To the delight of locals and visitors alike, India's capital has emerged as a true 21st-century metropolis — all without neglecting the sparkling palaces, ancient ruins and culinary traditions that have long made it one of the world's most enthralling cities
Author JAY CHESHES
DAY THREE | You rise before the sun and catch a ride to Delhi’s main train station. The Shatabdi Express (1), the quickest, most efficient route south to Agra, departs every morning at 6:30. Don’t worry about breakfast: A first-class seat comes with hot tea and a thali (a tray with a variety of dishes) bearing savory doughnuts and spicy masala, along with newspapers and air conditioning. Two hours later you pull into Agra Can Station, your gateway to the “City of Taj.” The Oberoi Amarvilas (2), one of the country’s most palatial hotels, has sent a driver, as well as a wreath of fragrant fresh flowers for you to wear. After you check in at the hotel, you head to the window in your room. And that’s when you see it for the first time, in the distance: the Taj Mahal (3). Even from here, it’s breathtaking.
Refreshed by a quick dip in the pool, you leave your digs and embark on a tour of the great monuments of Agra, former capital of the Mughal empire. Your first destination is the shrine known as the Baby Taj (4) (its official name, I’Timad-Ud-Daulah, is a bit of a mouthful). To get there, you navigate the teeming sprawl that is modern Agra, a city of more than a million people along the Yamuna River. Your ride comes to a standstill as a herd of water buffalo crosses the road. And then you arrive, lucky enough to have the Baby Taj almost all to yourself (it’s not on the standard tour bus circuit). Like its more famous sibling, this white marble mausoleum is a memorial to love, but this time it’s filial — built by an empress in her father’s memory.
Heading back into town, you stop for lunch at Dasaprakash (5), a bright and cheerful southern Indian restaurant serving all-you-can-eat vegetarian fare. For virtually nothing, you eat your way through a massive thali laden with idlis, dosas, poori and eggplant, and wash it all down with fresh watermelon juice.
The Taj Mahal is packed at midday, so you kill a few hours touring the Red Fort of Agra (6). Its strong red sandstone walls held off countless invaders until the Brits broke through in the 19th century. You get in and out easily enough. It’s an immense complex, with 94 acres of sculpted gardens and marble shrines with gems embedded in the walls.
You hop into an oversize golf cart and make for the Taj Mahal. Gas-powered cars aren’t permitted near the site, so electric rental vehicles are lined up on the road going in. A mile and a half later you reach the gates, and at last, there it is in all its glory, sparkling at sunset: Shah Jahan’s white marble love letter to his third and most beloved wife, Mumtaz Mahal, who died in childbirth in 1631. This is the best time to be here, when the temperature has dropped and the crowds have thinned out, and the twilight reflecting off the river reads purple, pink, orange and gold. Like everyone else — including many new Indian brides — you pose for pictures in front and then follow the line inside under the twinkling dome, which is quite possibly the most stunning piece of architecture you’ve ever seen.
That night at Esphanan, the hotel’s restaurant, you can still make out the Taj in silhouette through a window. You dine on tandoori cauliflower and quail curry, old-fashioned regal recipes served in a 21st-century palace (the Oberoi opened in 2001). The food is rich and delicious — some of the best of the trip, in fact. After dinner you retreat upstairs, spent, and drift off to sleep with CNN on the flatscreen, enjoying the new India, but dreaming of the old.
Hemispheres contributor JAY CHESHES would be more than happy to show you his Bollywood dance moves.