Before dinner, the last activity of our Indian journey 2018 was a guided tour in Nizamuddin Basti, a 14th century community centered around the shrine of the Sufi saint Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya. Despite located just ten minutes of walk from the UNESCO World Heritage site Humayun’s Tomb, the Muslim neighborhood is relatively under visited. From online research, we learnt about the local charity organization, the Hope Project, offers tour of the community for anyone who is interested in the Nizamuddin Basti neighborhood. Found by Sufi teacher, Pir Vilayat Inyat Khan, the Hope Project runs a community health centre, a school, vocational training classes, credit program, etc in Nizamuddin Basti. Through email, we arranged a guided tour of the basti with them. Unfortunately, we were running late by the time we left Humayun’s Tomb. We weren’t sure if our arranged tour was still available. After entering the neighborhood, it took us quite some time to locate the office in the midst of busy lanes. Gratefully, the staff there were willing to take us for a walk, despite the mosques had closed. After the walk in Nizamuddin Basti, we took the metro to United Coffee House at Connaught Place for dinner. We had also dined there on the last day of our trip back in 2016.
The first thing we encountered was the outer wall of Kalan Masjid, also known as Kali Mosque or Large Mosque. The mosque was built in 1370.
We passed by the entrance of the Kalan Masjid, but were unable to enter the complex.
All the lanes in Nizamuddin Basti were busy with people and motorcycles.
Basti residents can find everything they need in their historical neighborhood.
Many locals smiled to us while we toured around the 600-year old neighborhood.
Through the historical gateway, we entered to the forecourt of Chausath Khamba, the tomb complex built by Mughal noble Mirza Aziz Koka in 1623 at the time of Emperor Jahangir.
The forecourt of Chausath Khamba was recently landscaped by the Aga Khan Trust.
The forecourt of Chausath Khamba is frequented by children coming to meet friends and play cricket.
The actual Chausath Khamba is a square shape marble building supported by 64 columns.
The marble hall is divided into 25 bays and covered by 25 domes concealed in the roof structure.
Chausath Khamba houses the tomb of Mirza Aziz Koka, his father Ataga Khan, and other unidentified people.
Adjacent to Chausath Khamba stand the Ghalib Academy and Mazar-e-Ghalib, the tomb of Ghalib, a famous 19th century Persian poet. Our tour with the Hope Project ended at Mazar-e-Ghalib.
On our way out of the neighborhood, the street eateries reminded us that it was almost dinner time.
The monumental and modernist Nizamuddin Markaz Mosque is the centre for the Tablighi network. It was busy with evening prayers as we left the basti.
Due to the Sufi request for divine love, rose is popular among locals.
We followed the main road out towards Mathura Road, where we could walk back to the metro.
We then took the metro to Connaught Place for dinner.
Just like two years ago, we sat down at United Coffee House for their local Indian cuisine.
We sat down at a table on the ground floor and took our time to enjoy the meal and ambience of the restaurant.
Another night flight to return home, another wonderful Indian journey completed. We returned back to the Airport Express Station to pick up our backpacks and hopped on an airport bounded train. This concluded the record of our India 2018 trip.
Last time when we first visited Delhi, we only had time to see the Red Fort and Jama Masjid. Similar to last time, we had a few hours of stopover time before flying back to Hong Kong. After lunch at Khan Market, we spent the day in the area of Nizamuddin, a busy Medieval neighborhood with narrow lanes and community mosques. The famous Humayun’s Tomb is the biggest draw for visitors in the area. From the closest metro station Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium, it was a ten minute walk to the enormous tomb ground. Despite the short distance, crossing the dusty roads, walking under flyovers, and finding ourselves towards the right park entrance was not as straightforward as we thought. Anyhow, we managed to arrive at a rather chaotic queuing scene at the ticket office.
Commissioned by Empress Bega Begum for her husband Mughal Emperor Humayun, Humayun’s Tomb was built in 1569-70 in Delhi’s Nizamuddin East. Designed by Persian architects Mirak Mirza Ghiyas and Sayyid Muhammad, Humayun’s Tomb was the first large scale structure made with red sandstone. Declared a UNESCO World Heritage, the splendid structure had set a fine standard for latter Mughal architecture, including the Taj Mahal.
After obtaining the admission tickets, we entered the complex of Humayun’s Tomb through a series of gateways and courtyards.
We followed a prominent water channel towards the beautiful sandstone building of Humayun’s Tomb. Reference to Char Bagh (Four Gardens) of the Paradise in the Koran, the tomb garden is a 30-acre square carved into smaller squares by paths and water channels.
The tomb structure reaches a height of 47m, with obvious influences from Persian architecture. The entire structure sits on a large platform with a few meters high.
The arch and beam structure together with the use of red sandstone, white marble, and Rajasthani decorations exemplifies the Mughal architecture lasted in India for four hundred years.
The red sandstone and white marble provide a splendid combination of facade treatments and decorations.
Modeled on the Paradise Garden in Koran, the garden is divided into 36 squares by axes of water channels and paths.
Just like a few other attractions, we encountered a large group of school students at Humayun’s Tombs.
Entrance dome of Humayun’s Tomb was decorated with elegant lines.
Much less crowded than the Taj Mahal, visitors could appreciate the solemn interior of the mausoleum.
The main level houses the cenotaph of Emperor Humayun and Empress Bega Begum and also several other Mughal rulers from a later period. The real graves lie one level before in the basement.
It’s common to see school groups when visiting historical movements in India.
Inspired by Persian garden, the 30 acre tomb garden is subdivided by a network of water channels.
After visiting the interior of the tomb, we circled around the structure on the upper platform.
We returned to the garden at the ground level via one of the four covered staircases.
As we left the complex, the late afternoon sun cast a warm amber tone on the white marble and accentuated the reddish tone of the sandstone.
A final view of the front facade of the building before we left the complex.
Near Humayun’s Tomb, there is another magnificent tomb architecture known as Isa Khan’s Tomb. Built in 1547 – 58, the octagonal structure is decorated with canopies, glazed tiles, lattice screens, and a prominent verandah.
Charbagh is a Islamic quadrilateral garden based on the four gardens of Paradise in the Quran. Across the Yamuna River exactly opposite to the Taj Mahal lies the ruined site of Shah Jahan’s charbagh. Identified by Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan as the most appropriate location to view the Taj, Mehtab Bagh was once occupied with pavilions, pools and fountains, and planted with fruit trees and flowers. With an identical width and perfect alignment with the Taj, the garden was seen as part of the master plan of the Taj Mahal. However after years of neglect, Mehtab Bagh was almost forgotten in the modern days until a major restoration work in 1990s. Today the garden has become the most popular spot in town to view the sunset of Taj Mahal. Our tour guide Gautam Pratap with Agra Walks took us to Mehtab Bagh by car.
The car took us to cross Yamuna River.
After we crossed the river, we soon arrived at some underprivileged neighborhoods.
According to our guide, the neighborhood that we passed by was mainly occupied by a “lower” caste of inhabitants.
According to our guide, interactions between people of different castes is usually rare.
Even life for domestic animal is harsh here.
Children having fun along the road.
After paying an admission, we were led to the central axis in the garden directly facing the Taj Mahal.
Ruins of the former pavilion and platform lie directly across from the Taj Mahal.
Once the official royal garden to view the Taj Mahal, Mehtab Bagh has become a popular place once again for tourists to view the Indian icon during sunset.
Pollution of the Yamuna River poses a major threat to the timber fountain and marble facade of the Taj. Due to river pollution, millions of small bugs appear at Taj Mahal and produce green excrement on the marble walls.
Some visitors would go to the riverside ground east of the Taj to photograph it without paying the admission fee. The ground is particular popular in early morning.
From Mehtab Bagh, it is the riverside sunset that draws tourists and locals for a magical moment to end the day. For us, it was the grand finale for our Agra experience. Before sunrise the next morning, we would board the express train for our return journey to Delhi.
After visiting Agra Fort, we returned to our hotel and waited for the tour guide from Agra Walks. Recommended by guidebooks, the Heritage Tour of Agra Walks gave us a good opportunity to visit one of Agra’s local market. For about two and a half hours, we followed our guide Gautam Pratap by car, cycle rickshaw, and on foot into the bustling Rawatpara Spice Market. Labelled as the “unseen” part of Agra for foreign tourists, the vibrant market scenes left a distinctive impression for us compared to the historical sites, one that was full of colours, fragrant, noises, and life.
On our way to Rawatpara Market, our rickshaw passed by the red sandstone walls of Agra Fort once again.
Near Agra Fort Train Station, our rickshaw entered into the lively streets of Rawatpara.
We found our way towards Jama Masjid, a famous mosque built by Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan’s daughter in 1648.
Jama Masjid took 6 years and 5000 workers to finish.
Betel leaves are sold in the Rawatpara Market.
The 185 year old Chimman Lal Puri Wale was one of the highlights of our market walk. We actually sat down with the guide and sampled some of the tasty puri snacks with three different dipping.
After visiting the local eatery, we continued our walk into the market.
We passed different areas of the market beginning from the textile area. Many of these busy textile shops store their stocks in the attic above the main area.
As expected, there are many shops selling all kinds of personal adornments.
Local craftsmen could be seen everywhere in the market.
From jewellery making to embroidery, handicraft is still popular in India.
Next we came to a shop selling different ritual items, including garlands made with real money bills for wedding ceremonies. Despite being a popular local tradition, the Reserve Bank of India actually urged people to stop the custom.
Colourful shops in the market.
Everything were either vivid or golden in colour.
Decoration is such a huge part of the Indian culture.
We stopped by the historic Hindu temple Shri Mankameshwar Mandir. Unfortunately the temple was closed when we were there.
Then we moved on to the spice section of the market. Anyone who has experience with Indian cuisine would acknowledge the importance of spices in their culinary traditions. We did pick up some saffron from one of the shops.
Sweet is, of course, hugely popular for the Indians as well.
After a fruitful walk it was about time for sunset watching.
We followed our guide back to the entrance of the market where a 4×4 was waiting to take us to our next stop.
On the banks of Yamuna River stands one of the world’s most recognizable man-made wonders that has captivated the imagination of people for generations. Its perfectly proportioned domes, minarets, white marble facades with spectacular stone inlays, represent the utmost architectural beauty and splendid craftsmanship of the Mughal civilization. The complex immortalizes the eternal love of Emperor Shah Jahan (reigned 1628 – 1658) towards Mumtaz Mahal, whose marvelous tomb complex has become the most famous national icon of India. This tomb complex is of course the magnificent Taj Mahal, which literally translates as Crown of the Palaces. The Taj Mahal stands out as the single most important monument that draws travelers from all over the world to India. Not a mosque or a palace, the Taj Mahal is indeed the final resting place for Queen Mumtaz Mahal and Emperor Shah Jahan.
It would be absurd if we made two visits to India without seeing the Taj Mahal even once. Fitting Agra into our Rajasthan itinerary and completing the Golden Triangle was easy with the frequent train services between Agra, Jaipur and Delhi. In Agra, we purposely picked a guesthouse at Taj Ganj, the district right next to the Taj Mahal. Though not many good hotel options were available in the area, staying at Taj Ganj placed us just a few minutes of walk away from one of the gates of Taj Mahal. Hoping to experience the golden sunrise at the Taj, queuing at the gate about half an hour before sunrise is a common practice for both foreign and local visitors.
Before the trip, we were a little worry about the restoration work and scaffolding conditions of the Taj. Since 2016, scaffolding were up at different parts of the Taj for a major cleaning work to restore the original white colour of the marble. The process had been painstakingly slow. By October 2018, the cleaning was almost over except the main dome. It would be a woeful view if the central dome was covered in scaffolding. Luckily, the authority had decided to delay the cleaning process until the end of the tourist high season, meaning that the Taj would be scaffolding free from November 2018 to April 2019.
After purchasing the tickets at the gate, we queued in the foreign visitor line for about 20 minutes before going through the security check and arriving at the Jilaukhana Forecourt in front of the Great Gate.
Beyond the Great Gate, we arrived at the starting point of the Water Channel. The channels symbolize the four rivers in the Paradise mentioned in the Koran. A tint of orange gradually lighted up the east side of the minarets and domes.
We slowly walked to the central pool and platform at the centre of the Charbagh Garden.
From the Central Pool, the majestic Taj Mahal looked beautiful and poetic under the early morning sun. No tourist brochure or travel literature could do justice on conveying the true beauty of the marble architecture. We were grateful for not seeing any scaffolding on the Taj, and could see clearly all the major components of the iconic building: four minarets, five domes and an octagonal central structure.
It was a little hazy looking back to the Great Gate.
It was a huge relief to see the Taj scaffolding free. We slowly walked towards the main tomb structure to pay a brief visit of the interior.
No photography was allowed inside the tomb, where the cenotaphs of Mumtaz Mahal and Shah Jahan were on display. Their actual resting place is off limit to the public below the main deck.
After touring the interior, we stayed on the marble platform to check out the minarets and marble facades.
To the west of the Taj stands a beautiful mosque.
To the east, an identical building was used as a guesthouse.
To the north, Yamuna River provides a peaceful backdrop to the Taj.
From the marble platform, we could admire the details of marble carving on the Taj.
Standing face to face to the exterior marble walls, we were overwhelmed by the marble relief and stone inlay.
From the grandeur of the minarets to the splendid carvings and stone inlay of the marble walls, Taj Mahal is truly an amazing man-made wonder.
The sun get higher as time passed, and so as the number of visitors.
We circled the Taj to examine its beautiful marble walls before heading back down to the Charbagh Garden.
Back in the Charbagh garden, we could once again admire the overview of the Taj Mahal,
Back at the Central Pool, we took a few more shots of the classic view of the Taj once again.
Visitors continued to pour in from the Great Gate as we were about to leave the Taj Mahal complex.
We passed by the Khawasspuras (tomb attendant living quarter) one last time before exiting the Great Gate.
Out of all structures in Fatehpur Sikri, the most imposing building is undoubtedly Jama Masjid (Friday Mosque). Completed in 1571, Akbar’s impressive grand mosque houses the white marble tomb of Sufi saint Shaikh Salim Chishti, and the spectacular 54m tall Buland Darwaza (Victory Gate). One of the biggest mosques in India, the Jama Masjid of Fatehpur Sikri features a series of chhatris, elevated dome shaped pavilions purely for decoration. We came just in time to make a brief visit at the mosque before sunset.
From the former royal palaces, we entered the mosque via the Shahi Darwaza (King’s Gate). At the gate, we took off our shoes and left them with the shoe keeper along with a small fee.
Beyond the Shahi Darwaza, we arrived at a huge open courtyard.
The gigantic Buland Darwaza (Victoria Gate) was built as a victory arch to commemorate Akbar’s conquest of Gujarat.
At 55m from the outside, the Buland Darwaza (Victoria Gate) is considered the tallest gate in the world.
At the back, the Buland Darwaza stepped down to a more human scale towards the main courtyard.
Opposite to Buland Darwaza stands the elegant white marble tomb of Shaikh Salim Chisti and the red sandstone assembly hall Jamat Khana.
The Tomb of Shaikh Salim Chisti is considered one of the finest example of Mughal architecture.
The marble cenotaph is popular with Islam worshipers. Shaikh Salim Chisti was a Sufi saint who blessed Emperor Akbar with his son before he was born.
Worshipers studied religious text at the outer corridor of the cenotaph. Photography was not allowed inside the cenotaph.
The tomb building is covered all four sides with beautiful lattice.
Showing the direction of Mecca, the central mihrab is covered by a dome.
We paid a brief visit to the interior of the main mosque building.
Splendid marble inlay in geometric patterns cover most of the interior walls.
The principal mihrab situates beneath the great dome of the mosque.
Worshipers gathered at the front porch of the assembly hall Jamat Khana.
There are a number of tombs in the courtyard.
As the sun set below the magnificent sandstone chhatris, it was time for us to return to the parking lot and finished our day’s journey to Agra.
At around 8pm, we finally arrived at Taj Ganj, the district immediately south of majestic Taj Mahal in Agra. After checking in at our simple guesthouse near the West Gate, we headed out for a quick bite. We would need to rest for the night and get up early the next day to line up for the sunrise entry into the Taj Mahal before 6am.
DAY 8 (4/5): THE ABANDONED CAPITAL OF MUGHAL EMPIRE, Fatehpur Sikri, Agra, Uttar Pradesh, India, 2018.12.01
Known as the “City of Victory” after Emperor Akbar’s conquest of Gujarat in 1573, Fatehpur Sikri was the capital of the Mughal Empire from 1571 to 1585, until its abandonment in 1610 shortly after Akbar’s death. The abandoned Mughal capital makes a great side trip from Agra, where tourists from all over the world flocked to visit probably the most famous attraction in India, the Taj Mahal. Inscribed in UNESCO World Heritage in 1986, the red-sandstone capital is considered an Indo-Islamic architectural masterpiece. It is also one of the biggest tourist attractions in India.
It was almost 4pm when we arrived at the huge parking lot of Fatehpur Sikri. From there, we had to hop on a shuttle bus for a 5-minute ride to the main entrance of the historical site. The sun was already quite low. The red sandstone buildings were very photogenic under the late afternoon sun. However, our visit was quite rush as we only had a bit over an hour to appreciate the historical site.
With four distinctive chhatris on the top, the Diwan-i-khas or Hall of Private Audience was the first building that caught our eyes as we entered the complex.
Emperor Akbar’s Throne Pillar in the Diwan-i-khas contains motifs of Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam and Christianity, aiming to incorporate all religions into one for his empire.
Tansen Musical Pond at the centre of Fatehpur Sikri was famous for the platform designated for the legendary musician Tansen.
The green pond provided a pleasant contrast to the red sandstone architecture.
Panorama of Tansen musician pond.
Surrounded by a verandah, the Turkish Sultana’s House is an highly ornate building. Both the interiors and exteriors are beautifully carved with motifs. The house is believed to be the residence of the Turkish Queen Sultana.
The Turkish Sultana’s House is full of intricate carved motifs.
Every single inch of the building is ornately carved.
With influences from Hindu and Muslim cultures, the buildings of Fatehpur Sikri showcase some of the best examples of Mughal architecture.
The well preserved Fatehpur Sikri looked like a large empty shell made with red sandstone.
The structural skeleton of the buildings looked neat and surreal.
Chhatris, the elevated, dome shaped pavilions, are commonly found in traditional Indian architecture. They serve mainly for decorative purpose.
Built in 1571, the Birbal’s House accommodated the two senior queens of Emperor Akbar.
Beyond the Birbal’s House, we reached the long colonnade of the Lower Haramsara.
The colonnade of the Lower Haramsara.
Many historians believe the Lower Haramsara was used as a stable for camels and horses.
Adjacent to the Lower Haramsara is the Jodha Bai Palace, the complex constructed for the Hindu queen. Hindu motifs such as lotus flowers and elephants could be found at the magnificent Jodha Bai Palace.
A pleasant courtyard can be found at the centre of Jodha Bai Palace. For security purpose, only one single guarded entrance was provided for the complex back in the old days.
We exited from the main entrance of Jodh Bai’s palace to find our way towards Jama Masjid, the famous Friday Mosque of Fatehpur Sikri.