Exploring Agra with Padhaaro

A few months ago, I was invited by the people at Padhaaro to enjoy a local experience with them in any of the cities they offer their travel experiences in. Padhaaro is an interesting enterprise, offering customised and offbeat tours in different cities, seen through the eyes of a local (expert). This way, you get to see the side of a city that you may otherwise miss, or not even be aware of.

Right now, they have local “greeters” in 18 Indian cities. And I chose Agra during my December trip. In Agra, there is a choice of activities, from viewing the Taj Mahal along with a local, to exploring Agra on a bicycle, to food tours. We had the unique and extremely fun experience of exploring old Agra in a battery powered rickshaw. Our guide was Amit Sisodia, who came with years of experience in the travel trade in Agra.

libraryAnd so we set off, on Sunday morning, in the super dense fog. We took the rickshaw to a main spot and then walked our way through the crowded markets and narrow lanes. Agra, to most travellers, is about the Taj Mahal. And to the more adventurous, or those with more time on their hands, it is also about the lesser monuments like Agra Fort and Itimad Ud Daula. But on this tour, I came to discover the rich multicultural history of Agra, starting with Dara Shikoh’s library from the mid 17th century. This red sandstone building used to be a centre for scholarship and studies during Shah Jahan’s time, under the patronage of Aurangzeb’s brother.

We then went on to wander through the old markets of Agra and had a pitstop at Jami Masjid. I really enjoyed the fact that I was able to interact with locals and find some great photo ops. We stopped to admire old, exquisite buildings all along the way, with interesting inputs from Amit.




We then found ourselves at some old churches – the most fascinating of them called Akbar’s Church. After that, a Roman Catholic Cemetery, filled with memories and whispers from centuries ago.



puriAmit then took us to a small eatery for a brunch of the Agra special bhedei aloo and jalebi, before dropping us back to the hotel. In all, it was a great morning, with an experience of Agra that my husband and I will cherish. Although I knew in a vague manner that there was a thriving old part of the city, I would have never been able to discover it on my own. So I am thankful to Padhaaro for helping me discover this.

The next time you are in any of these cities, go ahead and given yourself an unforgettable Padhaaro experience.

Friday photo: Fenced

In a recent trip to Agra, we were completely fogged out. At 10 in the morning, from a distance of 20 feet, the Taj was not visible. Our resourceful guide had to use a picture postcard for his spiel.

We were lucky the earlier evening though, for we got this glimpse of Taj Mahal from Mehtab Bagh, on the other side of the Yamuna. The light was fading fast and the mist was threatening to envelop the scene, when I got this.


You know, of course, what this means. Another trip to Agra towards the end of winter.

Also see: Friday photo series

A picture perfect holiday

The first thing Hellmuth Conz teaches me about my camera is how to hold it correctly — with my left hand under the lens, cradling it and not above it. “There is no need to raise your little finger,” he says. “You are holding a camera, not a tea cup.”

I am in Hampi with ten other enthusiasts for a workshop on the basics of photography. Hellmuth, our instructor, has politely made it clear that an eye for composition is all very well, but without technical knowledge, I may as well be using a simple point and shoot, instead of an expensive DSLR camera. By the end of that first session, my head is swimming with principles like aperture and ISO that I’ve known about vaguely but have never made a serious effort to understand. Luckily, most of the other participants seem to be groaning under the weight of all the information too.

Read my story on photography workshops I attended with the fabulous Photography On The Move team in Hampi and then Varanasi – this was published as a Learning Journey in the October 2012 issue of National Geographic Traveller under the title Snap Judgments.

As part of the story, I had discussed four of my photographs from these workshops – why that subject, composition, framing and so on:



I call this photograph “A coracle takes a walk”. While one lies unused on the shore, the other is being carried by its owner, whose head is completely covered by it. This image is a result of Hellmuth’s advice to stop and notice the little things that would make an interesting shot, instead of clicking away in hundreds.


I found this tailor’s shop as I was walking in Hampi Bazaar. The clothes in the background were bright and cheerful, with the dull metal machine in the front of the shop. This is one of my early attempts at an abstract picture, trying to suggest a subject instead of fully displaying it. It was also an experiment with opening the aperture fully to get a shallow depth of field — with the foreground sharply in focus and the background a blur.



This is a scene from Tulsi akhada capturing a small part of a wrestler’s exercise regimen before he gets into the main wrestling arena. It is a quiet moment he has to himself while other students and the masters are busy either doing their own warm up or wrestling sessions. I shot with a forward tilt to make the frame more interesting and to emphasize the feeling of motion. And I also like that this kushtiwala is totally oblivious to the photographers swarming around him.


Here I have tried to capture the mood of a typical morning by the ghats in Varanasi. The steps are crowded with pilgrims, priests, and vendors of all things that people use in their search for salvation—from incense sticks to sandalwood. By keeping the frame tight, I portray how people are squeezed together, but also how there is space for everyone to do his or her own thing.


Shortcut to Salvation

In Varanasi, also known as Kashi, the city of light, it is always about the celebration of life, even in the midst of death…

“Benaras is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend and looks twice as old as all of them put together”. That is how Mark Twain expressed his emotion towards the city that, in the midst of all the so-called progress and development, still manages to look old and venerable.

It is just after sunrise and I am on a boat with a few friends, gently cruising down the Ganga. Women, their colourful saris tightly wound around themselves, step unsurely into the water and offer their prayers, facing eastwards. The men are more adventurous; a few of them even manage to swim a few feet into the river, as they mirror the actions and rituals of their wives and mothers. A few of them are holding wailing babies and sleepy children, trying to get them to take a quick dip into the water that, they are sure, will cleanse them of all sins for a lifetime to come. I may still be bleary-eyed but Varanasi, or more correctly, the stretch by the river, has been alive for a couple of hours already. For what is Varanasi, if not for the Ganga, the cleanser of all sins and the soother of all consciences?



Morning at the ghats

Varanasi is believed to be one of the world’s oldest living cities, finding a mention in the country’s much-loved epic, the Mahabharata. It derives its name from the confluence of the Varana and the Assi rivers (both now dry and almost disappeared). In fact, legend has it that it was created by the God Shiva himself, making it one of the most important pilgrimage sites for Hindus. Benaras, as Twain referred to it, is the Anglicized name, while most Indians prefer to call it Kashi, the city of light.

'Tis Somersault Time!

Golden Ganga

I get off the boat at Kedar ghat, among the largest and most active of the almost hundred ghats (fleet of steps leading to the river) to take in the buzz. As I sit, a teenage girl unfurls her large umbrella and sets up her wares for the day; milk (diluted, no doubt) to be offered to the God inside the tiny temple at the top of the steps. The heavyweights offering quick and light massages are also spreading their blankets on secluded areas by the steps and are ready for business.

A Brahmin priest approaches me, suggesting that I offer him some money so he can pray for my wellbeing. As I smile and refuse, he banters with me, “You can earn a lot of punya (let’s call them spiritual brownie points) for a little money.” He does not spend too much time on me though since there are others willing and waiting for his – and the greater God’s he prays to – blessings. People come to Varanasi to perform the last rites of their loved ones since Hindus believe that being cremated here and having the ashes scattered into the Ganga ensures a peaceful journey into the afterlife. However, there is nothing sad or sacred about these rituals as both the family and the priests go about the normal business of life even in the presence of death. They bargain, they buy, they eat and they sleep just as they would anywhere else.

I then head to Tulsi ghat downriver to the akhada, the local gymnasium that is part of the throbbing canvas of Varanasi. The young men hard at work by the time I walk into the akhada, some with their dumbbells, indigenous clubs and weights and balancing bars and some of them wrestling in the mud, guided by their teacher in his late sixties who looks fitter than any of the youngsters. There are also a few interested onlookers; the young men carry on paying scant attention to the clicking cameras. A few others taking a break between their workouts decide to pose, flexing their muscles and wiping the mud from their tired and sweaty faces.

Heave ho!

Somersault time

Back much later at Kedar ghat, I find that by then, the backpacking tourists have arrived, armed with their cameras and curiousity. They are here, just like the locals, in their own personal search for nirvana.

Published in the January issue of Morning Calm, the inflight magazine of Korean Air. Read the rest of the story on Varanasi here

And more photographs from Varanasi here