Agra Halal Travel Guide
Agra is the city of the Taj Mahal, in the north Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, some 200 kilometers from Delhi.
Agra has three UNESCO World Heritage sites, the Taj Mahal and the Agra Fort in the city and Fatehpur Sikri 40 km away. There are also many other buildings and tombs from Agra's days of glory as the capital of the Mughal Empire.
Besides these three sites, the city has little else to recommend it. Pollution, mainly smog and litter, is rampant and visitors are pestered by swarms of touts and hawkers at every monument, besides the inner Taj Mahal which, once you are in, is free of scams and touts. The sites are some of the wonders of the world and no trip to India is complete without at least one visit to the Taj. For the vast majority of visitors, a single day in Agra is more than enough.
While Agra's heyday was as the capital of the Mughal Empire between 1526 and 1658, the city was founded much earlier. The earliest reference to Agra is in the ancient epic, the Mahabharata, while Ptolemy was the first person to call it by its modern name. The recorded history of Agra begins around the 11th century, and over the next 500 years, the city changed hands between various kings, both Hindu and Muslim.
In 1506, Sultan Sikandar Lodi, the ruler of the Delhi Sultanate, moved his capital from Delhi to Agra. His son Ibrahim Lodi was the last ruler of the Lodi dynasty, as he was defeated in 1526 by Babur, the first Mughal ruler, in the battle of Panipat. Agra fell too, and became the capital of the Mughals, whose rule over Agra was uninterrupted except for a brief period between 1540 and 1556. In 1540, Sher Shah Shuri overthrew Humayun became the ruler of much of North India, including Agra. After Sher Shah Suri's death his descendants proved unequal to the task of ruling the kingdom, and Hemu, a Hindu general of Suri became the effective ruler who would later crown himself King Hemachandra Vikramaditya just as the kingdom was facing an assault from the reinvigorated Mughals. In 1556, Hemu would be defeated and killed in the second battle of Panipat, and the Mughals regained Agra.
Mughals were great builders. Babur built the Aram Bagh (garden of relaxation) modelled after the garden of paradise, where he was eventually buried after his death. His grandson Akbar refurbished the Agra fort and built the Fatehpur Sikri, an entire city just on the outskirts of Agra. He also renamed Agra after himself, and the city was known as Akbarabad while it was in Mughal hands. Akbar's grandson Shah Jehan would give Agra its most famous monument, the Taj Mahal, which is the mausoleum of his beloved wife, Mumtaz Mahal. The Taj is constructed in white marble. It took 20 years to construct, and is now universally known as a monument to love. Legend has it that Shah Jehan wanted a replica of the Taj constructed in black marble that would be his final resting place. There is no support for this theory, but even if it were true, it would have been unlikely to be undertaken. His son Aurangzeb was austere and pious, and had no time or inclination for the ostentation of his forefathers, preferring to spend his money on wars in South India. In any case, even during Shah Jehan's reign, which was the period when the Mughal empire was at its height, the construction of the Taj put a strain on the resources of the empire and caused a mini-famine around Agra. Shah Jehan was eventually buried in the white Taj, next to his beloved Begum.
Shah Jehan, in addition to giving Agra its greatest claim to fame, was also responsible for beginning its decline, as he decided to shift his capital to Shahjehanabad, which is now known as Old Delhi, in 1658. Though Aurangzeb ordered a move back, this too was short lived, as he moved his headquarters down south to Aurangabad to be focus on his wars. Agra declined, and so did the Mughal Empire. The city was eventually captured by the Marathas, who renamed Agra. In 1803, it came under the British, who situated the Agra Presidency there, and when India gained independence, the city was incorporated into the state of Uttar Pradesh, and did not gain even the limited honour of being the state's capital, that distinction going to Lucknow, further east. It is now a tourist town, known for the Taj and a couple of other monuments.
A novel based on the remarkable story behind the Taj Mahal's is Beneath a Marble Sky by John Shors. It is an international bestseller, and is being made into a film by Hollywood. Another historical novel is The Taj by Colin De Silva.
Travel to Agra
Agra is 200 km southeast from Delhi and is one of the points of the tourist's Golden Triangle of Agra-Delhi-Jaipur. Agra is also very well connected via rail and road with other nearby cities and tourism destinations and thus suitable for a day trip from Delhi or as a part of a larger itinerary.
Travel by plane to Agra
- Agra's Kheria Airport. Service to is seasonal. The city is served by Air India Regional, which flies on the Delhi-Agra-Jaipur tourist triangle route. The flight time to either is less than an hour. Hiring a car may be a cheaper alternative.
Travel by train to Agra
Agra is on the main train line between the Delhi-Mumbai (Bombay) and Delhi-Chennai routes, and many trains connect Agra with these cities every day. Some east-bound trains from Delhi also travel via Agra, so direct connections to points in Eastern India (including Kolkata) are also available. There are close to 20 trains to Delhi every day, and at least three or four to Mumbai and to Chennai. Agra and Delhi are notorious for their thick winter fog which reduces visibility to almost zero. In late December and early January (the fog season), because of the reduced visibility, all trains slow down and travel time goes up. The Bhopal Shatabdi, for example, may arrive in Agra well after 10:00, and might return to Delhi well after midnight. From a safety point of view, it is always preferable to travel by train during the winter.
At Agra station, you can hire "UP Tourism" conducted tours on air-conditioned luxury coaches. Also, organized tours are available from Delhi. If you travel during the high season, you must book your tickets a few days to a few weeks in advance if you wish to make it a day trip, i.e. travelling early in the morning and coming back at a reasonable time at night.
Train tickets can be booked online through the Indian Railways website paying by debit or credit cards, although those issued by foreign banks are often declined.
There are three stations in Agra:
- Agra Cantt (Station Code: AGC) is the main railway station and lies southwest of the Taj and Agra Fort, both of which are a short ride from the station by car, auto-rickshaw or cycle rickshaw. There is a prepaid taxi stand right outside that charges a flat rate to any hotel in the city. You may catch an auto-rickshaw, if you walk a short way from the station, but they may not speak English. The station has a food court that also sells cheap, hygienic takeaway snacks such as sandwiches and samosas.
- Agra Fort station (Station Code: AF) near Agra Fort, is infrequently serviced by the interstate express trains. The station serves trains to the east (Kanpur, Gorakhpur, Kolkata), and some of these trains also stop at Agra Cantt.
This is one of the historical railway stations of Agra because there was a spacious, octagonal Tripolia Chowk which existed between the Jama Masjid and the Delhi gate of the Agra Fort. This Tropolia was destroyed in order to create the Agra Fort Railway Station, which was also the first railway station of Agra and also one of the oldest in the country.
- Raja Ki Mandi (Station code: RKM) is a small station. Some of the trains which stop at Agra Cantt also stop. The station has a laid-back and lazy atmosphere, but springs into life at the arrival of Intercity trains and the Taj Expresses. It is located in the middle of the city.
- Agra City is in the heart of Agra. A relic of the metre gauge era, this station is not particularly useful.
- Idgah Railway Station is the first station if you arrive in Agra from Jaipur.
- Delhi to Agra — Close to 20 trains connect Delhi and Agra each day with journey times varying from 2-5 hr. The best options are the Bhopal Shatabdi Express (departs New Delhi at 06:15 arriving Agra Cantt at 08:12; departs Agra Cantt at 20:30 arriving New Delhi at 22:30, daily except Friday; meal and water included in air-con carriage) and the Taj Express (departs Delhi Hazrat Nizamuddin at 07:15 arriving Agra Cantt at 10:07; departs Agra Cantt at 18:55 arriving Delhi Hazrat Nizamuddin at 22:00, daily).
- Agra to Jaipur - The journey to Jaipur (Station code: JP) takes around 4h by train no. 2988 which leaves Agra Fort Railway Station at 18:25 and reaches Jaipur at around 22:20.
Also train number 2965 from Agra Cantonment to Jaipur at 17:40. The train arrives at 22:15. ₹300 air-con carriage.
- The Luxury train — Palace on Wheels stops at Agra on its 8-day round trip of tourism destinations in Rajasthan and Agra.
There are several buses to Agra originating from Jaipur, Delhi, Ajmer, Lucknow etc.
The highway between Delhi and Agra has a toll, so most buses do not take it. Rather, they take the local roads, which makes the trip significantly longer than the express trains (4-5 hr). It is possible to make it by bus and minibus to Agra by the smaller roads, however you must ask around where the buses to Agra depart from, preferably from a trusted local or the staff at your hotel/hostel. Indian bus stations are, most of the time either large pavement areas situated under flyovers, very crowded and without no further indications of which bus goes where or stands of private bus companies, which will offer a more comfortable trip at a higher price. This option is for the ones who feel adventurous, as your journey can be halted by a sudden breakdown of the bus or a road closure due to a local protest or other form of gathering. Note that this is by far the cheapest way to get to Agra, as it should not cost more than ₹60 the normal "bus" and ₹200 for a more coach-type bus.
There are three interstate bus stands:
- Idgah Bus Stand is the primary bus stand for travelling towards Rajasthan/Madhya Pradesh, in the heart of the city, 8 kilometers from the Taj.
- ISBT at Transport Nagar, 12 kilometers from the Taj, is an inter state bus terminal. Most of the buses pass through here, except for buses originating from Idgah Bus Stand and going towards Rajasthan.
If you wish to travel with these buses which are government-run, you must insist to your rickshaw driver that he gets you there. If you only ask for the buses to Delhi, he will probably take you to a private bus company, from which he gets a cut. It will be slightly more expensive for you and these buses tend to stop at random places and drop you at random places as well, as these buses are not direct.
You can either book a taxi from hotel or directly book one outside the railway station. There is usually a government authorised taxi stand, however it may be hard to find and the locals present at the station (looking for gullible tourists) will not help you find it. ₹950/day for 8 hours. It maybe more costly to book through hotel as hotels do have their in the fares. It is better to negotiate with the driver directly or book trough some online car rental portal.
Cars are not allowed near the Taj Complex, but the rest of Agra is easily discovered by car.
Travel by car to Agra
- From Delhi: Yamuna Expressway, connects the 200 km distance from Delhi to Agra. The drive is typically 2 hours. The expressway runs from the city of Greater Noida to Agra. The highway has a toll.
NH2 Highway: The primary access to the highway is along Mathura Road in Delhi but, if coming from South Delhi or Delhi Airport, it is easier to take Aurobindo Marg (Mehrauli Road) and then work up to NH2 via Tughlakabad. While the highway is divided, it is important to keep an eye out for trucks, cars, and bullock carts heading the wrong way. It is possible to hire a car with a driver (a big car for five persons from/to the Delhi airport costs ₹3,500). But beware, if you need to get from Agra to the airport in order to catch a flight, ensure you have plenty of time for the trip, as traffic conditions may increase the drive time significantly. Also, it is wise to know your driver. There are situations when he may take over five hours to cover the distance, and you cannot force him to drive any faster than an autorickshaw (tuk-tuk).
- From Jaipur: National Highway 11, a four-lane divided highway, connects Agra with Jaipur via the bird sanctuary town of Bharatpur. The distance of around 255 km can be covered in around 4 hours.
- From Gwalior: A distance of around 120 km, takes around 1.5 hours on the National highway 3 (Agra- Mumbai Highway).
- From Lucknow / Kanpur: NH2, the divided modern highway, continues on to Kanpur (285 km, 5 hours) and from there to points East ending in Kolkata. From Kanpur, NH25 heads for the city of Lucknow (90 km, 2 hours).
- From Lucknow: Agra-Lucknow Expressway, the longest expressway in India, connects the 302 km distance from the state capital, Lucknow to Agra. The drive is very smooth and takes 3 hours. It is a tolled highway.
- From Greater Noida : Perhaps the best route as it connects to Agra directly by the Yamuna Expressway, 165 km, which can be completed in 1.5 – 2 hours because it has less traffic. The road is very smooth.
Getting around in Agra
Tongas, electric buses and electric tempos are readily available, and the best way to get to the Taj, where no cars are allowed. Auto-rickshaws and cycle-rickshaws are available every where, remember to agree on fares clearly in advance. Foreigners shoukd bargain everywhere and bargain hard. Generally things are available at 40% of the initially quoted fares. Tempos have been replaced by auto-rickshaws, which mainly run on CNG (Compressed Natural Gas).
UP State Road Transport Corporation operates some non-air conditioned and air-conditioned buses but those run only on specific routes. The best way to experience the city is to take a walk on the Mall Road (Sadar). The street is full of handicraft and leather goods shops. You will also find plenty of food items quite unique to the city.
As polluting vehicles are banned around Taj Mahal, one needs to use Tonga or electric auto while travelling in the range of Taj Mahal. Camels are also available. As a guide, an auto rickshaw from Agra Cantonement station to the Taj Mahal is about ₹80 (at least in off season); and a cycle rickshaw from the Taj Mahal to Agra Fort is ₹40. You can also walk between the Taj Mahal and Agra Fort, in about 30 minutes.