After the 3 day mission Delhi, we drove 5 hours to the Taj Mahal in Agra. The Taj Mahal is a sweet and sour love story over 500 years old. It’s built at the center of a large complex built on the southern bank of the Yamuna River in Agra, India. The Taj is completely made of shimmering white marble that seems to change color depending on the sunlight or moonlight hitting its surface and is absolutely breathtaking.
At the entrance of the Taj is a main gateway of red sandstone. The whole complex is huge and beyond beautiful. It does cost money to enter the complex of the Taj, but it isn’t much at all, and there are 2 lines at the entrance – one for men and the other for women. Inside the Taj, no cameras, touching walls, shoes, or noise is allowed. Many women wore head dresses, but it was not a requirement.
The rest of the Taj Mahal complex includes a square garden divided into quarters by long pools of water. On either side of the Taj are red sandstone mosques. They are completely identical but only one has ever been used and is still in use today. The one straight across from it was built solely for aesthetic purposes.
The Taj’s romantic story starts with a husband and wife. The emperor of Agra, Shah Jahan, and his beautiful wife, Arjumand Banu Begum, better known as Mumtaz Mahal (“Chosen One of the Palace”). They were married in 1612 and she was cherished as the favorite of his three queens.
In 1631, Mumtaz Mahal died after giving birth to the couple’s 14th child. The grieving Shah Jahan ordered the building of a magnificent mausoleum across the Yamuna River from his own royal palace at Agra. Construction began around 1632 and would continue for the next two decades. In all, more than 20,000 workers from India, Persia, Europe and the Ottoman Empire, along with some 1,000 elephants, were brought in to build the mausoleum complex.
The mausoleum was constructed of white marble inlaid with semi-precious stones (including jade, crystal, lapis lazuli, amethyst and turquoise) forming intricate designs. In accordance with Islamic tradition, verses from the Quran were inscribed in calligraphy on the arched entrances to the mausoleum, in addition to numerous other sections of the complex. Inside the mausoleum, an octagonal marble chamber adorned with carvings and semi-precious stones houses the beloved emperor’s wife.
The emperor intended to build a second grand mausoleum across the Yamuna River from the Taj Mahal made entirely of black marble, where his own remains would be buried when he died. The emperor’s third son dethroned his father in 1658 and took power himself throwing his own father into prison. Shah Jahan lived out the last years of his life under house arrest in a tower of the Red Fort in Agra, with a view of the majestic resting place he had constructed for his wife; when he died in 1666, he was buried next to her.
The Taj Mahal was one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen, and probably one of the oldest. It’s one of the Seven Wonders of the World, and for good reason (side note: it took us literally all day to think of all 7 wonders).
BEFORE YOU GO
Security at the Taj Mahal is very strict. What you can and can’t bring into the tomb complex often depends on who is operating the rather chaotic airport-style security at the entrance gates (there have been instances where cell phones are not allowed).
Leave big bags and daypacks in your hotel, or with your driver, and carry only a small bag containing essentials. You are allowed to bring in one camera and one mobile phone per person. Video cameras are generally prohibited though sometimes you can pay an extra fee for these at the ticket desk.
Banned items include anything edible, headphones, chargers, other electrical items including iPads, pens of any kind, camera tripods, torches, and knives.
GETTING TO THE TAJ
To protect the Taj Mahal from further pollution, motor vehicles are not allowed within half a mile of the complex. There are three entrances: the West, South and East Gates. The East Gate provides the easiest access from most hotels. Drivers must drop visitors in the Shilgram Parking which contains the ticket office which is on the right after going through the entrance gate. (Note that some hotel concierge desks sell tickets)
Show your entry ticket to pick up a free bottle of water and shoe covers from the street-side kiosk. Golf carts and buses offer a transfer service to the East Gate itself. If the line is long, you can walk there in 15 minutes or hop on a tuk tuk for cheap.
LINES AT THE TAJ
We arrived at the Taj just before sunset, and waited in line for less than 15 minutes. Inside the complex there were a ton of people but still felt spacious. On reaching the East Gate, you will find four lanes leading to security: foreign women, foreign men, local women, and local men.
To see the Taj Mahal with the fewest people, it is best to arrive at the West or East Gates at 6.30am in winter – 30 minutes before it opens. Arriving soon after dawn is the only sure way to avoid the crowds. From 10am until sunset Indian tourists arrive in vast numbers and in large tour groups.
INSIDE THE COMPLEX
Most people spend about 3 hours inside the complex. You can choose to pay for a guide that will explain the history and statistics from a local’s perspective while giving you time just to sit quietly and marvel at the structure. You also can rent a handheld audio guide.
Local ‘professional’ photographers are also allowed into the complex and will want to take a set of photographs of you in the best spots. The quality of their own prints is generally poor (though some give out CDs). If you do want to use their services, bargain hard and ask them to use your own camera.