Tuesday 30 October 2012

The Unforgettable Taj Mahal

I have seen some pretty amazing sights in my life in terms of landscape and architecture; my favourites to date being Mount Fuji, a magical vision of Japanese serenity and the gigantic Cristo Redentor atop Corcovado in Rio.

But nothing could prepare me for my first glimpse of the Taj Mahal.  The most amazing and unforgettable building in the world - to see it shrouded in early morning mist leaves you speechless - such an ethereal, unreal tribute to a loved one. It is hard to believe that the Taj Mahal is actually a mausoleum - built by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan in memory of his beloved third wife Mumtaz Mahal.  She must have been one amazing lady.  And it leaves you wondering how you will be represented after departing from this world (no pressure Mr Jules).

We visited the Taj as part of a long weekend starting in Gwalior (1.5 hour direct flight from Mumbai, and only a two hour drive from Agra, which is so much better than coming the other way from Delhi, over four hours drive away if you are on a short weekender).  Gwalior itself was extremely interesting and so will write about it in my next post.

We set off by car & driver from our hotel in Gwalior at six in the morning in the hope of arriving early enough in Agra to beat the crowds.  But as can only happen to us,  Saturday 27th October was not the most auspicious of days for tourists to visit the Taj Mahal.  As it turns out, because it was Eid (one of the most important dates on the Muslim calendar) the authorities were allowing free access to anyone into site.  And when I say anyone, I mean everyone! Already at 8am, there were tens of thousands of people streaming through the gates, mostly men dressed in white cotton salwar kameez and flat topped kufi head wear racing to get to prayers at the Taj Mahal Mosque (masjid) aside the main mausoleum. By the time we got through security checks and had walked through the Great Gate in front of the Taj, there were already too many people filling every space, bench, stairway and vantage point - making it impossible to get a good central view of the building.  This was very disappointing for someone such as myself that likes to fill their blog with perfectly composed photos!  But I was even more sorrowful that I was not going to get the famous 'Princess Di' pose in order.

Thousands and thousands of Muslims going to prayer
After battling the crowds and managing to take a couple of skewed pictures, we made it up on to the terrace of the Taj itself, taking off our shoes and joining a long line of Indian tourists hoping to catch a glimpse of the tomb inside the mausoleum.  When I say a long line, I mean that it went around all the rather lengthy four walls of the building.  And the sun was starting to scorch.  After standing in line for fifteen minutes or so, an American guy came up to us and said that we didn't need to queue and that we could just walk straight in - as we were tourists.  What I think he meant by that, was that we were 'white'.  I disagreed that because we were 'white', that we should just walk straight in, as today, everyone was made equal on account of the free entry.  Normally us 'tourists' would pay a fee of around 750 rupees (£9) to get in, against a domestic Indian's fee of just 20 rupees.  If we had paid 750 rupees each, we would not have hesitated to jump the queue!  So we ignored the man and stayed in line.  So good and equitable of us. However, after about another 20 minutes of standing without any shade whatsoever and despite the very interesting view, Mr Jules went off to investigate how we could speed things up.  Two minutes later he was back, exclaiming that the American guy was right and all we needed to do was walk straight through the front door, along with all the other foreign tourists.  I am ashamed to say that I relented.  (Later I did keep wondering though, how it worked with Indians who are also tourists - those who have emigrated or originate from abroad - do they experience the same prejudice?  And do they try to get away with buying a 20 rupees ticket or do they pay full whack in order to prove that they are entitled to preferential treatment?)

Inside was dark and crammed full of people trying to peer through the intricate marble fretwork at the pencil-box styled tombs. A man tried to con us out of a few rupees by shining his torch on the gemstone inlay (highlighting the translucence of the precious and semi-precious stonework) and by calling out loudly to create an echo - but we just walked off.  After quickly viewing the side by side tombs and the impressive interior design, we went back outside.  I was kind of glad we had not queued for a further hour bearing in mind the few minutes we had just spent indoors!

Some of the semi-precious stone inlay that adorns most of the Taj building

We spent the next hour or so walking around the grounds and getting close up to the exterior decorations - every surface of the Taj Mahal contains intricate carvings, 28 types of semi-precious and precious stone inlays and Islamic calligraphy expressing passages from the Qu'ran.  There is symmetry and architectural perfection everywhere you look.  The sandstone mosques on the two sides are almost as impeccable as the main building itself and beyond is the river.  The translucent marble used to build the Taj was brought from Makrana in Rajasthan and apparently 1,000 elephants were used to transport the materials and a further 1,000 workers used to contruct the buildings over around 22 years.  Not a bad accomplishment I would say!

After our close inspection of the Taj exterior, we meandered out and caught an electric taxi back up the lane to the car park (10 rupees against the 100 rupees we were conned out of for a rickshaw bicycle that we could barely fit our two butts in on the way down!).  I was totally blown away by what I had seen in Agra and Mr Jules thought it wasn't bad either. 

We went on to Agra Fort which I will also write about on another day - an almost equally impressive tourist site.  Here are the pictures of the Taj:

Another side of the Taj - see the long queue of people waiting to see inside?  Now times that by four!

All four sides have identical arches - precious stone inlays and
Qu'ran scriptures decorate each of them
White translucent marble perfection

More inlaid marble

Writings from the Qu'ran decorate every arch

The sandstone Mosque to the left of the main building (also mirrored on the right)

View of the main gateway into the Taj - from the Taj


  1. Beautiful building and grounds. I understand your misgivings about jumping the queue but after sweltering in the heat would have made the same decision you did.

  2. Wow you are getting to see some amazing sites! Good on you both for making the most of your time in India. What a country of contrasts from the slums with satellites to the Taj Mahal? Love reading your blog Jo & Steve

  3. Thanks for these wonderful photos! I visited the Taj too but my photos were rahter poor. I didn't like when we went inside. The line was short and the sun was on the other side of the monument but it was dark inside and noisy; people were shouting for fun because it was resonant. Very stupid!

    1. Thanks for visiting my blog and for your lovely comments! Yes inside was very very noisy and they were trying to cram in so many people into such a small space that it did rather spoil the effect of peace and tranquility. I am going back again next week so i plan to visit at sunrise when there are few othere around! Nice blog by the way

  4. nice post with beautiful pictures

  5. I thought of spending whole day at Taj Mahal but soon understood there is nothing there to see and feel after couple of hours.



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