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Of Monuments and Marketstalls

I woke up at 5:00 in the morning to go and see the Taj Mahal. It was worth it. Wrapped in every piece of clothing that I had with me, I made my way through the dark empty streets of Agra towards the Taj compound.

Details on the Tomb of Itmad-Ud-Daula in Agra

Details on the Tomb of Itmad-Ud-Daula in Agra

I had spent the first day of my vacation on an overnight flight to Delhi, followed by an early morning train and a busy day wandering the markets and minor sights of Agra. I saved the Taj for a sunrise viewing on my second morning.

The Kau Ban Mosque at the Taj Compound

People have always told me that the Taj is hyped up and touristy, but also worth it. I think I had this idea in my mind that I was missing a piece of India until I had made it to the Taj. And now I’ve seen it, and I’m not quite sure I know India any better than before.

The Hawa Mahal in Jaipur

Over my first few days traveling Rajasthan I saw some of India’s most recognizable sights, from the Taj Mahal to Jaipur’s Hawa Mahal (maybe that second one is a bit less recognizable). It was lovely, but just as lovely as all of these ancient tombs and palaces were the strolls through dusty markets and the sidewalk chai shops that you experience through taking a step back and looking around.

A flower vendor in Jaipur

There were also bus loads of tourists who had shown up for the Taj sunrise alongside me. As we entered through the main gate we caught our first full-frontal view of the white domes. Everybody clamoured for a position at the front of the viewing platform, pushing each other out of the way and glaring aggressively when someone blocked their shot; Everybody trying to squeeze in the best experience with the limited time and energy that they had.

I spent five hours at the Taj Mahal. I was tired and exhausted, but I just couldn’t seem to leave. Every new angle, every colour shift as the sun rose higher, every step made me want to stay. Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore said that the Taj was ‘a teardrop on the cheek of eternity’, and while I’m not quite sure what that means, it was definitely impressive.

Relief details from the Taj Mausoleum

But what did I learn from seeing the Taj? What did I gain? How has my relationship to India changed? For foreigners, the white marble minarets are often synonymous with our idea of India, but when I think back on Agra I think of the crooked narrow alleyways full of mithai shops and the busy lanes selling gorgeous wedding saris amidst piles of rubble and trash. I think of an aggressive tourism industry and overpriced rickshaw rides, of damp guesthouses and six beggar women all trying to sell me the same plastic Taj Mahal snow globe. I think of the fact that almost none of my Indian friends have been to the Taj Mahal, and that the Taj took up five hours of my seventeen months in India and all I have to remember it by are photos and memories and a 20-rupee keychain.

The bazaars of Agra

Jaipur was bustling. There’s a Rajasthani proverb that asks ‘What have I accomplished in my life, if I have not seen Jaipur?’ Jaipur was my first introduction into Rajasthan, and I was blown away by the grandeur of everything. Amber Fort, just outside of Jaipur, was beautiful and elaborate and amazing, but the local government-run girls school I passed by was just as elaborately covered in detailed murals. The Hawa Mahal, originally built as a windowed facade for the palace of the royal women, was whimsical and I spent hours sitting in the rooftop cafés opposite it admiring its details.

At Nahargarh Fort in Jaipur

Less elaborate was the lone rocky path up a hill on the outskirts of town leading up to a Surya temple. I climbed up early in the morning, taking in the city views as I passed lone sadhus and stray cows. Monkeys lined the path, and all alone as the sun rose it was hard to tell that I was in the largest city in Rajasthan. Later that afternoon I stood on the ramparts of Nargarh Fort, perched on a hill high above Jaipur. Looking down at the square cement-block houses I tried to imagine each of the houses making up a tiny portion of this country.

On the outskirts of Jaipur

That night was Shabbat. After two jam-packed days exploring the sights of Jaipur, I felt like there was still so much to do and see. Taking 25 hours out of my vacation to sit and read and look without photographing was frustrating. But as I spent Shabbat afternoon wandering through the back lanes of Jaipur by myself, without the pressure to photograph every single thing, or the need to find the cutest cafe with the best rooftop view, I was free to look and really see.

Lac bangles for sale in Jaipur

Jaipur is nicknamed the Pink City, because in 1876 the Maharaja had it painted pink to welcome the Prince of Wales during an official visit. Today, all buildings on main streets in the Old City have to be painted pink by law. Which looks nice, but also gives the whole city the distinctly tourist-friendly vibe of a well-run strip mall. But Shabbat afternoon, aimlessly wandering with no map and no GPS, I explored the real streets of Jaipur - streets not pinkwashed for tourists, where the real business of Jaipur took place. By not having the pressure to see everything, I was able to see so much more.

Tourists at the City Palace in Jaipur

There’s a prayer sung at Shabbat dinner on Friday nights called Eshet Chayil, or 'Woman of Valour'. It goes through all the esteemed traits of womanhood in alphabetical order, but comes to the conclusion that 'Sheker HaChen, Ve’Hevel HaYofi, Isha Yirat Hashem, Hi Titpalel’ - grace is false, and beauty fades, but a woman who fears G-d, she is to be praised. I was reminded of all the tourists pushing and shoving for their perfect photo of the Taj.

At Jaigarh Fort in Amber, outside Jaipur

But these things fade. Perfectly symmetrical and evenly lit photos are looked at a few times and stored away on a hard drive. Keychains break and are thrown away. I’m already forgetting which palace was which, which mural had which flowers. What stays with us is the way we experience. Grace is false and beauty fades, but the way I choose to interact with the people around me and the way I process my surroundings is what shapes me. It’s not what I see but how I see it.

Inside the Amber Fort

Maybe seeing the Taj Mahal has helped me understand India a little bit better. But piecing together Hindi conversations with old ladies on dusty bus rides, smiling at babies, sitting on the roadside drinking chai with rows of Rajasthani uncles - these are the experiences I’m taking with me.

Sarees for sale on the street in Jaipur

Practicals: Agra is expensive. My two-year-old guidebook says the Taj is 750 rupees, last year my parents paid 1000, and when I went it was 1300. The rest of the sites are quoted as 100 each, but now are 300, which is a whole lot just to see a building, especially when you have to pay it for many buildings. That aside, these sites are pretty impressive. I visited the tomb of Itmad-Ud-Daula which was very nice, but skipped out on some of the other 300 rupee sites.

The backstreets of Agra

When you visit the Taj there are a lot of rules. You’re not allowed to bring any food inside, even if you have fruit or biscuits in your bag they will take it away at security. You also can’t bring any books (or knitting) inside because they don’t want people sitting around and reading. I had a photocopied guidebook in my bag and they tried to take it away. I spent a lot of time there, and was getting hungry, so it’s a good idea to eat before. A cafe called Jonesy’s near the South Gate is open before sunrise, and has mediocre sandwiches, but might be the only option that early. The South Gate is also newly closed to tourists, so the West Gate is your best option.

Mirror work at the Amber Fort outside Jaipur

I checked out of my hotel that morning, so I had my bag with me. My book said there is a free bag check by the ticket office but it was closed. There is a 20 rupee bag check a 7-minute walk from the West Gate where I entered. When you buy a ticket they give you a free water bottle and also shoe covers for when you go in the main mausoleum. Don’t lose them because there’s not a good place to leave your shoes inside, and you can't wear shoes inside the mausoleum or on the upper balcony.

The City Palace in Jaipur

Jaipur has lots to do but is totally doable. All of the sights in the old city can be seen by foot, in a day if you're productive. There is a combined ticket which you can buy for 1000 rupees (although potentially cheaper if you buy it at the Hawa Mahal - and 200 rupees for students), which is good for most of the main sights excluding the City Palace. The City Palace was a bit expensive (700 rupees regular admission) and honestly not the most amazing palace I've ever seen, so if you're tight on time maybe leave that one out. Most of the lovely pictures you may have seen of the palace are actually in a secluded area you can only visit on the $75 Royal Grandeur Tour, and while you can see a few nice walls and doorways, you'll see much better elsewhere in Rajasthan.

Elephants at the Amber Fort (I didn't ride one)

My second day in Jaipur I hired a rickshaw driver for the day (700 rupees) which was great because we covered all of the far-out sights and I didn't have to worry about bargaining for prices between all of them. First thing we visited the trail to the Galtaji Monkey Temple on the outskirts of the city, and though I got a bit sidetracked and never actually made it to the Monkey Temple, the hike there was lovely and worth exploring, especially early in the morning.

The Albert Hall Museum in Jaipur

Budget accommodation in Jaipur is mostly set along MI Road, about a 25-minute walk from the Old City. When I arrived in the dark without a place to stay I headed there, and settled on a decent place, but ended up moving to another place in the Old City for my second two nights, which was a nicer place, but I got the cheapest room (which wasn't very nice). In the Old City, it can be quite touristy, and I found it difficult to find restaurants not aimed at expensive packaged tourists, so I mostly ended up eating from street stalls, something you might not want to do if you're newer to India. But the sights and vibe in Jaipur are so exciting you won't even notice the lack of accessible tourist amenities. Jaipur is lovely for wandering, and there are so many places to explore.

Inside the Hawa Mahal in Jaipur

If you have any other specific questions about things to see and how to do it please feel free to message me!

The Pana Meena Kund Stepwell in Amber

The Amber Fort

The outskirts of Jaipur

The Hawa Mahal in Jaipur at night

One of the inner courtyards of Jaipur

A streetside shrine in Jaipur

A sugar vendor in Jaipur

The Maharajah Girls Government High School in Jaipur

The City Palace in Jaipur

The Jantar Mantar in Jaipur - a historical observatory for astronomy

Details at Nahargarh Fort in Jaipur

Details at Nahargarh Fort in Jaipur

Workers in Agra sit in front of a mural in Taj Ganj

Marble inlay details on the Taj Mahal

Details inside the tomb of Itmad-Ud-Daula in Agra

A street vendor in Agra

The bazaars of Agra

A man praying at the Jama Masjid in Agra

Sarees for sale in Agra

Uncles sitting on the roadside in Agra

At the Nahargarh Fort in Jaipur

At the Jaigarh Fort in Amber

The Amber Fort

Inside the Hawa Mahal in Jaipur

Marble detailing in Jaipur

Inside the Hawa Mahal in Jaipur

A sadhu at a hillside temple outside Jaipur

At the Amber Fort

At the City Palace in Jaipur

Offerings at a temple in Jaipur

At the City Palace in Jaipur

At the City Palace in Jaipur

Inside the Hawa Mahal in Jaipur

At the Nahargarh Fort in Jaipur

At the Hawa Mahal in Jaipur

A Taj-view rooftop cafe in Taj Ganj

At the Hawa Mahal in Jaipur

At the Jama Masjid in Agra

The backside of the Taj along the Jamuna River

The Jama Masjid in Agra

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