Agra, Uttar Pradesh
Agra may be synonymous with the Taj Mahal, but for Kochi-based architect Monolita Chatterjee, the Taj is just part of the experience. “I love Agra, but it’s not the Agra of the tourists,” she says. “It’s the Agra of the Tajganj, where tiny little shacks sell hot jalebi and kachori straight off boiling oil. Raja ki Mandi, where leather shoes of the best description are sold at throwaway prices. Or Kinari Bazar, with its narrow lanes, which come alive only after sundown and sell the most amazing seekh kebabs and biryani. All these, I’ve realized, can only be taken in well if you are with the locals.”
And then there’s Fatehpur Sikri—37 kilometres from Agra and connected by regular buses—which to me has been a highpoint of any Agra visit. Akbar the Great’s deserted capital is stunningly atmospheric and if you are in Agra for monuments, you cannot leave without going to Sikandra where Akbar himself is entombed. Just a kilometre away is the tomb of his favourite queen Mariam Zamani Begum, the Rajput princess once known as Hira Kunwari or Jodhabai, mother of Emperor Jahangir.
Agra is an elegy to time. Itimad-ud-Daulah’s “jewel-box” tomb on the left bank of the Yamuna, commissioned by his daughter, Jahangir’s queen Noor Jahan, is often called the blueprint for the Taj, with similar pietra dura work of semi-precious stones on marble. Further north lies the unusual Chini ka Rauza, or China Tomb, so called because it was once covered with glazed porcelain tiles. There are chhatri [tomb canopies], sarai [traveller’s rests], Sati temples and mosques. With a little imagination, you are transported to the old Mughal quarter in Sikri’s unspoilt bazars where ladies of the court haggled over trinkets.
“This is the spirit of old Agra, which most tourists tend to miss,” sighs Monolita.
I’ve been to Nainital in the crowded height of summer. And when I recently visited in late August, the town was eerily empty. Boats lay idle on the lake. Everything felt newly minted. Clouds played hide and seek, but the end-of-monsoon rains never really bothered us. Walking up the Mall, popping into Narain’s bookstore to chat with the friendly proprietor, having tea and momos at the
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