Tuesday, April 29, 2014

India Day Three: Fort and Taj Mahal in Agra

From New Delhi, we traveled around 200 kilometers to Agra, the city of Taj Mahal!

Van for Entire Tour

It's true what they say about India... sacred cows are everywhere!

After almost 4 hours on the road, we had our first glimpse of the greatest monument of love... I couldn't contain my excitement and was counting down the hours before I get to set foot inside Taj Mahal.

 But first, we had lunch at Indiana, a restaurant which was recommended by our driver Ranjeet.

There was a snake charmer outside the restaurant. 

All we requested from Ranjeet was to bring us to a clean restaurant with air-conditioning but the meal at Indiana exceeded our expectations! In hindsight, we had the best garlic roti of our trip at Indiana

After lunch, we checked in at Trident Hotel, our home for one night in Agra. 

Trident Hotel has a resort feel with a well-manicured garden and inviting pool.

After enjoying our welcome drinks...

we spent little time to freshen up...
Deluxe Garden View Room


before meeting with our guide at Agra Fort.

Agra Fort is a UNESCO World Heritage site and is considered by many as one of the finest Mughal forts in India.
DSC_0596 - Copy

It is massive measuring 2.5 kilometers long with walls as high as 20 meters. The fort was built as a military structure and to this day, it's still being used by the army.

Agra Fort was built using red sandstone and some of the original tiles from hundreds of years ago are still intact. 

Impressive structures inside Agra Fort are Khas Mahal, a white marble octagonal tower and Anguri Bagh, a large courtyard with a beautifully designed garden. 
Top: Khas Mahal  Bottom: Anguri Bagh

The richly ornamented ceilings of Khas Mahal are also special. It was my favorite element of the fort.

A tour of Agra Fort ends with the sight of Jahangiri Mahal which was built for the female members of the royal family. It is the perfect example of the blending of Indian and Central Asia architecture.

Inasmuch as I wanted to stop, smell the roses, and appreciate the magnificence of Agra Fort, I couldn't contain my excitement because our next stop was Taj Mahal!

Taj Mahal is not far from the Agra Fort so we were able to reach the Taj Mahal complex just before sunset. To save time, we rode the battery van from the entrance of the complex to a drop-off point for a minimal fee.

It was a short ride and the walk from the drop-off point to the ticket counters was very manageable.

The entrance fee for foreign tourists is 750 rupees or roughly 550 pesos while locals only need to shell out 20 rupees or 15 pesos to enter Taj Mahal. Lucky them! Don't forget to show your ticket to the person manning the water station near the counters to get your free bottle. They also gave out shoe covers which came in handy when we were inside Taj Mahal. 

The lines looked crazy long...

but foreigners, like us, formed a separate line which was shorter than the other queues.

Do note that there are many items that are not allowed inside Taj Mahal:

Make sure not to bring prohibited items because the inspectors were very thorough with our bags.

FINALLY! The reason why I went to India....

Much has been said about Taj Mahal but to see is to believe! No words can describe how beautiful, enchanting, and mesmerizing the world's greatest symbol of love is when seen up close. 

Taj Mahal, built by Emperor Shah Jahan in memory of his third wife, was everything every guidebook described it to be and more! I had to pinch myself several times and was in such a high the entire time I was there.

We naturally spent a LOT of time taking pictures with no angle left unturned. We even hired an accredited photographer to take our pictures and he was helpful in the sense that he guided us to pose at the best spots of Taj Mahal. After much haggling, we paid our photographer 2,500 rupees for a CD of all our pictures plus 5 prints. Our guide said that the rate was reasonable but I'm not too convinced.
Our Official Photographer

To enter the marbled structure of Taj Mahal, shoes should be removed.

We, however, just used the shoe cover we got near the ticket counters to avoid the hassle.

The minarets which show the obsession of the designer of Taj Mahal with symmetry not only call the Islamic faithful to prayer, but also give a three dimensional effect to Taj Mahal. It adds to the grandeur of Taj Mahal.
Base, Dome, and Minaret

When we finally got to the base of Taj Mahal, we noticed that a line was forming near the entrance of the cenotaphs of Emperor Shah Jahan and his wife. We joined the crowd but there was nothing worthwhile to see inside. The scene once you enter the door was chaotic, with guards making sure that tourists didn't take pictures or stay too long near the cenotaphs. 

Time is better spent circling the marbled floor or hanging out at the intricately designed iwan. I spent my time sitting by the iwan relaxing, and absorbing everything in.
Iwan or Arch-Shaped Doorway

It's important to note that Taj Mahal is closed during Fridays and only those who go for an afternoon prayer on Fridays at the Taj Mahal Mosque are allowed to enter. 
Taj Mahal Mosque on the right

Having had our fill for the day, we left Taj Mahal while the sun was setting. Saying goodbye to Taj Mahal was not difficult as we were returning the next day to see it at its full glory during sunrise.

More of  my magical Taj Mahal experience on the next entry...

Saturday, April 19, 2014

India Day Two: Dinner at India's Best Restaurant?!? Bukhara

Bukhara is the best restaurant in India according to www.theworlds50best.com:

Bukhara is a lesson in the art of consistency, with a concise menu that hasn’t changed since it opened 35 years ago. Set within New Delhi ITC Maurya Hotel, the cavernous and rustically decorated restaurant is arguably India’s most famous and has hosted dignitaries including Bill Clinton and Vladimir Putin, although not at the same time. Maurya general manager Ranvir Bhandari jokes that the tandoor and charcoal grill-focused menu has become something of a sacred cow: they dare not tinker with iconic dishes such as the dal Bukhara, black lentils, tomatoes, ginger and garlic simmered overnight on a slow charcoal fire, then finished with cream and served with a decadent dollop of unsalted butter.

 The preparation is one of Bukhara’s few ‘wet’ dishes, with most meats coming unadorned with sauces or gravies to show off the chefs’ supreme skill in recreating the carefully marinated dishes of the North-West Frontier, a province the British demarcated in 1900, comprising parts of Afghanistan and north-west pre-independence India. But it’s not just the food that makes this restaurant so special. The atmosphere is warm, informal and fun despite Bukhara’s lofty culinary status, aided by an open kitchen and – as tradition dictates – an absence of knives and forks.

With such glowing review, my expectations were at an all time high. 

Dining Area

Bukhara has a very limited menu with dishes grouped either as non-vegetarian or vegetarian:
Wood Menu

It is Heavy!

Diners can only use their hands when eating at Bukhara so a small bowl of water with lemon for cleansing is prepared before the start of every meal.

Then, eating can begin, kamayan style:
Complimentary Raw Onions and Roti

Butter Naan
Best dipped in curry sauce.

Dal Bukhara
    Bukhara's specialty: A harmonious combination of black lentils, tomatoes, ginger, and garlic                  simmered overnight on slow charcoal fire and finished with cream, served with a dollop of                                                                                  unsalted butter.

Our Tandoori Selection

I wish I could say that our experience at Bukhara was mind-blowing but it was NOT. I don't think Bukhara was deserving of its title as the best restaurant in India for all our tandoori dishes were very dry and the flavors underwhelmed. It was so uninspiring that we had trouble finishing all the dishes:
Tandoori Aloo
Scoop potatoes stuffed with potato hash, raisin and cashew nuts mixed with green chillies, green coriander, skewered and roasted over charcoal fire. 

Tandoori Jhinga
Jumbo prawns marinated in an "ajwain"flavoured mixture of yoghurt, red chillies, turmeric, and flavoured with garam masala skewered and roasted over charcoal fire. Served with lemon wedges.

Murgh Malai Kabab
Creamy kabab of boneless chicken blended with cream cheese, lemon juice, and green coriander, grilled in moderate tandoor.

Sikandari Raan
Whole leg of spring lamb marinated in a mixture of malt vinegar, cinnamon and black cumin braised in the marinade. Skewered and finished in the tandoor.

At the end of the meal, our waiter brought to us this interesting selection of exotic ingredients:

Take a little scoop of each,  mix together, and eat to freshen the breath! 

Eating at the "number one restaurant in India" of course didn't come cheapA curious thing was the number of taxes levied on us which we didn't bother to understand.

For those who would want to have a Bukhara experience, don't forget to make reservations in advance because it's hard to get a table

Bukhara is located at  ITC Maurya Hotel, Diplomatic Enclave, Sardar Patel Marg, 110021, New Delhi. For more information, call (91) (11) 26112233 or click here.
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