The access to Taj Mahal (at least the one we took) was horrible. Sad shady hotels, cheap cafes, aggressive touts, dingy shops lead to its entrance and garbage and cows crowded the narrow lanes. Agra is a hustler’s paradise and at every step, battling rickshaw pullers, taxi and auto rickshaw drivers, souvenir shop owners (the list is endless) offering some service or other can be quite exhausting. Being a single woman traveling with a small child, was not easy at all and Noni, my daughter who has a severe aversion to cow poop, refused to walk. She clung to me like a monkey and no amount of cajoling/ threatening made her climb down from my lap.
Now imagine juggling a camera, a bag and a child while you breathlessly battle hustlers, cows, crazy drivers and filth. My lungs nearly burst by the time we reached the entrance and I started wondering if Taj Mahal was worth all that trouble. Although it is touted as the most beautiful building in the world, I had a gnawing concern if it was actually worth battling the great Indian tourist trap. Being evening, there was not much crowd at the ticket booth but the strict security measures left us confused. We bought the cheap entrance and camera ticket ( 20 INR for Indians), gawked at the steep price difference with the foreigner entry fee (750 INR and 510 INR for SAARC and BIMSTEC countries) and joined the steady stream of visitors.
TRAVEL TIP- Taj Mahal complex can be accessed from all 4 directions, however it is the northern gate which is the main entrance. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Taj Mahal attracts a staggering 7-8 million tourists annually, which is around twice the population of Agra. The complex ticket includes a small bottle of water and shoe covers and children below 15 years can enter free. There is a lovely mosque and museum inside the complex, which has a good collection of Mughal miniature paintings. Baggage deposit facilities are available at the entrance and Taj Mahal is wheel chair friendly. Multi lingual audio guides, registered official guides and full moon viewing schedule can be found at the entrance. Taj Mahal also has smart phone apps to facilitate easy touring of the monuments to the visitors. Cameras are not allowed inside the mausoleum and since it is a site of religious importance, respectable clothing is advised. Taj Mahal can be visited every day from sunrise to sunset, except on Fridays when it remains closed.
After buying the ticket I finally managed to put clingy Noni down, entered the arched gateway and got my first glimpse of the iconic beauty. A collective sigh rang through the crowd as Taj Mahal emerged like a dream in front of our hundred eyes. It was indeed the most beautiful building in the world and its splendour was breathtaking. All photographers, visitors and Taj aficionados claim that there is no unflattering angle or light condition when it comes to viewing the Taj Mahal. It is reputed to be most alluring in the quiet hours of early mornings, and the sight of it emerging from a veil of mist bathed in soft red glow is supposed to be truly magical. Play of light animates the monument of love and its colour changes from soft grey and yellow to pearly cream and dazzling white.
That early evening it blushed a delicate rosy pink against a mother of pearl sky. It was so beautiful that even my 4 year old Noni found it hard to not stare at it silently. We passed through the gateway and tumbled out inside its expansive grounds. Charbagh or the four Mughal gardens spread ahead and the Taj stood at the end of the garden. Although called Charbagh, it is actually a huge garden dissected by 4 waterways and a placid Taj Mahal reflected calmly on its still water. Dedicated to love, this magical marble monument had been described by the Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore as ” a teardrop on the face of eternity”. It is perhaps one of those few monuments on earth, whose magical beauty remains undiminished by the crowds. Overlooking the now nearly dead river Yamuna, the magnificent Taj Mahal was built in the name of love and it could be an ode only to the most beautiful human emotion.
When the powerful and romantic Mughal emperor Shah Jahan’s favourite wife Mumtaz Mahal or Gauhara Begum died while giving birth to his 14th child, he became so distraught with grief that his hair turned white overnight. He commissioned the construction of Taj Mahal, to enshrine his beloved’s body and made it resemble paradise as described in the Holy Koran. Mumtaz Mahal was indeed dear to him and the fact that she bore so many of his children was glaring enough to prove his attraction for her, and he chose to be buried next to her after his death. Fondly known as the Taj (Taj Mahal is an Arabic Persian word meaning crown of palaces), the construction of this monumental love began in 1632, employing thousands of workers and got completed in 1653. A panel of gifted architects and finest artisans were hired for its conception and Ustad Ahmad Lahauri was supposedly the principal designer, although some claim it to be Ismail Affandi from Turkey.
Marble used in its construction was the finest one available in Makrana, Rajasthan and the gems used in the exquisite inlay work (pietra dura) were precious and semi precious stones brought to Agra from different parts of the world. Onyx, amethyst, lapis lazuli, turquoise, jade, crystal, coral, mother of pearl were procured from far and wide places like Persia, Russia, Afghanistan, Tibet, China and from the depths of the Indian Ocean. Calligraphy, perforated stone work or jali, exquisite floral carvings and lovely onion domes are the distinct features of this beautiful structure and it seamlessly incorporates Islamic, Persian, Ottoman Turkish with Indian architectural styles.
We walked down to the iconic white monument, put on our shoe covers and climbed up the cool marble steps of the finely inlaid plinth. Perfectly symmetrical and rectangular in shape, Taj Mahal sat on a huge marble platform or Takhtgah and 4 tapering minarets flanked its 4 corners. The mausoleum glowed nearly translucent and shimmered in the evening light like a giant pearl and its vastness took us by surprise. Noni ran around the serene space gleefully while I waited in the queue to enter the main hall. Thankfully evening light discouraged many visitors from exploring the dazzling, but dim interiors and it took us just a few minutes to enter the mausoleum. The high octagonal hall contained the tombs of Mumtaz Mahal and her emperor Shah Jahan and the royal lovers looked very much in peace there.
An elaborate tomb covered by a finely cut marble screen was the cenotaph of Mumtaz Mahal and it lay directly below Taj’s famous bulbous dome. Shah Jahan’s cenotaph was squeezed next to her and inlay works on both the tombs were exquisite. 99 names of Allah was etched atop Mumtaz Mahal’s cenotaph and Shah Jahan’s had a pen box, sign of a male ruler. Soft evening light streamed in through finely cut marble screens and a hushed silence pervaded inside. The beauty of the main hall was unsurpassable but fake because in reality the royal couple lay in eternal slumber in a locked basement room, out of worldly views. I wanted to linger there longer and take in the Mughal richness but my restless 4 year old wanted to run around the beautiful open space outside.
We came out and I walked around the marble plinth, following Noni as she scrambled about. Monumental porches circled around the face of the monument and the Taj glowed like a million tiny subtle rainbows. Honeycombed on top and decorated with inlay work and perforated marble windows, it was the perfect place to take a break. The sun set slowly and the the colours of the Taj changed dramatically. It got tinged with light violet and palest of lavender before glowing luminous white against a twilight sky. It was not particularly a pretty sunset, but when it came to the Taj Mahal, it was not even required to be spectacular. Backdrop did not matter for this epic love story set in stone and whether on full moon nights, misty sun rises, soft sunsets, shimmering mid day heat or against darkening monsoon skies, Taj Mahal’s beauty strangely remained ethereal and immaculate just like when it was first constructed.
Lights flashed in a row and the complex buzzed with sated happiness. It was closing time and yet once again Taj Mahal did not fail to mesmerize its visitors. We had another day in Agra and I decided to visit the complex again for a few hours. With so much of beauty, it was hard to get enough.
RESPONSIBLE TRAVELING-BECAUSE I CARE