Northern India Part 3: The Taj Mahal and Fatehpur Sikri, Agra: 23rd November 2019   Leave a comment

In November 2020 we went on a customised tour of northern India organised by Jo Thomas of Wild About Travel

This was Margaret’s first visit to India (although my sixth) and allowed us to combine visits to cultural sites with wildlife viewing. Earlier posts on this tour dealt with our visits to Tabora National Park and the Chambal River area.


This is the third post on our trip to India in November 2019 and covers our visit to the Taj Mahal and the ancient city of Fatehpur Sikri in the city of Agra which we visited on route to our next overnight stop in the city of Bharatpur.


We left the Chambal River Lodge mid-morning and drove to Agra. Most of our earlier travels, from Nagpur to Tadoba and back, had been on main roads and the journey from Agra to Chambal was before dawn, so this was Margaret’s first real experience of the vibrancy and colour of everyday Indian rural life.


… to the omnipresent cows and water buffalos.


A few birds were seen on route such as the suitably common Common Babbler.


On arriving we arranged a local guide and took a bicycle rickshaw from the car park …


… travelling to the entrance to the Taj Mahal in style.


Our guide made sure we paused for all the clichéd photos.


To say the Taj Mahal was crowded would be an understatement.


This is probably the best and most awe inspiring view of the Taj Mahal and as can be seen from all the phones and selfie sticks, everyone else felt the same.


From Wikipedia: The Taj Mahal is an ivory-white marble mausoleum on the southern bank of the river Yamuna in the Indian city of Agra. It was commissioned in 1632 by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan (reigned from 1628 to 1658) to house the tomb of his favourite wife, Mumtaz Mahal; it also houses the tomb of Shah Jahan himself. The tomb is the centrepiece of a 17-hectare complex, which includes a mosque and a guest house, and is set in formal gardens bounded on three sides by a crenellated wall. Construction of the mausoleum was essentially completed in 1643, but work continued on other phases of the project for another 10 years. The Taj Mahal complex is believed to have been completed in its entirety in 1653 at a cost estimated at the time to be around 32 million rupees, which in 2020 would be approximately 70 billion rupees. The construction project employed some 20,000 artisans under the guidance of a board of architects led by the court architect to the emperor, Ustad Ahmad Lahauri. The Taj Mahal was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1983 for being “the jewel of Muslim art in India and one of the universally admired masterpieces of the world’s heritage”. It is regarded by many as the best example of Mughal architecture and a symbol of India’s rich history. The Taj Mahal attracts 7–8 million visitors a year and in 2007, it was declared a winner of the New 7 Wonders of the World (2000–2007) initiative.


One bird that was absolutely abundant on my first visit to India in 1986 was Black Kite. I was surprised how few I saw on this trip, however there were quite a few flying around the dome of the Taj Mahal.


The race here is govinda, a more strongly marked race than those in Europe.


These black inlays in the white marble produce an optical illusion because if you gaze upwards the zig-zags become a straight line. I tried to capture this in a photo but the pillars ‘fell over backwards’ so badly that you will just have to imagine it!


The mausoleum itself is flanked on three sides by these red stone buildings, one of which is the entrance and exit …


… whilst the fourth side is flanked by the Yamuna river.


When I visited the Taj Mahal in 1986 this area was full of vultures, but the widespread use of the veterinary drug diclofenac (used to treat cattle which after death are eaten by vultures) has resulted in widespread poisoning and a reduction in numbers of over 99%. At least there were plenty of Great Cormorants and a few Painted Storks, Ruddy Shelducks and Grey Herons present.


We entered the mausoleum, but there was a policy of no photography inside …


Taj Mahal Inside Picture

… the tomb of Shah Jahan’s wife Mumtaz Mahal lies centrally and so looks down the the central axis of the complex. Shah Jahan’s tomb which was placed here after his death in 1666 lies offset to one side. As I was unable to photograph the tomb I’ve copied this wide-angle shot from here


As we emerged from the mausoleum it was clear that the compound was rapidly filling up with tourists, it was time to get some lunch and move on.


We continued on to the ancient city of Fatehpur Sikri.


From Wikipedia: Fatehpur Sikri is a city in the Agra District of Uttar Pradesh, India. The city itself was founded as the capital of Mughal Empire in 1571 by Emperor Akbar, serving this role from 1571 to 1585, when Akbar abandoned it due to a campaign in Punjab and was later completely abandoned in 1610. The name of the city is derived from the village called Sikri which occupied the spot before. An Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) excavation from 1999 to 2000 indicated that there was a habitation, temples and commercial centres here before Akbar built his capital. The region was settled by Sungas following their expansion. In 12th century, it was briefly controlled by Sikarwar Rajputs. The khanqah of Sheikh Salim existed earlier at this place. Akbar’s son Jahangir was born at the village of Sikri in 1569 and that year Akbar began construction of a religious compound to commemorate the Sheikh who had predicted the birth. After Jahangir’s second birthday, he began the construction of a walled city and imperial palace here. The city came to be known as Fatehpur Sikri, the “City of Victory”, after Akbar’s victorious Gujarat campaign in 1573. After occupying Agra in 1803, the English established an administrative centre here and it remained so until 1850. In 1815, the Marquess of Hastings ordered repair of monuments at Sikri.



Again from Wikipedia: The city was founded in 1571 and was named after the village of Sikri which occupied the spot before. The Buland Darwaza was built in honour of his successful campaign in Gujarat, when the city came to be known as Fatehpur Sikri – “The City of Victory”. It was abandoned by Akbar in 1585 when he went to fight a campaign in Punjab. It was later completely abandoned by 1610. The reason for its abandonment is usually given as the failure of the water supply, though Akbar’s loss of interest may also have been the reason since it was built solely on his whim.[14] Ralph Fitch described it as such, “Agra and Fatehpore Sikri are two very great cities, either of them much greater than London, and very populous. Between Agra and Fatehpore are 12 miles (Kos) and all the way is a market of victuals and other things, as full as though a man were still in a town, and so many people as if a man were in a market.


This lady looks impressed by the architecture!


Of course we could only visit a small part of the city. More from Wikipedia: Fatehpur Sikri sits on rocky ridge, 3 kilometres in length and 1 km wide and palace city is surrounded by a 6 km wall on three sides with the fourth bordered by a lake. The city is generally organized around this 40 m high ridge, and falls roughly into the shape of a rhombus. The general layout of the ground structures, especially the “continuous and compact pattern of gardens and services and facilities” that characterized the city leads urban archaeologists to conclude that Fatehpur Sikri was built primarily to afford leisure and luxury to its famous residents. The dynastic architecture of Fatehpur Sikri was modelled on Timurid forms and styles. The city was built massively and preferably with red sandstone. Gujarati influences are also seen in its architectural vocabulary and décor of the palaces of Fatehpur Sikri. The city’s architecture reflects both the Hindu and Muslim form of domestic architecture popular in India at the time. The remarkable preservation of these original spaces allows modern archaeologists to reconstruct scenes of Mughal court life, and to better understand the hierarchy of the city’s royal and noble residents. It is accessed through gates along the 8.0 km long fort wall, namely, Delhi Gate, the Lal Gate, the Agra Gate and Birbal’s Gate, Chandanpal Gate, The Gwalior Gate, the Tehra Gate, the Chor Gate, and the Ajmeri Gate. The palace contains summer palace and winter palace for Queen Jodha.


One thing that greatly surprised Margaret was that pretty young Indian ladies would ask if they could take a selfie with her, like she was some sort of celebrity. I caught these two in a more candid pose after they had done the selfie thing with my wife.


We appreciated that we had only visited of this ancient place but were pleased we had taken the time to do so. In spite of the constant haze and pollution that blights the lowlands of northern India in the winter we had captured some nice photos …


… however as always we concentrated on photographing what we came to see rather than photographing us!


Rose-ringed Parakeets (or Ring-necked as they are often called in the UK) were a common sight …


… native to India and parts of northern Africa this species has been introduced into many places, including the UK where they often become a pest, competing with native species for food and nest holes.


Northern Palm Squirrels were a common sight running along the ancient walls and roofs.


A few final views of Fatehpur Sikri …


… its lakes …


… and spires …


… before we departed to the city of Bharatpur and the wonderful wildlife reserve nearby.


On route we driven down a major highway, this gave Margaret her first chance to experience heavy Indian traffic. I don’t think she sat in the front seat again after that! Although Indians nominally drive on the left like we do in the UK, the rules of the road seem to be made up as they go along. Of course the traffic speed is much lower than the UK, with all the cows, sheep, bicycles and vehicles going the wrong way it couldn’t be otherwise. We loved the highly decorated Indian lorries, although not their kamikaze driving.


The next post will cover our visit to one of the finest wetland reserves in the world, Keolandeo National Park, known also universally by the name of the adjacent city Bharatpur.

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