I’ve probably known about the Taj Mahal since I was seven years old; it’s one of those iconic monuments whose form is burned into your world imagery at childhood. I never really considered actually seeing it, until I planned this trip to Asia. Of course, if I was going to India, I’d go to the Taj Mahal – you have to right?
Yes, you have to.
My travel mates and I were actually more willing to skip the Taj than you might imagine. The draw of the classic “sightseeing” destination is not particularly strong for me, or my friends, for whatever reason. I don’t travel to “say I’ve been there” or show people pictures of myself in front of some monument (sorry, let me just dismount from my high-horse real quick). But seriously, the Taj Mahal is one of those works of genius that when you actually experience it in person you finally get it. You get why you’ve seen pictures of this place since you were a kid; you get why millions of people come here every year; you get why it’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site and on the New Seven Wonders of the World list. I felt the same way when I saw Michelangelo’s David in Florence: Ah, okay, that’s incredibly beautiful (and makes me feel like a failure in life). But I get it now.
We took the 6am train to Agra from New Delhi, with a return ticket for later that evening. When we arrived in Agra (around 8am, although check the train timetables because some other trains take up to 4 hours), we negotiated a good rate with a tuk-tuk driver to get us the the Taj Mahal, but there are pre-paid taxis as well just outside the train station. Our driver was a really nice and helpful guy, so we ended up arranging a day-rate of about 400INR (under $8) to take us around the whole day and eventually back to the train station in the evening, which ended up being well worth it. You can get cheaper rides, but he was a stand-up guy and we didn’t mind paying to have him stick with us.
The ticket for the Taj Mahal is 750INR ($14), which is probably the most I spent on any one thing in the whole country! (Make sure you go to the legit ticket-counter, because, like New Delhi, Agra is teeming with hustlers). Entry to the grounds is easy, and within a few minutes you’re walking through the red sandstone outer walls of the compound, with the Taj still out of site. The Great Gate (Darwaza-i rauza) that leads to the gardens surrounding the Taj Mahal is impressive in itself, made of red sandstone with intricate marble work, imposing archways, and domed Chhatris on the top corners. Not a bad entry-way! For a second there I forgot what what we had gone there to see.
Then we passed through the Great Gate archway which opens up into the gardens surrounding that mausoleum that we did come here to see. The view of the Taj Mahal from the main entrance is that snapshot that you’ve seen a thousand times, which does more to demonstrate the limits of photography than the beauty of this place. Across the few hundred meters of immaculately maintained gardens, a perspectival haze ghosts over the building, like a mountain range from afar. From that distance, it doesn’t quite look real; it’s the kind of view of the kind of building that would have made a Mughal Emperor proud (…I guess that was sort of the point). In that moment, from that perspective, the architectural ingenuity, creativity, and inspiration transcend the building’s own context. I’m not exactly heading up the fan club for exorbitant displays of wealth and empirical excess, but appreciation of the Taj Mahal as a creative masterpiece is all I could help but process. It’s no mystery why most of the pictures you see of this architectural masterpiece are from this very spot. In that moment, from a few hundred meters away, my first impression of was, “Damn. I get it. I’m really glad I didn’t miss this.”
When Shah Jahan built the Taj Mahal in the mid-17th century as a mausoleum for his deceased wife Mumtaz Mahal, he pretty much doomed all husbands of the future to fall short of memorializing their lost love in an impressive fashion. In fact, as the love story goes, he was so grief stricken by the death of his (third) wife that he wanted to build the most impressive mausoleum ever created. Mahal’s resting place would be so extraordinary, that it would surely not be outdone by the mausoleums of his other wives, which were built in the same complex – this guy was such a sweetheart!
The gardens were teeming with tourists, but it’s such an expansive space that it didn’t feel over-crowded (at least not on our visit). The ten-minute stroll from the gate to the Taj, through Persian-inspired gardens, lined with trees, fountains, and a reflecting pool running down the center, seemed pleasantly designed to give the viewer more time to take in the gorgeous building from a slowly changing perspective. When I got up close and personal with the edifice my appreciation only deepened; from a closer vantage point, the fact that the entire building is made out of white marble becomes increasingly apparent, and the way it’s intricately put to use is just stunning. Standing below that enormous dome with its four minaret towers is simply a dwarfing experience. I can only imagine that to have confronted this building in a time before sky scrapers and football stadiums existed must have been dreamlike.
The interior is a little anti-climactic. Had the Taj Mahal been a palace, its interior would have probably been equally grandiose and impressive, but inside it’s essentially one big empty room, serving as a mausoleum (with some surrounding peripheral chambers). However, as a resting place for a beloved wife, there is something to be said for the tranquil simplicity of the central chamber with the impressively hollow domed ceiling. But the crowds of tourists, who were so agreeably spaced-out in the gardens, were now bottle-necked into a shuffle through the central mausoleum, making the last bit of the Taj experience slightly less awe-striking as that initial moment. But that first glimpse was all it took to understand why this place is so incredible.
If you want to plan your own Odyssey to the world’s most famous temple to true love, then check out Tucan Travel’s Taj Mahal tours from New Delhi. They offer an eight day itinerary, starting and finishing in the Indian capital, and taking in the Taj, plus other Agra sights, such as Agra Fort and the Tomb of Itimad-Ud-Daulah. You will also spend several days in Jaipur, India’s famous “Pink City”, whose vermillion-hued old town houses all manner of bazaars, palaces and havelis.
That, in fact, brings us to the end of Vince’s travels in India, however stay tuned as he heads further East to Thailand, Vietnam and Indonesia amongst others. More photos and updates on Facebook and Twitter.