Taj Mahal

Don’t believe anyone who tells you the Taj Mahal is overrated.

I ran across a fair bit of that in my research for the trip. I was not to be dissuaded. Seeing this iconic building was one of the key things drawing me to India. I’d daydreamed about seeing the Taj Mahal for as long as I can remember, but the seed of this trip was planted when I saw it on a travel poster in one of the airports on our way home from Thailand. I told Dan I wanted to see the Taj Mahal some day, and then the idea just niggled at me for four years until we put this trip together.

The great majority of tourists take a day trip from New Delhi to Agra, and spend about an hour each at the Taj Mahal, the Agra Fort, and a few other monuments. I knew that wasn’t going to work for us. I planned the itinerary so that we arrived in Agra the night before our visit, so we could get up early and be among the first to enter at dawn. We caught an evening train from the main New Delhi station, and after getting through the normal mayhem of that station, had a pretty mellow ride to Agra.

I was expecting the Agra station to be similarly overwhelming, but it was much smaller, and aside from a few pushy cab drivers it was very easy to deal with. We caught a cab to our hotel on the southeast side of the Taj, and were soon up on the hotel’s rooftop terrace, peering at the dim shadow of the great monument less than a kilometer away. Here, I did have my moment of trepidation. The first half of the trip hadn’t been entirely easy, and I was feeling a bit disappointed that I hadn’t gotten a really good look at the Himalayas. I also hadn’t been feeling too well for the better part of a week. What if this experience didn’t live up to my expectations, after I’d spent a small fortune and dragged Dan (literally) halfway around the world to see it?

Well, those fears were unfounded, let me tell you. The Taj Mahal is just as amazing and impressive as you’ve been led to believe.

We woke well before dawn so that we could shower, get to the East Gate Ticket Office just behind our hotel, and get to the Taj by dawn at 6:45. We were so close by that this was not very difficult. We did let a rather pushy cycle rickshaw driver take us the short distance to the ticket office, and then to the East Gate, and that turned out to be helpful. He let us know that we could not take our large packs, or food of any kind, so that gave us a chance to stop back at the hotel to drop them off. As a foreigner, your ticket comes with a smallish bottle of water, and that and your camera are really all you’re allowed to bring in.

As with most of the major monuments in India, you have to go through a security scan on the way in, and the lines are split for men and women. Dan and I met up on the other side, proceeded through the courtyard to the main gate, and got our first glimpse of the iconic marble dome in the beautiful early dawn light.

The gardens surrounding the mausoleum building are clearly designed to provide a series of perfect views, the first being through the main gate. As we advanced slowly through the gardens, and past the reflecting pools and fountains, we paused at each of the obvious stopping points, and were rewarded with another sublime vista. Much has been made of the rigorous symmetry of the mausoleum and its surrounding buildings and gardens, and it really is effective when you’re there. Every vantage point and every angle is just stunning. As you get closer to the mausoleum building more detail emerges, getting finer and finer until you get inside the tomb itself. Visitors have access to the cenotaphs (false tombs) that were created expressly for display, while the actual burial chambers are in a lower level that is not open to the public. The most beautiful and delicate stone inlay (pietra dura) is on the cenotaphs and the surrounding enclosure. Sadly, you can’t take photos in there, but you’re free to do so just about everywhere else. We spent a fair amount of time inside the tomb, admiring the details and enjoying the acoustics of the space. The level of detail in the flowers on the marble screens around the cenotaphs is astonishing.

After that, we made our way around the outside of the tomb building, which sits atop a large raised platform, and photographed many of the exterior details. We also took time to explore the Guest House to the east, and the Mosque to the west, and finally visited the small museum and sat for a while in a shady spot in the garden. All in all, we spent about 6 hours there, and took LOTS of photos. If there had been a way to get some food and more water, we’d likely have stayed longer. But, I did feel satisfied that I had seen what I came to see.

We headed out around lunchtime, feeling desperate for some food and a nap. The crowd of touts outside the Taj was a bit oppressive now that it was midday, but honestly not as bad as I was expecting. We had an uninspiring lunch at a backpacker hostel very near the east entrance. The most notable thing about that experience is that I lingered too long under a tree on the way in, and got pooped on by a monkey. After lunch, we went back to the hotel and slept for most of the afternoon.

The section we were staying in, east of Taj Ganj, seemed newer and not as overdeveloped as the rest of the area around the monument. Automobile traffic is prohibited within a certain radius to keep pollution levels down, and that has the side effect of keeping things right around the entrances from being too overwhelming. After you got a few blocks away from the Taj complex, it was actually quite mellow.

We wanted to get another look at the Taj Mahal at sunset, so after our naps we went back down to the entrance we had gone in earlier, and continued down along the outside of the east wall. You can walk right down to the banks of the Yamuna there, free of charge, and get a decent view from outside the wall. On the way, we went through a modest residential neighborhood, littered with stacks of sandstone pieces that seemed like leftovers from the Taj complex. It’s amazing to think that people live in the shadow of such a thing and see it everyday, but of course that happens in other famous places the world over.

I won’t claim to have the definitive Taj Mahal shot in here – so many other people have beaten me to that punch. But I do have a lot of photos of the smaller details, which I didn’t see much of in my research. I hope you enjoy seeing these aspects of the Taj Mahal as much as I did, and that maybe they’ll inspire you to make a trip of your own.