In the Cantonment area there are wide, clean streets, upscale stores, and a string of parks maintained by the local Sheraton, which has a multi-million dollar stake in seeing that Agra puts its best foot forward. Luckily, Agra’s real draw, the incomparably grand Taj Mahal, is still no less than breathtaking to behold, despite the mess of junky establishments that has sprung up outside its gates.
Agra’s monuments were all built under the Mughals, who swept in from Central Asia early in the 16th century. At the Battle of Panipat in 1526, the Mughal warrior Babur crushed the ruling Lodi dynasty; as a direct result, the Mughals won a great South Asian empire, which included Agra, the Lodi capital. For the next 150 years, the site of the Mughal capital shifted between Delhi and Agra, leaving each city with a host of beautiful landmarks. With the slow decline of Mughal power in North India, Agra fell on hard times; the British made Calcutta (and later Delhi) their capital, and Allahabad rose to surpass Agra as the local political powerhouse.
Lately, Agra has worked hard to reinvent itself, funneling some of the hard currency it earns from tourists into smoggy industrial development. It sometimes requires great reserves of patience and magnanimity to rise above the temptation to scream and shout back at the persistent crowd that will follow your every step. But despite its irritations, Agra is well worth the effort. The monuments remain serene and beautiful, and memories of the Taj at dawn will remain with you long after you have forgiven and forgotten the rickshaw driver who refused to take you anywhere but his uncle’s diamond warehouse.
Agra is a large and spread-out city, most of which sprawls west from the banks of the Yamuna River, along which are both the Fort and the Taj Mahal, separated by one and a half kilometers, and the Shah Jahan Park, Yamuna Kinara Rd. runs along the river’s western banks from the Taj Mahal to Belan Ganj, a bustling neighborhood one kilometer north of Agra Fort Railway Station, where trains from eastern Rajasthan pull in. Tourist facilities cluster south of the Taj Mahal and Agra Fort. Bargain-basement backpacker dives crows the streets of Taj Ganj, an unremittingly ugly rounds, chokes, and strangles the Taj Mahal from the southern side. Mahatma Gandhi (MG) Rd., Gwalior Rd., and General Cariappa Rd. are three major thoroughfares that cross both the Mall and Taj Rd. From the upscale but none-too-beautiful Sadar Bazaar, which is squeezed between MG and Gwalior Rd., it’s two kilometers due west to Agra Cant. Railway Station; two kilometers northwest along Fatehpur Sikri Rd. is the Idgah Bus Stand.
While Agra contains several interesting monuments from the heyday of Mughal rule, most tourists come to see that marble jewel in India’s crown, the Taj Mahal. Capitalizing on one of the most famous buildings in the world, the money-hungry folks at the Agra Development Authority and similarly minded bureaucrats at the archaeological survey of India have increased admission prices over the past years, and so many a penny-pinching backpacker has had to settle for squinting rooftop views of the city’s big draws. The Taj and the Fort both do not allow re-entry, so make the most of your one visit. Most sights charge for use of cameras.
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Most of Agra’s foreigner-friendly restaurants are clustered around Taj Ganj, Sadar Bazaar, and other tourist centers south of the old heart of town. Most travelers tend to stick to places close to (or inside) their hotels. If you simply can’t face the thought of another banana pancake or plate of dal bhat, the best places to go for good meals are the restaurants in the five-star hotels south of Taj Ganj.
The restaurants near the Taj Mahal are notorious for poor hygiene; most who stay more than a few days get the “Agra aches,” akin to “Delhi Belly.” There have even been tales of restaurants deliberately poisoning guests and then pocketing a percentage of the charges levied by the dodgy doctor who helped the victim “recover.” For the most part, though, you are unlikely to develop anything worse than a mild case of under-fed boredom.
Once upon a time, protracted Vedic prose prescribed every dash and pinch of every spice and herb, and every plate was placed to provide the therapeutic and medicinal benefits of sustenance in just the right place way. Today, the main worry for many travelers is avoiding overexposure to the intense flavors of the subcontinent’s famously uncompromising cuisine. Most people in India begin the day with a small breakfast, eat lunch between noon and 2pm, enjoy sweet tea and salty snacks in the late afternoon, and eat dinner between 7 and 10pm.
Meals in India begin with the staple: usually whole wheat bread in the north, rice in the south and east. Since most Indians eat with their hands, the bread and rice replace cutlery and is used to scoop food from the plate into the mouth. In a typical Northern Indian meal, the bread is accompanied by one or two spicy vegetable dishes, a lentil soup called dal, and sometimes by rice and curd. Though flat when served, the chappati fills with hot air when cooked over an open fire – the more it swells, the hungrier the person waiting for it is supposed to be. Elaborate variations on the theme include: paratha, a two-layered bread, sometimes stuffed with vegetables such as onions, radishes, and potatoes, and usually eaten with curds at breakfast; naan, a thicker, chewier kind of bread made with white flour and baked in a tandoor, or clay oven; and puri, a fried version of the standard chappati that is generally eaten with potatoes for breakfast or lunch. Common North Indian rice dishes such as biryani or pulao come mixed with vegetables and occasionally meat. Most non-vegetarian options involve chicken or lamb, since beef is off-limits to Hindus and pork is unclean for Muslims.
Condiments like achar (pickles) and papadum, a thin, crunchy wafer that is roasted or fried serve to spice up an already spicy meal. Popular snacks include samosa, a spicy, fried potato turnover served with tamarind and mint sauces, and bhel puri, a sweet and sour mixture of fresh sprouts, potatoes, and yogurt. Desserts are often made of boiled milk, fried, and are drowned in heavy cream or whole milk flavored with pounds of sugar. For a lightweight alternative, try paan, the after-dinner chew that is the cause of the crimson-colored spatterings that stain every street you walk down. A paan leaf can be filled with everything from coconut to sweetened rose petals to flavored betel nut and tobacco.
Unfortunately, those afraid of illness often avoid many of India’s delicious drinks because they contain ice cubes of untreated water. Lassi, made with yogurt and sugar, salt, or fruit, and the widely sold sugarcane juice are good for cooling off. Besides the famous chai (tea), coffee is also popular, especially in South India.
Drinking alcohol is an acceptable practice in some parts of the country, but it is frowned upon in other regions and may be hard to find. Popular brands of beer include Taj Mahal and Kingfisher. Be careful when ordering difficult or obscure mixed drinks – what gets called Kahlua could taste a bit like fermented Ovaltine, and is probably an example of Indian-Made Foreign Liquor (IMFL). Imported brands are available in big cities, and not-so-good domestic wines are available at expensive restaurants.
The Gangauri Fair celebrates the union of Shiva (“Gan”) and Parvati (“Gauri”) and lasts for 18 days after Holi. In addition to performances, the Elephant Festival features elephant polo and a man versus beat tug-of-war. The Teej Fair (Festival of Swings) celebrates the monsoon.
The typical Hindu temple is the result of thousands of years of evolution. Temples originally consisted of little more than a small, dark, square sanctum referred to as the garbhagriha (“womb chamber”), which housed the deity. A tall pyramid-shaped spire, or shikhara, was later added to symbolize the connection between heaven and earth. As temple architecture grew more elaborate, distinctive Northern Indian and Southern Indian styles began to emerge. In a typical northern temple, a series of four rooms leads to the sanctum. Each room has its own shikhara, though these rarely rise above the shikhara of the central chamber. This row of spires resembles a mountain range and perhaps symbolizes the Himalayan peaks where the gods may live. Many of the greatest North Indian temples were destroyed by Islamic iconoclastic campaigns from the 12th century onward, but excellent examples remain in Orissa and in Khajuraho. In South India, the sanctum was expanded, and surrounded by four rectangular entrances towers, or gopurams, which had shikharas of their own, topped by barrel-vaults. These gopurams eventually grew to dwarf the central shikars, creating grand temple-city complexes such as those of Madurai and Srirangam in Tamil Nadu.
The conquest of India by Muslim forces in the 12th century brought the Islamic styles of Persia and Central Asia to India. Since Islam forbids the depiction of human and animal images, Muslim artists concentrated instead on pure mosque -building, dotting the landscape with gorgeous domes, arches, geometric patterns, and calligraphic inscriptions. The biggest and brightest of these Muslim jewels are the Qutb Minar complex in Mughal stronghold Delhi, the pink and red post-and-lintel buildings of the city of fatehpur Sikri, and a little marble ditty in Agra called the Taj Mahal.
The people of the Indus Civilization left behind them simple terra-cotta figurines and seals decorated with pictures of animals and marked with a script that has still not been deciphered. Little else remains of Indian sculpture prior to the 3rd century BC, when the Mauryan emperor Ashoka set up stone columns all over India as a symbol of his rule. These columns were often topped with elaborate animal sculptures like those found at the Lion Capital in Sarnath in Uttar Pradesh. With four fierce lions sitting back-to-back on a lotus platform, this sculpture has become one of India’s national emblems, and appears on all national currency.
The next two centuries saw the development of two-dimensional bas-relief sculpture, which was often used to decorate the railings of stupas and which usually told stories from the life of the Buddha or myths about gods and goddesses. The beginnings of classical Indian sculpture can be traced to the 1st century AD, when artists in Mathura (Uttar Pradesh) began to carve three-dimensional images of the Buddha. Influenced by Greek sculpture, Gandharan artists produced ornate images of the Buddha, emphasizing intricate folds of clothing and other details.
During the Gupta period (4th-6th centuries AD), sculpture in Mathura reached its peak. Spreading throughout North India, sculptors applied principles borrowed from Buddhist imagery to depictions of Hindu gods. Distinct regional styles developed from the mathura style, contributing to the architectural wonders at Sarnath and in the cave temples of Ajanta in Maharashtra.
In North India, the sensuous and voluminous figures of the Mathura style of sculpture gave way to more elegant, rhythmic forms. This style climaxed in the 10th century, when it was used to adorn the exteriors of North Indian temples. A distinctively South Indian style produced the 7th century bas-reliefs of Mahabalipuram, and the miniature sculpture in South India peaked during the 9th and 10th centuries producing images like that of Shiva as Nataraja (Dance King) surrounded by a ring of fire. This image is common throughout Tamil Nadu, but the one at the Brihadishwara Temple in Thanjavur is the most famous. Regional traditions developed in other areas, such as Maharashtra, where sculptors created large, stocky figures; the Kailasa Temple in Ellora is a good example.
The history of painting in India reached far back to the nation’s ancient history, when palm leaves served as the first canvases. The only ancient paintings that have survived are those there were sheltered by rock, like the wall paintings at Ajanta in Maharashtra, dating from the 2nd century BC to the 5th century AD. The style of Indian painting best known today began in western India during the medieval period. Colorful, cluttered scenes with figures shown in profile were made to illustrate Jain manuscripts. This style gradually spread throughout the country, and wide variety of religious paintings.
The Delhi sultans and Mughal emperors who began to arrive in India after the 12th century brought with them a taste for Persian art and radically altered the course of Indian painting. Emperor Akbar, a great patron of the arts, played a decisive part in the development of the Mughal School of painting. He supervised his painters closely as they produced beautiful miniature illustrations for written histories, myths, and fables. Among other works, his court artists illuminated a magnificent Persian edition of the Mahabharata, now kept in the City Palace in Jaipur. As the Mughals settled in India, some Muslim artists began to disregard the Islamic injunction against the representation of human forms, and during the reign of Jehangir, artistic emphasis shifted to portraiture.
The delicate, detailed Mughal style influenced Hindu painting as well. Under the patronage of Hindu Rajput kings in the 16th and 17th centuries, the Rajasthani School emerged, combining the abstract forms of the western Indian styles with some of the naturalism of Mughal art. Rajput paintings usually depicted religious subjects, especially myths about Krishna cavorting with his gopis (milkmaid consorts) or pining for Radhas, his favorite.
The Mughal and Rajasthani styles had fallen into decline by the 18th and 19th centuries, when European art became influential. The first Indian attempts to copy European styles, known collectively as the Company School, were mostly lifeless engravings and watercolors. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, artists of the Calcutta-based Bengal School, led by Rabindranath Tagore, combined older Indian styles with modern Western art. Twentieth century artists like Jamini Roy and M.F. Hussain combined eastern and western influences.
India’s obsession with the movies began in 1912, when Dadasaheb Phalke produced the first Indian feature film, Raja Harishchandra. Jokingly referred to as “Bollywood,” the Indian film industry, based in Mumbai (Bombay) is by far the most prolific in the world today, producing more than 800 films a year and attracting annual audiences of more than a billion people worldwide. Hindi and Tamil are the most important languages, and Chennai (Madras) in Tamil Nadu is home to its own booming movie industry and its own galaxy of stars (many of whom go on to play star roles in local politics after their retirement from the big screen). The appearance of the first talkie (Alam Ara) in 1931 split the movie-going audience along linguistic lines, but it wasn’t long before directors hit on a solution, by incorporating into their films a language that nearly everyone could understand and enjoy – music. A tradition was born. Since then, some films have managed to squeeze in nearly 70 songs; not many can manage quite that number, but you would have to search long and hard today before you found a movie without at least one song-and-dance sequence in it somewhere. By the 1940s, the introduction of pre-recorded songs and playback singing meant that actors no longer had to be singers. The most successful playback singer, Lata Mangeshkar, holds the world record for most songs ever recorded, having put out more than 25,000 songs during her career. Today, a film’s soundtrack is almost as important for its chances of success as its plot or its big-name stars. Chances are that almost all the music you hear as you travel around India will come from one of the latest blockbuster smashes; don’t be surprised if you find yourself humming along by the end of your trip.
During the 1930s and 1940s, the social film served as a useful way of addressing the concerns of contemporary life. It also introduced the preference for loudness – gaudy costumes, flighty and capricious music, exciting choreography, and wink-wink, nudge-nudge sex – that continues to be the hallmark of Indian film to this day. The masterpieces of serious film-makers like Satyajit Ray (Pather Panchali, 1955) have long been acclaimed by critics around the world as some of the finest films ever made. More popular films have had to wait longer for international acceptance, but in 2002 Ashutosh Gowariker’s Rajera epic Lagaan was the first Indian film ever to win an Oscar nomination (for Best Foreign Film; it didn’t win), and in June 2002 a major exhibit at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London brought Bollywood and its colorful history to a whole new audience. Indian pictures such as Mira Nair’s Monsoon Wedding have been shown to huge audiences around the globe. Perhaps the world is learning to dance to the Bollywood Beat at last.
The art of making music is not just entertainment in India; it is a spiritual undertaking. A piece of classical Indian music is based on a raga and a tala, which form the melodic and rhythmical framework for the piece of music respectively. Derived from a Sanskrit word meaning “to color,” the raga is the foundation of all composition and improvisation. In the Hindu tradition, each raga is associated with a different moment of the day or season of the year. Ragas differ from one another in scale and in rasa (mood). Unlike Western music with its fixed-pitch scales, the Indian musician is free to place the tonic note wherever he wishes. Once the musician has established the tone for this raga, he improvises within the constraints of the chosen raga, exploring its potential to be created anew with each performance. Opportunities for improvisation likewise exist between the fixed beats of the tala and its repeated rhythmic cycle. The raga and the tala interact, with intonation and inflection converging at regularly emphasized intervals.
Modern Indian classical music, often divided into northern Hindustani and southern Carnatic systems, has its origins in ancient chants. Musical form is first discussed in the Bharata Natyashastra, a textual source of music written between 2BC and AD 4 by the sage Bharat. North Indian music was particularly influenced by the styles of Persia and Turkey, where court patronage of musicians from the Middle East encouraged the development of an elaborate and highly evolved musical culture. The song style of qawwali, popular during weddings, is a musical debate: singers from two groups, one boasting the accomplishments of the bridge, the other singing the praises of the groom. In its romantic form, qawwali is a socially acceptable form of flirting, while the lilting ghazals are similar to a ballad.
Many Indian musicians have gained worldwide followings. Ravi Shankar, who introduced Hindustani music to western ears during the 1960s and attracted the attention of the Beatles, is a master of the sitar, a fretted, 20-stringed instrument with a long teak neck fixed to a seasoned gourd. Ali Akbar Khan has also amazed international audiences with the strains of the sarod, a fretless stringed instrument similar to a sitar. Allah Rakha and his son, Zakir Hussain, mesmerize audiences with their virtuosity on the tabla, two drums played together and capable of producing an incredible range of tones, and musicians like “Mandolin” U. Srinivasan and the legendary singer M.S. Subbulakshmi have ensured Carnatic music’s place in Indian music history.
Folk music is linked closely to folk dance and varies from region to region. From punjabi bhangra to Rajasthani langa, folk tunes remain close to the hearts of Indians, and have recently gained an even larger audience through the international releases of Ila Arun and bhangra-rap performers in the UK. Bengali musicians have produced their own unique rengre, Rabindrasangit, in which the poetic words of Rabindranath Tagore are set to quasi-classical song.
Popular music ranges from the “filmi” love songs of Lata Mangeshkar to the disco-hybrid-pop of vocal diva, Alisha, whose album Made in India sold over one million copies in 1995. Popular vocalists include the playful and prolific Kishore Kumar, whose versatile voices has filled in the melodic blanks for more actors than anybody can remember, and Punjabi crooner Daler Mehndi, whose 1996 hit, “Bolo Ta Ra Ra,” brought bhangra out of the North Indian countryside and onto satellite television, launching Indipop’s international career.
The Hindu god Nataraja, King of the Dance, has made his influence felt in every sphere of Indian life. Indian dance forms, both classical and folk styles, evolved as acts of worship that dramatized myths and legends. Technique and philosophy, passed down from gurus to students, have carried the “visual poetry” described in the Natya Shastra (dating from between the 2nd century BC and the 2nd century AD), into modern times. Bharatnatyam, India’s most ancient dance form, originated in the temples of Tamil Nadu where dancers performed intricate, fluid combinations of eye movements, facial expressions, hand gestures, and strong, rhythmic, ghungroo-enhanced steps. It was originally studied as a form of worship, and performed by devadasis, women who lived in temples and devoted their lives to the opulent backdrop of North India’s Mughal courts, is remarkable for the dizzying speed of its characteristic footwork and hand gestures. Developed from a rigorous system of yoga, Kathakali, an elaborately costumed form of dance-drama unique to Kerala, presents mythological stories of heroes, lovers, gods, and battles. The dancers, all male, must study for a minimum of 15 years before they are considered ready to come out and strut their stuff.
Cricket isn’t just a game in India – it’s a national obsession. Indians turn out in their thousands to watch the big games, and an informal game or two seems to be constantly underway on every street corner in the country, often played by young boys using sticks for bats and bricks for wickets. Expect to be asked for the names of your favorite players at every turn, and be ready to give an opinion on the state of the national game if you don’t want to be taken for an idiot. Like many other former colonies, India regularly beats England at its own game these days. One of the few occasions when India is able to forget its internal conflicts and come together as one nation comes whenever the Indian cricket team plays against archrival, Pakistan. Test matches are watched by millions of people across India – huge crowds gather wherever there’s a game being shown on TV. Things occasionally turn nasty; the Indian team reached the semi-finals of the 1996 World Cup, only to be disqualified when fans began to throw bottles, rocks, and other missiles onto the pitch. The gentleman’s game had its reputation dragged through the dirt as the new millennium began, when allegations of dodgy dealings with shady betting syndicates brought many of India’s national heroes out of the dressing room and into champion Australia in Spring 2001, and followed up with victories in Zimbabwe and against England at home before setting off to the West Indies in April 2002.
India is also a consistent Olympic medal-winner at hockey. Soccer and horse racing are especially popular in the east and in urban areas. Kabbadi, a breathless game of tag, is popular throughout the north.
Dress modestly and respectably. Only young boys wear shorts in public. Women should keep their legs covered, at least to the knee. Bare shoulders are another sign of immorality (not to mention a surefire way to get sunburned). How you dress affects the way people respond to you. In India, women will often be treated with more respect if they wear a salwar kameez. Men’s clothing is typically more “internationalized,” but men may still want to buy a thin cotton kurta pajama. Try to look clean and presentable. In the eyes of many Indians, foreign tourists are an affluent and privileged group, and many Indians find it hard to understand why so many Westerners choose to dress like the poorest of India’s poor, who would surely dress differently if they could.
A quick tilt of the head, a sort of wobbly sideways nod, means “OK,” or “I understand.” Many foreigners are baffled by this gesture, thinking their hosts are answering their most innocent comments and requests with a firm “no.” Indian English, especially when written, is full of antique civilities. You will often hear people address you are “madame” or “good gentleman,” and read letters asking you to “kindly do the needful” and signed “your most humble servant.”
Many foreigners have trouble adjusting to the constant stares they receive in India. There is no taboo against staring in South Asia and no harm is intended, but be sure not to send mixed signals. Meetings someone’s gaze is often tantamount to expressing a desire for further contact. Meeting new people and talking to them about their way of life is one of the things that make travel worthwhile, but it can get hard sometimes both acceptable and appropriate to ignore attempts at conversation. And the more you know about cricket, the happier you’ll be.
Most Indians eat with their hands, though many restaurants give cutlery to foreigners. The most important thing is to eat with your right hand only. The left hand is used for cleaning after defecation and is seen as polluted. You can use your left hand to hold a fork or to pass a dish, but it should never touch food or your lips directly. Any food or drink that comes into contact with one person’s saliva is unclean for anyone else. Indians and Nepalis will not usually take bites of each other’s food or drink from the same cup; watch how locals drinks from water bottles, pouring the drink in without touching their lips. In Hindu houses, the family hearth is sacred. If food is cooked before you on a fire (as it frequently is in trekking lodges) never play with the fire or throw trash in it.
Almost all Jains and many Hindus (especially in South India) are vegetarians, and even for many non-vegetarians, beef is scarce. Muslims do not eat pork and are supposed to shun alcohol. It is considered offensive for women to drink alcohol in public.
All bodily secretions and products are considered polluted. The people who come into contact with them – laundrymen, barbers, latrine cleaners – have historically formed the lowest ranks of the caste system. The head is the most sacred part of the body, and purity decreases all the way down to the toes. To touch something with your feet is a grave insult; you should never touch a person with your foot. Never put your feet on a table or any other surface. Conversely, to touch somebody else’s feet is an act of veneration. If you accidentally touch someone else with your foot, touch your eyes and then their knee or foot, whichever is more accessible. The left hand is polluted. Always use your right hand to eat, give, take, or touch.
Displays of physical affection between women and men are rare. Same-sex affection, on the other hand, is considered completely natural and acceptable, and you often see men walking down the street clasping hands. Most Indian and Nepali women are meek and quiet in public, and it is considered inappropriate for strange men to talk to them. Women travelers might find it hard to meet Indian and Nepali women, though women should always try to find other women to assist in an emergencies.
Be especially sensitive about etiquette in places of worship. Dress conservatively, keeping legs and shoulders covered, and take off your shoes before entering any mosque, gurudwara, or temple. Visitors to Sikh gurudwaras and women entering Muslim mosques should cover their heads as well – handkerchiefs may be provided. At the entrance to popular temples, shoe-wallahs will guard your shoes for a few coins. Ask before taking photographs in places of worship. Taking pictures of the deities in Hindu temples is normally not allowed. Many Hindu temples ban non-Hindus from entering. In practice this rule excludes anyone who doesn’t look sufficiently South Asian. Purity laws dictate that menstruating women are forbidden to enter some Hindu and Jain temples.
It is common practice in Hindu temples to partake in offerings of consecrated fruit and water called prasad, which is received with the right hand over the left (and no one takes seconds). It is customary to leave a small donation at the entrance to the temple sanctuary. This can cause dilemmas when temple priests aggressively force prasad into our hands, expecting large amounts of cash in return. Usually a donation of one or two rupees will suffice. Hinduism and Buddhism consider the right-hand side auspicious and the left-hand side inauspicious; it is customary to walk around Hindu temples and Buddhist stupas clockwise, with your right side toward the shrine.