May 24, 2016

Agra : Waah Taj !!!!

A wonder is finally struck out from my bucket list. Obviously it was a bit agitating within my living system, for not having visited the wonder of the world in my own backyard, even after proclaiming myself as someone who is passionate to explore the world. One of the reasons I would generally give to any person willing to hear, is that I had saved visiting this symbol of love with my better half, ofcourse that made more sense :D.

Bulland Darwaza- Fatehpur Sikri
So after covering Amritsar and having come back to Delhi, it was time to explore Agra. The foremost monuments in our hit-list were THE TAAAJ, Agra fort and Fatehpur Sikri. We had hired a zoomcar in order to self drive from Delhi to Agra and back. There are 2 routes/highways between these 2 cities and they are worlds apart. First one is the Yamuna Expressway which is truly world-class and the second one is the normal 4 lane highway passing through towns and cities. Hence for the onward journey we decided to take the Yamuna expressway and boy-O-boy we were impressed. It is 6 lane access controlled expressway and unlike any tolled highway found in India, wherein you can still find the local livestock roaming on the pathway, or people crossing at every drop of the hat. It was a smooth 2 hour drive via this highway and we reached the city of Agra. But since I was driving a self driven car, I was mandated to pay UP state entry tax, but fortunately or unfortunately I couldn't find the RTO checkpost to pay the visitor tax.

Finally reached Agra and directly went to our hotel, The Gateway. Spent time indoors in order to escape from the sweltering heat, and saw Taj Mahal for the very first time from the roof of the hotel. Majestic :).  By the time the heat had dwindled in intensity we decided to head towards Fatehpur Sikri. We had reserved the following early morning for Taj in order to avoid the crowd and the heat , so that it can be enjoyed in peace. The distance between Fatehpur Sikri and Agra is just 35 km, but half of this distance is via very bad and congested roads. Had a tough time navigating the car through chock-o-block roads. Another piece of advice when visiting these tourist places is to be beware of touts , who pretend to be a guide and take you around on a ride from one shop to another trying to force you to buy things which you are not interested in.

Entrance Gate to the Taj
After parking our car in the parking lot, we were inundated with people claiming to be guides and we had a hard time trying to escape from them. Finally we settled for a guy, who looked the least evil of them all to take us around (since he seemed to have a Govt issued tourist guide ID, Duh !!!! :P). This guide took us to the Bulland Darwaza which was constructed by King Akbar, as the gate for the common masses to enter his palace. This gate is very majestic and with the steep stairs looking up this giant piece of art, makes it all the more intimidating.  Once you enter this gate, there is a huge courtyard and in the centre of the courtyard is the Salim Christy's tomb and the Jamah Masjid. This is one spot where they try to dupe a lot of tourists by their smooth talk and emotional blackmail. They try to sell clothes as offering for the tomb/dargah and these shockingly range from 2k to 11k to god-knows-to-what limit. Anyway we managed to navigate around without much damage. The tomb of this sufi saint made from white marble, was like a jewel sitting in the centre of the huge courtyard made of brown sandstone. After our visit of these places we had to return back since it was already nightfall and the other places of interest would be closed at sunset.

Next day we were up very early, bcoz it was Taj Mahal day. Infact we were the first set of people to have breakfast at our hotel at 6.30 am. There are 2 entry gates to this wonder, east and the west. For those having their own set of wheels, east gate is always recommended because of lesser crowd at the ticketing counters. Further we had read that Taj starts to get crowded once the Shatabdi from Delhi arrives at 8 am. Hence our sole aim was to enter the Taj Mahal complex before that.

We parked our car at place known as Shilpgram. From here you can buy entry tickets and then take an electric vehicle right upto the entrance gate. At the entrance gate there is a security check and do remember to get a ID card with address proof (atleast soft copy in your phone..phew !!!!).  After the ticketing gate comes the main gate of the Taj Mahal wherein you get some great first views of the monument. We employed our own personal photographer who conducts a shoot of sort keeping the monument of love in the background. Charge was 30 bucks a pic (includes printing and softcopy). No words can describe this serene and beautiful monument. The architecture used was simple , but still elegant and majestic. The only complain was the scaffolds covering 3 of the minarets for restoration, but in-spite of this the monument was just a big WOW. Fantabulous, excellent, extraordinary, monumental, impressive are some of the words which can be used to describe this monument. This complex houses the tomb of Shah Jahan and his wife Mumtaz Mahal in its central chamber. Frankly speaking the interiors are a tad dull when in comparison to the outer view. However the centre of attraction inside the complex are the mesh curtains made from marble.  This complex has a wooden foundation and is said to be custom built so that the water from the Yamuna, flowing just a few feet away from the building keeps it moist and free from rot.  

Agra Fort
We spend close to 3 hours exploring the main building and its surroundings. As it started to get hot and crowded it was time to move towards our next destination, the Agra fort. Agra fort is yet another world heritage site and used to house the palaces of the mughal kings who used to run their kingdom from Agra. Jahangir's palace is one of the most preserved over here. This fort has a history dating all the way back to the 10th century AD right till the British empire. There are various buildings and structures within this complex including the Diwan-i-Aam and Diwan-i-Khas, which used to be the seat of the emperor. There are 2 masjids within the high walls, made of marble. Further there is room within the complex , which is rumoured to house Shah Jahan during his imprisonment by his son Aurangazeb, from where he used to look over the Taj. Even though the Taj is the much famous centre of attraction in Agra, this fort holds its own and is quite an interesting place to visit. At this place we spent close to 2 hours.

And it was time to return back to Delhi. Unfortunately we decided to take the normal highway via Mathura and it was one big pain in the ass. This entire stretch of road either had some road repair going on or some dumb idiots coming in the wrong direction. The toll paid on this road was 180 bucks till Delhi and the toll paid on Yamuna expressway was 360 bucks. Hence given an option I would definitely pick the latter. Fortunately I was not caught by any RTO official for not paying visitor toll in UP :). 

Taj From Agra Fort

May 12, 2016

Amritsar : The Culinary Capital Of India

Amritsar is one of the holiest places for the Sikhs and considered to be the culinary capital of India. And we were not disappointed on either fronts. On our trip to Delhi to attend a relative's wedding, we decided to explore Amritsar and Agra along with Delhi, in order to satisfy our wanderlust. We had short-listed Amritsar primarily for the Golden temple and for the food. It is the home of Punjabi cuisine, which has become synonymous with North Indian cuisine all over the world, even-though it forms only a fraction of the North Indian cuisine. We had taken an evening Shatabdi train from Delhi and it took us nearly 6.5 hrs to reach our destination. The food served in the train was good, raising our expectations on the lip-smacking treats awaiting us in the culinary capital of India.

The entire city of Amritsar seemed to be undergoing renovation, so as expected we had to endure a lot of bad roads to reach the holy Sikh shrine. And on top of that the rickshaws catering to the tourists seem to be vehicles from hell, being rashly driven and almost giving us a cardiac arrest. We first visited the Jallianwala bagh, which is infamous for the massacre carried out by General Dyer in the year 1919 on the people assembled for a peaceful freedom demonstration. Right now this park has been converted into a memorial. There is a wall which is riddled with bullets. Further there is a well , in which many people jumped and lost their lives trying to avoid the hailstorm of bullets from the British.

Jallianwala bagh is quite nearby to the Golden temple. One has to cover their heads while entering this temple , irrespective of the gender. As we entered this structure we just "wowed" at each other seeing the beautiful and serene view in front of us. The Golden Temple sits in the centre of a pool , which is considered to be very holy. One can take a stroll around the temple and all the surrounding buildings and pathways are made from marble. Even though there was a decent crowd, we didn't feel so because of the huge open areas surrounding the temple. There are 4 huge gates in all the 4 directions of the temple. We decided to go inside the golden temple and after a wait of nearly an hour in a queue , we entered inside the holy shrine. Wherever we saw, we could see Golden hues. Inside the complex is the Guru Granth Sahib, the holy book of the Sikhs. Frankly speaking the outer view of the temple is much more impressive than the inner. There are different chambers  and levels within this temple housing what appeared to be the remains of the famous Sikh Gurus.

After the darshan we decided to try out "Guru Langar" which is considered to the largest community kitchen in the world. Here volunteers from all walks of life come together to prepare and serve food/ prasad to the devotees. According to some websites such as tripadvisor, langar is the best food in Amritsar, but in my opinion it is just a bit hyped because of the religious angle. The food was simple and decent, with roti, daal and porridge. Next we visited the Central Sikh Museum, housed within the temple complex. Here the illustrations and paintings are quite violent, depicting the various struggles the Sikhs had to go through to protect their faith , especially from the Mughals and the British. I had read somewhere that there is also depictions of how Indira Gandhi came so close to destroying this temple during the Operation Bluestar, but looks like all the material related to that episode have been removed off late.

Next we decided to pay a visit to Ahuja milk Bhandar, recommended as having the best lassi in Amritsar. After going through a roller coaster of a journey in a cycle rickshaw and travelling through very narrow by-lanes of old Amritsar , we reached our destination. Had lassi at this place, which was good, but not spectacular. We were still waiting for the exquisite food that Amritsar had promised. From the lassi centre , we moved towards the Durgiana Tirath, a hindu temple dedicated to Durga. The interesting part of this temple is that it has  exactly the same architecture used in the Golden Temple, including the Golden coat given to the main temple complex. But on the other hand , this entire temple complex was deserted. We spent some time admiring the views and then it was time to return back to our room in order to avoid the scorching afternoon sun.


We decided to have an early dinner and short-listed a place known as Crystal restaurant based on the online reviews. Now this restaurant did meet and even exceed all our expectations for the gastronomical enlightenment. The best masala paapad ever, the best amritsari kulcha ever, and the list goes on. Finally satisfying our stomachs, we decided to visit the golden temple again , to get the night views. And boy-o-boy the night view of the golden temple is still more impressive than the day time, with the Golden Temple literally glowing against the pitch black night sky in the background. We didnt visit the Wagah border ceremony during our visit, due to the reviews wherein its mentioned that unless you have a VIP pass, you wont get a good view of the ceremony. Further one has to sit under the blazing summer sun, hence we decided to give it a miss. So end of the day we were satified with our expectations set for this city.

Narrow Lanes Of Old Amritsar

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