I’ve come halfway around the world to watch the sunset reflected on the world’s most elaborate mausoleum. At dusk the speakers for an Islamic school across the alley kick on, filling the red hazy evening with their fourth call to prayer for the day. The boys in long white shirts rush inside, and I turn back to the Taj Mahal with a cold Kingfisher in my hand.
I’m sitting in the rooftop garden, something of the fifth-and-a-half story, of the Saniya Palace Hotel. A man who insists I call him “Captain” has just delivered a plate of chicken marsala and a pot of lemon tea, along with a vegetarian option for my wife and mutton for a Frenchman we picked up along the way. A nice enough chap, he rants and rails about the economics in favour of subsidising public transportation instead of subsidising fuel for private cars; I focus on the Taj slipping away in the gloaming, and tuck into my chicken and beer.
Hotel Saniya Palace
The Hotel Saniya Palace has mid-priced rooms, from a few hundred rupees for dingy, lower-level rooms facing Taj Ganj (the touristy section of Agra, full of cheap hotels, restaurants, and dodgy travel agencies), to about 600 (negotiable) rupees for basic rooms, uncleaned bathrooms with Indian toilet-holes, and glorious Taj views. Ascending the hotel’s stairs through their four stories, the open-air lower terrace facing Taj Ganj, and the pleasant-looking hallways, I was surprised that the rooms offered so little in the way of pleasantries like cleanliness–but they are hostel-priced and, for all too many people, the views overcome other standards.
But the food is excellent. My chicken is tender and perfectly spiced, and the food gets rave reviews all around the table. The Kingfisher wasn’t on the menu, but is available from every rooftop Taj-view restaurant in Taj Ganj if you ask. They need a sort of liquor license to openly sell it, which may or may not be economically or politically possible for these budget hotels to acquire–but they happily overcharge for beer they make available anyway.
There are half-a-dozen good rooftop restaurants, like the Shanti Lodge Restaurant almost within jumping distance of our garden. The food is pretty uniform, with a mix of meatless options that probably won’t appease ardent vegetarians (the kitchens use a small number of pots and pans to cook everything), good meat dishes, rice any way you like it, and a hodgepodge of “international” food like Chinese and the occasional pizza. For my meal-hopping around the rooftop gardens I stick to the Indian food the cooks grew up making, which I figure is better than their interpretation of something mutually foreign and anyway is what I came to India to eat.
The biggest difference between these rooftop gardens is in their decoration and the slightly different angles they offer on the Taj. The Shanti Lodge has an unobstructed view of the Taj and the gate leading up to it; Saniya Palace has a clump of trees about two blocks away that obscure one of the minarets, but has a half-story-higher sitting area above the rooftop garden plus multi-coloured fairy lights all over that add a pleasant ambiance. The Shankara Vegis has Taj views but not the greatest views of the gate. Taj Cafe has only four tables upstairs (meaning fewer rowdy tourists around you), but being only on the third story and on the wrong side of taller buildings, doesn’t have a particularly satisfying view.
There are plenty of second-story and ground-level restaurants, like the Saroj with its 25-rupee breakfasts of dubious quality, that save you money but don’t offer views of Agra’s main attraction. I’m just as happy having a Taj-less breakfast in the garden near my room at the Hotel Sheela Inn, where I squished a bedbug on the tile floor of my room before checking out in a parasite-induced panic.
But for my time and five hundred rupees–for beer and two entrees–I’ll hoist a Kingfisher salute to the Taj from atop the Shanti Lodge, where I can set my camera up on a tripod and catch the Taj Mahal fading into silhouette against Agra’s night-glowing smog. Taj Ganj is a special sort of place, where dinner with a drink and spectacular views all-in will set you back less than the cost of a decent appetiser anywhere back home.
And nowhere back home can you toast the Taj Mahal in person.