Agra city in Indian state of Uttar Pradesh is known for the iconic Taj Mahal. Lesser known fact is that the city also has many more attractions for which a visitor can easily spend three nights. There are many enticing circuits that can be covered from Agra like the Chambal river valley and its wildlife, God Krishna’s town of Mathura and its temples, fine architectural palace at Fathepur Sikri and University town of Aligarh that has the confluence of three holy rivers.
Here’s an account of our three day trip to the circuit of beautiful Chambal that has cultural, experiential and socially responsible attractions.
Early wakeup for a sunrise view of the incredible Taj Mahal as its gates opened is a memory for life. White marble shone even brighter as we’re mesmerized with its sheer size, symmetry and beauty. The reason lay in the fact that the World Heritage monument was being cleaned for the first time with Multani Mitti (traditional clay) pack instead of the usual plain wash as explained by guide Ranjit Singh. After photographing it from every possible angle and posing with it, it was time for a special morning walk in the nearby Taj Nature Park. Viewing Taj across the river Yamuna from the three viewpoints amidst greenery and birds chirping is indeed a privilege for anyone.
After breakfast we went for a guided heritage tour of Agra. First stop was at Sikandra, the impressive red stone structure with marble inlays built as a mausoleum for Emperor Akbar. The fact that the red stone from the mighty structure gets a replacement every 10 years due to its wear and tear was an amazing fact to learn. Authorities indeed deserve a credit for this toil.
Itmad-ud-Daulah, called the mini Taj was actually built prior to the Taj Mahal and has more intricate marble work than the Taj itself. Fewer visitors, Yamuna River on one side and beautiful rose and jasmine gardens on the others make it a serene place.
The chaat (savoury titbits) and thali at Gokul Mishtan Bhandar (GMB) was a tasty and energising meal for our post lunch visit to Soor Sarovar Bird Sanctuary where Wildlife SOS has India’s first Sloth Bear Rescue Centre. Making bears dance to entertain people was a practice prevalent in India. No longer, since all 400 dancing bears from across India are rescued over last four years and cared for at centres. Families engaged in bear dance are also rehabilitated with alternative jobs and education for their children. It’s heartening to see once castrated and tortured bears roam around and enjoy freedom. The presentation on Wildlife SOS’s activity and work is commendable. They run training for forest staff and communities and work on habitat restoration near wildlife sanctuaries.
From rescued bears to self rescued women, a stop for a masala tea at Sheroes, special restaurant run by victims of acid attacks made us proud of the grit and determination of the human species. Beautifully depicted art engrossed us. The restaurant menu didn’t mention any price. Clients can pay as per their wish.
Another mega attraction, Agra Fort was our last visit for the day. Massive red stone structure has a well laid white marble palace inside and offered Taj views from faraway, as its builder Shah Jahan viewed during his last years. Beautiful Durbar hall or king’s court here is befitting for the famous peacock throne it once had with Kohinoor diamond embedded on it. Shining red stone fort glittering with dusky sunrays made a perfect ending for the day.
We left after breakfast on a wildlife trail and reached Chambal safari lodge in an hour’s time. The lodge is in serene nature reserve of 13 acres of reforested land that supports hundreds of bird and butterfly species. Owners Kunwar Ram Pratap Singh and Anu Singh have helped people in the region to forgo mining and make a living from nature by inviting and hosting tourists to enjoy available natural resources.
People’s friendliness was visible during our visit to Holipura, a short drive away from the lodge. Few hundreds of people in the 400 year old village live a traditional lifestyle in homes built with beautiful architecture. An hour’s walk through the village and a peek into some homes felt as though time had stood still for centuries, except for a few bikes and a nationalised bank, also working out of a heritage building.
After returning to the lodge for lunch and some relaxation, we left for the Chambal river cruise at 4. 900 kilometer long clean river with its green banks is home to many indigenous species of flora and fauna. We spotted many gharials (Indian fish eating crocodiles) and alligators basking in the mild sun and also many egrets, herons, some rare red necked turtles and many more from our small 8 seater motor boat. There’s lot of excitement when a shy brown Bengal dolphin popped out. Many more followed with frequent leaps out of water as we enjoyed the quiet floating with the motor off during the sunset. Some jackals ran along the banks and bird flocks made their way home as we left the serene place.
Conversations of the day’s findings dominated at the evening’s cocktails, dinner and campfire at the lodge.
15 minutes drive early in the morning took us to Bhateshwar, the temple town on the banks of Yamuna. Hundreds of copper bells hung inside the main temple of Bhatuknath. A huge open resting place beside the temple had many god men going about their morning chores. Steps behind the temple descended to the river. Many temples extended on either side. The sunrise view of tens of Shiva temples lining the river banks during a small boat ride was amazing to capture pictures with reflections on the water. A walk along the banks offered sights of beautiful edifices of an abandoned fort, a few more temples, homes and shops.
A sweet shop owner, who was preparing sweets, got into conversation and led us to the grounds which would soon be hosting festivities during the cattle fair. Later we learnt from Anu Singh at the lodge that the cattle fair at Bhateshwar is the second biggest in the country after Pushkar fair. Unlike the latter which is a major tourist attraction, one gets to see indigenous people naturally enjoying the fair at Bhateshwar with no one compelling visitors to buy anything. Cattle, camels, horses and donkeys are brought-in from across villages to be sold at separately designated days of the 10 day annual market.
We left around noon to be in time for lunch at Agra. In the evening, it’s interesting to visit the centuries old local market to see what locals shopped. The mega, stone structure of Jama Masjid was visible along the street. Spices, shining garments, leather footwear, street side eateries and people busy in shopping added a riot of colours and chaos to the whole experience. We stopped at Gokuldas sweets to pick petha, the juicy, soft local sweet made of bottle gourd. Packed in polythene bag and a carton, it stays for 15 to 20 days and even more if stored in the refrigerator.
We drove to Kalakriti to watch Mohabbat the Taj, the grand musical depicting the story of the Taj Mahal. There was some time for the show to begin and we spent it in knowing about the marble inlay work at the adjoining display workshop and were awestruck by the artistic excellence of the fine works on sale at the huge emporium. Eternal love story of Shah Jahan to his beloved wife Mumtaj that resulted in the greatest monument- The Taj Mahal was beautifully narrated with the incorporation of Indian classical music and dance at the 90 minute extravaganza. The modern technology for the stage, lighting and graphic presentation made the musical look grand and perfect. The biggest replica of the Taj Mahal that appeared before the curtains were drawn made the audience exclaim ‘Wah Taj’. The mausoleum and its story somehow connect every visitor with romance, admiration, loyalty and love for life itself.
One can never have enough of the Taj Mahal and the option of alternating it with other natural, cultural and traditional attractions only adds to the experiences of Agra. We long to return to the city to explore its other splendours along with a visit to the Taj on full moon evening.
Written by : Anand & Madhura Katti