From Delhi we caught an early morning train to the city of Agra.Over the years the capital of India changed between Agra and Delhi (as well as a few other notable cities). This resulted in highly important government, religious, and otherwise historical sites being in both cities we visited. The most famous of these, of course, is the Taj Mahal!
From Agra we moved on to the TINY town of Orchha. Orchha is home to about 8,500 residence, and is only visited by a few tour companies. Thus few people stop here on their adventures; however, the city has some amazing historical sites and was able to show us the a not-so-hectic side of India.
Below is our adventures in both of the above mentioned cities!
The Rundown (Agra):
Agra (population 1.6 million) is considerably smaller than Delhi (population 19 million). This size difference results in a MUCH more rural feeling in the former.
- Cows – In Delhi it was relatively uncommon for cows, goats, horses, and other wildlife to roam in or around the major roadways (although it certainly did happen). In Agra, this was a CONSTANT phenomenon, and this continued for the rest of our time in India. Cows would literally sleep in the middle of the road, all the while traffic would simply divert around. We never saw any effort to remove them, or at least to prevent them from wandering out in the first place. Most remarkably, we could not believe the absolutely serene expressions that adorned these animals faces; the cows were clearly not even slightly phased by the constant horns and traffic. We found out that many cows are turned to the streets once they no loner provide milk, while others wander the streets but know their way home, and return back regularly.
- Akbar’s Tomb – Our first stop of the day was at Akbar’s Tomb. Akbar’s Tomb was created in the 1600s to house the remains of the Mughal emperor Akbar. Akbar was the son of emperor Humayun, whose tomb we visited in Delhi. He is also known as one of the greatest emperors in India’s history as he greatly expanded the empire and showed tolerance towards the various religious communities in the country. The tomb itself was quite impressive. The main building is made from white marble and red sandstone which, because of the way it is laid, creates a distinctly eastern looking pattern. On each side of the building stand two impressive, pearl white minarets. The grounds surrounding the tomb were notable as well. Raised, tile walkways run through lush green fields filled with antelope, monkeys, peacocks, and monitor lizards. After spending a few hours exploring the tomb and its gardens, we checked into our hotel and had a few hours to relax before the day’s main even, the Taj Mahal!
- Taj Mahal – Before we started our world tour, we both made a short list of the places we were most excited to see. The Taj Mahal was on both of our lists, and it certainly did not disappoint! The grounds surrounding the Taj are extensive and ringed by a large wall. This makes getting a good view from the outside difficult; however, this just adds to the anticipation of getting a first glimpse. Visitors enter through one of the three massive gates at each side of the grounds. You do not approach head on, so the Taj first comes into view as you round the corner and it is perfectly framed within the arches of the gate, a truly amazing spectacle! It is impossible to convey in words just how impressive the building really is. We spent several hours exploring the beautiful surrounding grounds, visiting the tomb inside, and just sitting on a bench staring in amazement at this wonder-of-the-world. We got to see the sunset on this truly unique place, and this will undoubtedly be one of the highlights of our year.
- Agra Fort – The following morning we met the last two members of our group, and headed to the Agra Fort before our train to Orchha. The Agra Fort is a walled fort where emperors of the Mughal Dynasty resided until 1638, when the capital was moved from Agra to Delhi. This is also the fort where the emperor who built the Taj Mahal lived out the rest of his life after being imprisoned by his son. Being so massive, and housing so many people, it was more like a walled city than a fort. One of our favorite parts was the entrance ramp that leads into the grounds. The entrance was made to be impenetrable to intruders, and included an alligator moat, a spiked front gate, curved alleys so that elephants could not charge, and a ramp for rolling boulders (does Indiana Jones come to mind for anyone else?). Such a cool place to visit!
- Trains – On a side note, in India trains are NOT the paragon of reliable transportation we know them as in the west. Our train from Agra to Orchha was delayed by about an hour, and our overnight train from Orchha to Varanasi was delayed by over 2 hours. Our tour leader, Sunil, said that he has had trains delayed by more than 13 hours in the past, though that was certainly an extreme example even by India standards.
The Rundown (Orchha):
From Agra we caught a train to the tiny town of Orchha. Orchha only has a population of 8,500, and was a breath of fresh air after the last two loud and crazy cities we visited.
While Orchha is a small town, it still boasts some amazing sites! This is due to the fact that India was made up of many small nation states for most of its existence.
- Jahangir Mahal (Orchha Palace) – Jahangir Mahal was erected in the 17th century in order to welcome the Mughal Emperor Jahangir. Historically speaking, the palace does not have the same significance as most of the other sites we would to visit in India. Nonetheless, the palatial structure was truly impressive. Our guide noted that similar palaces like this are dotted all over India making us wonder how many of these tiny gems adventurous backpackers could realistically see.
- Orchha Cremation Sites – Orchha is home to a number of Chhatris’ (which are ornate, dome shaped structures within which cremations of the deceased takes place).We spent an hour or so visiting a number of these, as well as wandering the well-maintained grounds that connected them. Atop a number of the structures we also spotted some HUGE vultures (like 5 ft+ wingspans… it was really neat to see!).
- Taragram Paper Mill – We had a brief visit to the “Taragram Paper Mill”. This was essentially a government sponsored paper mill that helped provide jobs and/or supplementary income for many of the Orchha residence. It was great to see how the community was pulling together to support the local women and provide them with a needed income.
- Orchha Cooking Class – On our last night in Orchaa we were able to go to an Indian cooking class led by one of the local women. We watched as she made a number of absolutely delicious Indian dishes right before our eyes. We were also given a copy of the recipes to take home with us, and while I am sure we will not be able to do them justice, we certainly plan to give them a try when we get back home!
After the cooking class we ran back to the hotel and took a quick shower (it would be our last for the next 48 hours!) before heading off to our over night train to start our next adventure on the Ganges!