where Babur pined for Kabul, Akbar created a new philosophy, Tansen sang, Noorjahan planned and Shah Jahan — by all accounts — loved like no one else. The place where the English East India Company came as a humble supplicant to the court of Jahangir in 1614. The place where Prithviraj Kapoor showed us what being Mughal-e-Azam meant, but was shown his place by a mere servant girl Anarkali — and if that was just a film, who said cinema was not heritage? Fiction is stronger than truth.

At ITC Mughal they claim to show you Agra like no one else. And they mean within the hotel. Spread on an admittedly near-imperial scale of thirty-five acres, the hotel unfolds history as I enter: welcoming me with a Humayun Bridge, an Akbar Gate, a Jahangir block, with queens Mariyam and Jodha Bai getting a look in. There’s something enchantingly familiar about the grounds at the back: landscaped over several levels, a water channel running down the exact centre, irrepressible fountains, gracious low sandstone steps… it’s a not-so-mini Fatehpur Sikri, I acknowledge in delight. The even-more regally inclined can opt for the Grand Presidential Suites named for Man Singh or Mumtaz and indulge in dedicated butlers, personal pools, and attached massage rooms with jacuzzi.

Even the restaurant ‘Peshawari’, pretty much a replica of ITC Maurya’s legendary restaurant Bukhara in Delhi, aims at replicating the staying-in-tents experience. Wizards as their chefs are at kebabs and northwest frontier non-veg dishes, I, a humble vegetarian, feel replete with the dal bukhara; perhaps a Raag Bukhara from Tansen may yet be discovered? Then, nourished, delicately burping, and well watered with watermelon juice nearly all day long (since I expressed a preference for it once), I make my delighted way to the Taj.

The Taj, of course, is a teardrop on the cheek of travel writers, as Rabindranath Tagore wished he had said. What on earth can you say, after all these years and visits and famous photographs, except perhaps that it is remarkable how untouched it looks by those very years and visits and photographs?

Escorted to the Taj by a very capable guide provided by the resort, I get to hear stories of how he guided Madhuri Dixit as well as Nicolas Sarkozy — both of whom stayed at The Mughal — around the monument. Then starts the litany most of us are so familiar with: built by Shahabuddin Muhammad Shah Jahan (1592–1666) for his beloved wife Mumtaz Mahal. Constructed 1621–53; 22 years and 20,000 men; white marble from Makrana, inlay work with lapis lazuli, turquoise, malachite, carnelian, agate, jade, onyx…, Shah Jahan and Mumtaz Mahal’s tombs underground, their replica tombs on top. And any guide worth his salt can’t help surreptitiously showing you the glow of these precious stones in his phone light.

See how the minars tilt outwards just a bit (to protect the tomb if they fell in an earthquake). Absorb that all the intricate marble jaalis are made of single slabs of marble. Watch the level of water in the Yamuna at the back, just that much more full in the monsoon. Get photographed on The Bench (Lady Diana and Bill Clinton sat here!). And then promise yourself you’ll come again on some very early foggy wintry morning, or a dramatic rainy day and have your own conversations with weightless marble.

Even when I visit Agra Fort, it’s the barely-visible-in-the-haze Taj, a speck on the far side of the river, that dominates the imagination. Because it is the Taj? Because it is so beautiful? Because we know that Shah Jahan was held captive in these very palaces by son Aurangzeb and spent his time — so they say — gazing at his labour of love? By now, the Taj is built as much of marble and precious stones as of Shah Jahan-the-king’s love, Shah Jahan-the-prisoner’s gaze, Mumtaz-the-dead-queen’s trauma, and of words written by poets and politicians, travellers and tellers of tales.  But this ability to seem transcendent, to appear weightless, is uniquely its own. If it was a religious monument we would have said a sight of the Taj washes away all sins.

The symmetrical gardens I find myself in were already a legacy by the time of Shah Jahan, whose great grandfather Babur had introduced them to India. Young prince Zahiruddin Muhammad Babur (1483–1531), forging his destiny in India back in the early sixteenth century, missed his Kabul and its gardens with flowing water so much that he imported fruit trees, battled unsuitable conditions and created charbaghs (symmetrical quartered gardens) here. His Mehtab Bagh, just behind the Taj across the Yamuna, is a great place to photograph the monument from.

Babur’s grandson Jalaluddin Muhammad Akbar (1542–1605) was indubitably the stuff legends are made of. An illiterate man who had books read to him from his extensive library, a Muslim who tried to syncretize the best from different faiths and was liberal towards his Hindu subjects, a conqueror who filled his courts with artists, writers and musicians. His township of Fatehpur Sikri, forty kilometres from Agra, is as free spirited as the monarch. His Agra Fort as awe-inspiring. And his tomb at Sikandra is elegant and beautiful as the story of the king.                            

Agra’s second World Heritage monument, Agra Fort, was built by Akbar and added to by Shah Jahan. The guide points out the usual water-filled moat, supplemented by a second moat that had wild animals patrolling it. It takes some imagination to people these blank palaces with laughter and sighs; more than half the fort belongs to the army, and several barriers have been added to stop people from damaging the carvings. Yet Musamman Burj, the Taj-view palace of Shah Jahan’s last years; the palaces of his daughters Jahanara and Roshanara; the faded gold-painted ceiling of which a portion was recreated by Lord Curzon to show the Prince of Wales… are all evocatively beautiful. And, oh, the narrow corridor around the queen’s sleeping chambers, in which maids in anklets would walk so that the queen could wake up gently, to the sound of tiny tinkling bells!

If you want to ‘do’ Agra thoroughly, squeeze in the Tomb of Itmad-ud-Daula, built by Queen Nur Jahan for her father. And remember Nuruddin Salim Jehangir (1569–1627), the lover of science and nature, who was besotted enough by his alpha female queen to get gold coins thus inscribed: “Gold has a hundred splendours added to it by receiving… the name of Nur Jahan”!

In any other context it would be mortifying to sleep your way through the experience you had most waited for, but in a spa it’s practically de rigueur. Photographing the rich red pomegranate theme of the spa colours, choosing between lime-and-ginger or eucalyptus essential oils, appreciating the sound of falling water from the fountains, I sink into the most anticipated experience of this visit — a massage at Kaya Kalp, ITC’s much-awarded spa.

I’m in the capable hands of Chong, god’s gift to the Classic Swiss Massage. I lose all sense of the senses as I smell the music, hear Chong’s hands and see the lemon wafting around me. I fall asleep. And then blissfully sleepwalk my way through the rest of the glorious day — including a remarkable dinner of home-style Mangalorean chicken with idlis, brinjal in a sour Andhra curry, and cool curd rice with chilli pickle. And some outstanding mint-chocolate ice cream.

The morning has me up on the roof, formally named Jharokha-e-Taj. It’s well named, for a partial wistful glimpse is what you get of the monument, not for a moment losing its charm and even gaining some, behind the brick walls of mohallas, their terraces filled with kids flying kites. From here the Taj seems to belong to the city called Akbarabad, where Nazeer Akbarabadi wrote his Banjaara-nama in the commoners’ language in the eighteenth century. A city in which Balraj Sahni played a Muslim shoe-factory owner trying to stay on with dignity in the land of his birth after partition (Garam Hawa). Perhaps a city in which boys still fly kites keeping an eye on the coy one folding clothes in the adjoining terrace.

The oncoming monsoon brings a cloud shadow over the Taj, a cry of longing from a peacock and a papeeha in the resort lawns, and yells of delight from the children in the swimming pool. They have just come from a chocolate painting event, supervised by Chef Uncle Akshay, where they made exuberant flowers using melted chocolate, thoughtfully licking their fingertips as they considered the act of creation.

When it starts pouring, all heavens break loose. The children and adults refuse to get out of the pool, and I go for a walk in the green acreage spread towards the back; in the morning you can’t hear yourself for the birds here. Right now, no one is using the all-terrain vehicles track at the back of the grounds. The trees — pomegranate, palm — all are labelled and acknowledged as characters that make an appearance in Abul Fazl’s Ain-i-Akbari. They look washed and happy. Babur may finally approve.

But don’t go, you say! What is the mystery of the framed photo by your bedside? No, I don’t carry mine wherever I go. In keeping with their penchant for giving guests surprise treats, the PR lady at the ITC Mughal had asked for my photo, ostensibly so they could recognize me at pick-up time. But this is what they really wanted it for. It’s the old Mughal habit of intrigue, hard to break.

The information

Getting there: The Delhi-Agra journey has been reinvented thanks to the Yamuna Expressway (toll: Rs 510, same day return; 2.5 hr), which begins from Noida. An alternative is the NH2 (200km/3.5hr) drive via Palwal and Mathura. There are good train connections to Delhi, including a Delhi-Agra Shatabdi, and to all metros. TIP: Agra has an airport connected to Delhi but only in winter. It’s a 3hr drive from Delhi Airport via the expressway.

Where to stay: With the coming of the Expressway, Agra hotels see the potential of weekend visitors from Delhi who aren’t focused on seeing historic monuments but come for a relaxed and fun weekend.

The time-honoured ITC Mughal (Welcombreak packages from Rs 15,999 plus taxes for 2 adults and 2 children, buffet breakfast; 0562-4021700; itchotels.in) has reinvented itself with classy rooms and amenities while keeping intact all its strengths like the classic Peshawari restaurant and authentic Mughal-style architecture.

The resort offers a huge swimming pool and lounging area, three excellent restaurants, two bars, the much-awarded Kaya Kalp Spa, kids’ activities, an ATV track, and more.

What to See & do: The Taj Mahal (sunrise to sunset, Rs 20 for Indians, Rs 750 for foreigners, tajmahal.gov.in) is a no-brainer. Go as early as you can to beat the rush. The Agra Fort (sunrise to sunset, Rs 20 for Indians, Rs 300 for foreigners, agrafort.gov.in) is a gem, a delectable mix of red sandstone and marble. Also visit Sikandra, Akbar’s elegant tomb.

Among the lesser visited monuments in the city, the Battis Khamba has some amazing architectural flourishes, and the beautiful marble tomb of the Imperial minister Itmad-ud-Daula.

About 40km from Agra lies Akbar’s imperial city, Fatehpur Sikri (sunrise to sunset, Rs 10 for Indians, Rs 250 for foreigners). This citadel, with its amazing architecture, is wonderfully atmospheric in the rains. Sufi saint Salim Chishti’s dargah with its delectable marble work is also an attraction.

Balloon rides (Rs 500 for Indians, Rs 1,500 for foreigners) are the latest feather in Agra’s tourism cap. Float up for dramatic aerial views of the Taj, the Agra Fort, the Yamuna and the city.

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