#7 beyond the obvious: 7 reasons why agra should be on every travel bucket list

So, you’ve ticked off Agra’s major sights, the raison d’êtres for your visit. Or maybe it is your umpteenth time to the city. What now?

After marvelling at Agra’s treasures [listed from 1 to 6 in this series in no specific order] I wanted to experience yet more of it. Beyond the Agra the travel and history guides enthused about. And I was not disappointed. Digging and wandering through its centuries old lanes, having heartfelt conversations with its present residents, I saw sides of it which further justified its place in a traveller’s bucket list, equal to its more celebrated attractions. Don’t believe there is more to Agra than its UNESCO World Heritage Sites and Mughal masterpieces? Read on and be pleasantly surprised, like I was. 🙂

1. Dig into a Pay-What-You-Want meal at Cafe Sheroes Hangout

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#6 colossal sikandra: 7 reasons why agra should be on every travel bucket list

After getting all sentimental at Shah Jahan’s expression of love for his beloved, departed wife and marvelling at the artistic nuances of Nur Jahan’s token of devotion towards her doting parents, I am ready to be bowled over by Sikandra, Akbar’s tomb for his own self.

Here was a monument made by, and for, one of India’s greatest rulers—befitting his stature and achievements. I wondered what it was going to be like. Continue reading

#5 roman catholic taj mahals: 7 reasons why agra should be on every travel bucket list

Whilst Shah Jahan was building the Taj Mahal as an ode to his beloved wife, the European Christians in Agra were creating their own fairy-tale like mausoleums in a cemetery dating back to Akbar’s time. Not perhaps on the same scale, they are however, no less delightful in carved red sandstone, yellow basalt, and whitewashed plastered walls. These tombs in Agra’s Roman Catholic Cemetery are the resting places of initially the Armenian Christians in the 1600s and, thereafter, of other European Catholics in the city. Continue reading

#4 itimad-ud-daulah’s poetic tomb: 7 reasons why agra should be on every travel bucket list

There is no one more fascinating in Mughal history than the Persian father-daughter duo Mirza Ghias Beg and Mehr-un-Nissa. Posterity knows them as Itimad-ud-Daulah and Nur Jahan.

A classic tale of riches to rags and back to riches, Mirza Ghias Beg was a defamed nobleman from Tehran, Iran who decided to try and change his fortunes in 16th Century Mughal India. Robbed on his way, he reached Akbar’s court penniless, but was quick to rise the ranks to earn himself the title Itimad-ud-Daulah or Pillar of the State, and even become the grand vizier in Akbar’s successor, Jahangir’s court.

His daughter, meanwhile, was abandoned at birth by her parents, fraught with poverty, in Qandahar, Afghanistan on 31 May, 1577 on their way to India. She was returned to their home the same night by a stranger who decided to take the family under his wing.

Beautiful, fearless, hot-tempered with nerves of steel, she fell in love with Jahangir, the Emperor Akbar’s son when she was eight years of age. But it was only after a 14-year bad marriage—widowed, 34, and with a child—that she re-entered his life to become his 20th and last wife in 1611. He bestowed upon her the title Nur Jahan, Light of the World. In the ensuing years, Jahangir spent his life intoxicated by opium and alcohol, smitten by her beauty and brains. She, on the other hand, became the most powerful woman in Mughal history and ruled the empire for 16 years from behind the veil. Continue reading

#3 abandoned fatehpur sikri: 7 reasons why agra should be on every travel bucket list

“Jesus, son of Mary said, ‘The world is a bridge, pass over it, but build no houses upon it. He who hopes for a day, may hope for eternity; but the World endures but an hour. Spend it in prayer for the rest is unseen.'”
~ Persian inscription,
Buland Darwaza, Fatehpur Sikri, 1601

My recollections of Fatehpur Sikri trace back to a family holiday many eons ago. I was 10. I remember being mesmerized as I wandered through the vast, desolate expanses embellished with exquisite stonework. Long fingers of golden sunshine stroked the edifices, setting the scattered, towering, red sandstone walls aflame.

For a 10-year-old it was a surreal place totally removed from all reality as I knew it.

Over the years I would often close my eyes and go back in time to re-emerge starry-eyed about life’s wonders. Amazed about a whole city built by one of the greatest emperors history had known, in honour of a Sufi saint who predicted the one thing he wanted most—a heir to pass on his empire to. Crafted with incredible passion and precision, the emperor Akbar himself oversaw the building of the site from its floor plans to the hand-chiselled columns and doorways to ensure it reflected his secular beliefs and heightened sense of aesthetics. Continue reading

#2 majestic agra fort: 7 reasons why agra should be on every travel bucket list

Sunrise at Agra Fort. Why sunrise ? Why not noon, sunset, twilight … Simple. Because at sunrise, when the warm golden light dapples over the 450-year-old walled Mughal palatial precinct and its deserted sprawling expanses, something close to magic happens. Plus I like mornings. 🙂

Built in the Indo-Islamic architectural style, the bow-shaped Fort with its 70-feet-high bastioned walls facing the Yamuna river, served as the Mughal empire’s military strategic point, as well as their royal residence.

The story of the Agra Fort is the story of three of its Mughal emperors—their resolute ambition, blinded passion, and romantic love is emblazoned over the red, intricately carved sandstone and translucent marble edifices. The story has been recounted countless times in Indian history books, movies, and music. Agra Fort lets one relive it, in what was once their home, in the company of its memories.

The emperors were Akbar, Jahangir, and Shah Jahan. Continue reading

#1 poignant taj mahal: 7 reasons why agra should be on every travel bucket list

“The world believes it was built by love but reading Shah Jahan’s own words on the Taj, one could say it was grief that built the Taj Mahal and it was sorrow that saw it through till completion.”
~ Aysha Taryam, The Opposite of Indifference: A Collection of Commentaries

This last week I travelled to Agra. I was keeping a promise to myself to revisit the city at a slower pace, in a more mindful way. It was my 4th visit. Needless to say, my previous ones were of the mass-produced variety.

The universe, weaving its magic in my favour, decided to back me on my plan and gave me one of my most memorable and beautiful travel experiences ever. I did not use any guide. I merely read up a lot, and wandered around the sites a lot more, often seating myself at a quiet spot or another to absorb the place at leisure. May I suggest you do the same? Live Agra’s treasures. Don’t just visit them.

In this post I am uploading a series of pictures of the Taj Mahal, easily Agra’s biggest attraction, taken from 7 am to 12 noon [yes, I was there for five hours 🙂 ], and some basic context one needs to know. I hope it inspires you to let your soul and feet revel in the 350-year-old monument, like mine did. They will both thank you, profusely. Continue reading

palaces of madurai and thanjavur, a peek into tamil nadu’s 17th century royal lives

Where gods are celebrated there are usually rulers behind it.

Where there are temples … There are also, thus, palaces.

The Temple Towns of Tamil Nadu were no different.

Most of these palaces have crumbled to the vagaries of time. These are after all a couple of thousand-year-old cities we are talking about. But what remains is mind-boggling. Colossal as if made for giants. Filled with art as if it were the only language spoken and understood.

This is my last post in my Tamil Nadu Temple Town series. I thought it befitting I end it with the spectacular palaces in Madurai and Thanjavur, cities which housed India’s most magnificent temples. These palaces were the last homes of its rulers, a peek into royal life four hundred years ago. Continue reading

photo essay: tamil nadu’s colourful gopurams, stories told and untold

This is the part of Tamil Nadu I was most smitten by. Colourful and packed with gods, goddesses, myths and secular life, its gopurams are a peculiar feature unique to the state. True, gopurams or entrance towers are a part of temple architecture across southern India. But in Tamil Nadu, they have a life of their own, larger in design and scale than the overshadowed holy sanctums inside the temple complexes. They are pure art. And I loved them.

I visited scores of temples during my week-long exploration of the southern state’s temple towns. From the incredible Meenakshi Amman Temple in Madurai celebrating the town’s beautiful and gracious patron goddess to the ancient Pillaiyarpatti Temple in Chettinad, site of an electrifying abhishek ceremony of the god Ganesha.

From the Nataraja Temple in Chidambaram, the only Hindu temple to worship Shiva as Nataraja, the Lord of Dance, to Thirukadaiyur Temple on the outskirts of Tranquebar where married couples celebrate their 60th, 70th, and 80th wedding anniversaries for it is renowned to defy death!

From the monumental Sri Ranganathaswamy Temple in Tiruchirappalli, India’s largest functioning temple and a mini-city in itself with a whopping 21 gopurams, to the string of lively temples lining the streets of Kumbakonam where I temple-hopped from one to the other for a different kind of night-life.

Dedicated to various deities, one architectural feature yet bound them all together. Their animated, multi-coloured, towering gopurams. Continue reading

trankebar: 5 danish memories in tamil nadu

Of all the sagas on colonial rule in India, one stands out apart—for its miniscule scale and perseverance to hold on to its holdings. I am talking about the Danish.

Did you know the Danish colonised India? More importantly, did you know they colonised not one, but three disparate and far apart locations for over 200 years. These were Serampore [near Kolkata], Nicobar Islands [of Andaman and Nicobar Islands], and Tranquebar.

My post is about the last one in this list. Tranquebar, or Trankebar as the Danes called it, on Tamil Nadu’s Coromandel Coast. A patch of “5 miles by 3 in extent” which they ruled from 1620 – 1845 and was their capital city in this part of the world.

I was on a week-long exploration of the temple towns of Tamil Nadu in early-March this year. Tranquebar was a breath of fresh sea-air in the mix. One I was determined to include.

All that remains of this once bustling trading post is a series of sand-washed forlorn monuments hugging the coast, and Danish memories. Five memories to be precise. Happy time-travel to Danish India. 😊 Continue reading

chettinad: opulent mansions and spicy chicken in sleepy villages

India is full of surprises. Do you agree?

There are the usual suspects in India’s travel mix: Temples, forts, palaces, beaches, the Himalayas, and wildlife reserves. Throw in some yummy food, colourful festivals and yoga, and one may well be duped into believing—India, aah! Been there, done that.

Then, almost out of the blue, is a collection of around 75 sleepy villages in southern Tamil Nadu filled with uber-rich villagers’ mansions dating from the 1850s to 1940. Often filled with a hundred-odd rooms, they span across two streets in the neat grid plans which swathe the villages.

On their walls are massive mahogany framed mirrors all the way from Belgium while the floors are decorated with dainty English ceramic tiles spangled with roses, hand-made Athangudi tiles and Italian marble. Smooth Burmese teak pillars hold up ceilings from which enormous sparkling Venetian Murano glass chandeliers dangle. Continue reading

the unesco-listed ‘great living chola temples’ of tamil nadu

The lady next to me, wrapped in a fuchsia pink saree and fragrant white jasmine flowers tucked into her plait, gently tugged her ears and patted her cheeks repeatedly. This was accompanied with murmured mantras under her breath. There was absolute love and wonder in her eyes as she stared at the gigantic lingam in the ancient sanctuary in front of us. I turned around and lo behold, everyone around me was doing exactly the same!

So as not to look downright ignorant or disturb the others, I asked the busy priest in hushed tones what the gesticulations meant. He replied with a bemused smile and booming voice, “They are praying.”

Of course.

Nothing has changed in the temple towns in Tamil Nadu. Neither the rituals, mantras, towering granite edifices, or the hand gestures. A thousand years ago when the Brihadisvara Temple in Thanjavur was built by King Rajaraja Chola I, the devotees most likely stood just like this, pulling their ears and tapping their faces. Every cell of their beings focussed on the lingam, and through it on Brahman, the universal fundamental Hindu truth. Continue reading