You want to visit Agra now? You’ll get roasted in the heat,” our friends said. The mercury has been at 40 degrees centigrade-plus in Delhi. And Agra, we were told, was a couple of degrees hotter. I had been keen to drive down, but my wife put her foot down. My seven-year-old daughter concurred. “It’s a fantastic drive. The expressway is at par with the best in the world,” I tried to reason. I was met with blank expressions.
So, we took the train, instead.
The blast of heat that greeted us as we alighted from the train seemed to confirm all the dire warnings we had received. But our first impression of Agra was a pleasant surprise.
It wasn’t the dingy, dirty city we had been told to expect. The neat, winding road from the station to the ITC Mughal, where we were staying, was broad and beautifully maintained, lined on both sides by large bungalows — mostly colonial, but some modern and a very few Islamic — malls, showrooms and hotels.
Our suite at the hotel overlooked the Taj Mahal, a mile or so away. In the foreground, on the lush lawns of the hotel, we saw some guests, clad in shorts, T-shirts and sun hats playing croquet. The temperature read 42.8 degrees C.
“These foreigners must be mad,” I muttered to myself, “I’ll happily exchange all the sun in the world for an air-conditioned room and a swimming pool,” and headed out of the air-conditioned suite to the pool.
While we splashed around, Trevor Michael, the butler — a Jeeves-come-alive — kept plying us with dry martinis.
We visited the Taj Mahal the next day — in a royal buggy, complete with a liveried coachman and footman, provided by the hotel. “This is how royalty of yore went socialising,” I told my wife.
Alamgir, our guide, an affable and knowledgeable young man with a day-old stubble, a sun hat and Rayban sunglasses, told us: “Agra dates back to pre-history. It was originally called Arya Griha, or home of the Aryans.”
He spoke Hinglish with a heavy Yankee accent, obviously picked up from the many Americans who visit the monument of love.
The Taj visit proved a bit of an anti-climax. The heat was unbearable. My daughter was obviously in distress. So, we quickly toured the the monument and returned to the hotel, but not before shopping for curios at the shops outside.
A word of advice to readers: avoid the big showrooms in Agra town. They charge the earth. Buy your curios from the shops next to the Taj — and bargain like hell. We bought a marble-inlaid chessboard with marble pieces for Rs 5,000, down from the asking price of Rs 13,000.
In the evening, when it was a little cooler, Trevor suggested that I take my daughter for a ride on an all-terrain vehicle.
It was exhilarating — sharp turns at high speeds, up and down the rough tracks, into puddles of water, up a flight of rough-hewn stairs and down again. We took three rounds before my daughter was satisfied.
Given the experience at the Taj, we dropped plans of visiting the Agra Fort, Fatehpur Sikri and the marble workshops where craftsmen, some of them descendants of those who built the Taj Mahal, still practise the art of marble carving and pietra dura that is the hallmark of Agra’s landmark.
No stay at the ITC Mughal is complete without a visit to Kaya Kalp — The Royal Spa, which won the Tatler award for Best City Spa — the only Indian spa to win that award. At 99,000 sq. ft, it is reportedly India’s largest.
My wife and I decided to get facials. Two very friendly Thai girls worked on our faces for about 70 minutes, sending us to sleep, to the accompaniment of soft music. We came out glowing — and feeling refreshed. Yes, we may not have seen much of Agra, or even of the Taj Mahal, but for three days, we were treated like royalty.