The new state highway that runs south from Delhi to Agra is an impressive road. A three-lane motorway of perfect asphalt, devoid of bullock carts, cows and tractors, cuts the time from the nation’s capital to her number one tourist attraction by about two hours. We left at 09:30 and arrived, exactly as JP predicted, three hours later at 12:30.
Some say this is a boring drive. I disagree. As you move out of the capital and through the new towns of Noida and Gurgaon, the scale of India’s infrastructure projects hit you. Mile after mile of new tower blocks, in various states of completion, line the road, rising up in clusters like giant concrete forests. An impressive ‘sky train’ metro weaves its way between these satellite oases, linking each with the capital mothership. There is a new F1 circuit, a giant new cricket stadium and the beginnings of what is said to be the world’s biggest airport. This is modern India, exploding into the 21st century on steroids.
But as the urban world falls away, so the expressway cuts a course through a more familiar India. Fields of wheat are harvested by squatting women with handheld scythes. Men push the bundles of corn the women produce through threshing machines. Black and shiny buffalos wallow in muddy pools. Tall, slim chimneys, rise from the brick kilns like minarets from the mosque.
In Agra, I meet Dilip, a charming man with a friendly smile, who has been our man here for more than a decade. He takes me first to Agra Fort where we wander with the local sightseers. One of India’s 19 UNESCO World Heritage Sites, the scale of the place staggers you. Although there was a fort here before the Moghuls happened along, it was in a ruined state before Akbar rebuilt it in the rich Agra sandstone that one sees today. How anyone ever captured it is beyond me.
And from here we visited the Taj Mahal. What can one say about this building that hasn’t been said a thousand times before? Even in the heat of the day, with plenty of domestic tourists to disturb the peace – the Indian school holidays started this week – you can’t help but be wowed by the place’s exquisite beauty. No matter how many times you see it, it always blows you away. We wandered around the grounds, made a short video, took plenty of photos, and, as I was about the only foreigner there, was made to have plenty of selfies with the locals.
But my favourite view of the Taj Mahal is on the other side of the Yamuna River. And so, after a refreshing glass of lassi, we drove over the river and walked down a path to a small garden and viewing area. In normal times, there would be a few westerners looking to catch sunset shots of the famous building with wandering buffalo, goats and their sari-clad escorts in the foreground. Today there were none. We just sat and watched as the sun slowly mellowed, turning the marble domes and minarets from brilliant white to a warmer gold, enjoying the spectacle.
I hadn’t been back to Agra for more than 10 years. It was worth the wait.