A tour guide for a quarter of a century, Prashant Jain grew up with the Taj Mahal’s dome pencilled onto his balcony view. He has a story for every nook of Agra, and prided himself on having seen all there is to his hometown—until two years ago.
“I heard of a wetland behind Kalakriti, a cultural convention centre which is a 10-minute drive from the Taj,” recounts 48-year-old Jain, his tone still flecked with surprise. Thanks to the area’s proximity to the Yamuna, a variety of birds began coming to the wetland, near Colonel Biodiversity Park Gate 2— “birds that you’d spot in a place like Bharatpur in Rajasthan.” Over 50 species, including the red avadavat, greater painted-snipe and scaly-breasted munia, add pops of colour to the area. It is also a temporary home to migratory birds such as black ibis and pheasant-tailed jacana. The popular Taj Nature Walk, which covered a forest about half a kilometre from Taj’s eastern gate, is now shut. So birdwatching behind Kalakriti is a welcome alternative for locals like Jain.
While the wetland is a relatively new discovery, Jain’s love for Agra has deepened over endless strolls and drives to spots that rarely see tourists. About nine kilometres from the Taj Mahal, behind the old Bhagwan Talkies movie hall, is the Roman Catholic Cemetery. Rumoured to have been gifted by Akbar to the Jesuit fathers in the 16th century, the grounds hold tombs of Italian, Persian, Armenian and English travellers to Agra. “I love to go there just to see the ‘Red Taj,’ the tomb of John Hessing, a former officer of the Maratha Army. It is a replica of the Taj built by Hessing’s wife, Ann, 150 years after the mausoleum came up in the city.”
Jain has another favourite spot in the city. Away from the glamour of the red sandstone and white marble structures, he seeks solitude at the Missionary of Charity building, a 10-minute drive from the Taj. The simple white building with a blue gate stands on the same grounds as a local church, opposite St. Anthony’s School in Sadar Bazar. “It’s a spot of serenity I’d recommend to anyone on their day off—even the tourists who’re here for the mausoleum of love,” smiles Jain.
Sanjana Ray is that unwarranted tour guide people groan about on trips. When she isn't geeking out on travel and history, she can be found walking around the streets, crying for Bengali food. She is former Digital Writer at National Geographic Traveller India.