The Taj Mahal is an obvious must see for anyone who travels to India. Conversely, I had heard no so great things about the city of Agra, where the Taj is located. Some people even advised me to not even spend the night there, but arrive in the morning and to leave later that night. Because I wasn’t super pressed on time, I decided to spend at least one night (which stretched into 2) there, in order to not feel rushed.
I arrived in Agra from Varanasi on a 13 hour train ride that was stretched to 18 hours due to delays. Instead of arriving in Agra at 6am as planned, the train pulled into the station closer to 11 am. I had originally planned to see some of Agra’s other sights that day such as the Agra Fort and the Baby Taj, saving the Taj Mahal for sunrise the following morning. But the long train ride, coupled with my first bout of Traveler’s Diarrhea (commonly referred here as “Delhi Belly”), I decided to take it easy that day.
Sunset “Boat Ride”
The hostel which I was staying, Big Brother Hostel, was located about a 10 minute walk from the Taj Mahal’s east gate. Every evening, they offered a walk down to the Yamuna River, situated to the north of the Taj. From here short boat rides could be taken at a cost of 100 rupees a person to snap the coveted photos of the Taj at sunset. By short boat ride, I mean only about 10-15 minutes, but it’s more about the photo opportunities than the actual ride. It is technically illegal to do this as there are restrictions that prevent a person from getting too close to the Taj. In typical Indian fashion however, a small bribe will cause the policemen to let it slide. There were no less than 6 cops on the riverbank and seemed to be very nonchalant towards the boat rides after the polers gave them a cut. I definitely recommend this versus paying the 750 rupee entrance fee twice. Seeing the Taj in person is better in the morning before all the crowds arrive, in my opinion.
The Incredible Taj Mahal
I left the hostel at 5:30 am with two others: Ward (Holland) and Mikayla (California) to join the queue for the ticket booth, which was set to open at 6 am. While an orderly line had already began to form for the foreigner window, the Indian counterpart instead had everybody crowding the window in a fan-shaped fashion, very typical to my experiences trying to buy tickets at the train station. We paid the 750 rupee entrance fee (which includes shoe covers and a 500 mL bottle of water!), while the Indian 10 rupee fee does not include those great perks (sarcasm).
Since the ticket booth for the East gate is a kilometer from the entrance, we boarded the free shuttle to the gate. After getting through the security line, not long at all for the early morning, we passed through the gates and got our first glimpse of the Taj Mahal in person. Even though I’ve seen countless pictures of it in history books and movies, to see it in person definitely causes your jaw to drop a little. Unfortunately some restoration was currently being done on three out of the four minarets and they were covered with scaffolding. The sun was just beginning to rise facing our backs, so there are no picture perfect sunrise shots like at Angkor Wat. At this early hour, there were only about a couple hundred people there. Luckily, the reflecting pond and manicured lawns which stretch out directly in front of the Taj prevent people from coming into the center of your shot. Thus, there are many angles where it is possible to get the “perfect shot”.
After admiring the Taj Mahal from afar for a bit, we made our way down the paths that lined the sides. We stopped at the midway point, at the edge of the reflecting pond. I would argue that here is actually the best place to take photos, as the Taj appears much sharper from up close. After numerous other photos, we decided we were ready to approach it up close and go inside.
For how beautiful it is from the outside, the inside is a little underwhelming in comparison. It was dark inside, with the only light coming from the sun. The inside of the dome was rather plain and not noteworthy at all. We spent only around 15 minutes or so before being satisfied and going back out side to admire the true beauty.
After walking around the perimeter of the Taj, Mikayla headed back to the hostel, but Ward and I wanted to stay longer to soak the experience all in. The architecture and design of the building is stunning, and all four sides are symmetrical. As the sun steadily rose in the sky, it began to reflect off the Taj Mahal, making it appear brighter. I think that we were able to get the best pictures at this time, around 9 or 10 am, with the green lawn and blue sky providing excellent contrasts. We spent some time sitting in the shade and just gazing up at this wondrous building, in an effort to imprint the images in our brains a bit. Around 10:30 or so, we decided we had our fill and went back to the hostel, spending about 4 hours inside the gates of the Taj Mahal. I’ve heard of other people being satisfied after about 2 hours of viewing pleasure, it’s all a matter of personal preference. One should also expect numerous photo requests from the Indian tourists, I was a prop in close to ten photos while I was at the Taj.
Some interesting facts:
- The Taj was built as a mausoleum by Emperor Shah Jahan, for his beloved wife, Mumtaz Mahal, who died while giving birth to their 14th child.
- Construction took 22 years to complete, starting in 1631 and finishing in 1653.
- As I mentioned earlier, the Taj is completely symmetrical, no matter from which direction you are viewing.
- Shah Jahan was overthrown by his son Aurangzeb in 1658, just 5 years after the Taj Mahal was completed. He was then imprisoned in the Agra Fort and had a small window from which to view the Taj at a distance.
- There is a well-circulated rumor that Shah Jahan also intended to build a carbon copy of the Taj across the river in black marble, but no designs or evidence pointing to this have ever been found.
- The Taj was declared to be part of the 7 New Wonders of the Word, announced in 2007.
- The Taj Mahal is closed on Fridays to outside visitors and is accessible only for people who wish to pray at the mosque.
After grabbing a bit to eat and resting for a couple of hours back at the hostel, I set off to explore the Agra Fort, my first fort to see in India (side note-there are hundreds!). The Agra Fort actually predates the Taj Mahal, constructed in 1565. The walls of the fort rise over 20 meters in height, and there used to be a moat filled with crocodiles surrounding the perimeter for extra fortification. While the fort itself is pretty large, only portions of it are accessible to the public. I spent a couple of hours wandering through the different nooks and crannies and reading the informational panels scattered throughout the fort. There were also several lookout points that offered viewings of the Taj in the distance, and I was able to empathize a bit with the torture that Shah Jahan must have felt as he was imprisoned there, so close to the tomb of his beloved wife.
Itimaud-ud-Daulah (Baby Taj)
After I finished up at the Agra Fort, I decided to make a quick stop at the Itimaud-ud-Daulah, commonly referred to as the “Baby Taj”. The Baby Taj is the resting place for the grandfather of Mumtaz Mahal, Mirza Ghiyas Beg. While much smaller in scope to the Taj, it was still a worthwhile stop, and a stunning piece of architecture.
All in all, it was a busy and very fulfilling day. I definitely recommend spending some time at the Agra Fort and Baby Taj, as they are both worthy places to explore and admire.