Squeezing down a dusty alley in Agra, I was incredibly nervous to think that the Taj Mahal would fall in to the most unfortunate of travel categories. You see there is a moment, and most travellers will experience this at some point, when you finally lay eyes on a place that you have dreamed of. Maybe you have planned a whole trip around reaching it, maybe it is just a stop off or maybe it is a city you have always wanted to visit. You stop, look around and a horrible sinking feeling creeps in;
“…is this it!?”
The Taj Mahal the stuff of legend, the most recognisable symbol of India, somewhere that people have raved about to me and so I approached it with great trepidation.
Seven New Wonders of the World
A few years ago, a worldwide campaign was launched to find the new seven wonders of the world. And the winners were:
- Taj Mahal, India
- Colesseum, Rome
- Chichen Itza, Mexico
- Great Wall of China, China
- Cristo Redentor, Brazil
- Machu Picchu, Peru
- Petra, Jordan
We have been happily ticking them off, starting in 2009 with Cristo Redentor and finally reaching Machu Picchu in 2016.
The Journey to Agra
Our overnight train from Agra was a slow and bumpy affair. We had two berths in Sleeper Class, the hard bunks without bedding, and the carriages devoid of air conditioning. To cool the train, the windows are open all night, this means that insects fly in and out of your sleeping space chomping merrily on your bare hands, and the wind tickles you awake every so often.
There was also the alarming tendency of huge freight trains to stop by ours. The giant thunder roll of a 50 carriage train slowing, so that each car hits the one in front in a very loud domino effect rips you from your slumber and it takes a second to realise you aren’t about to die. Suffice to say, we didn’t get the most restful night’s sleep!
We arrived at our hostel around 10 hours after we were expected. They had given our room away to someone else, and so they told us we could crash in another. Two beds lay in what appeared to be a kitchen. We giggled at the absurdity of it, but we were so exhausted that we gratefully slipped under the covers and napped for the next three hours.
We woke up, starving hungry and decided to get some food before we made our way down to the Taj Mahal. The hostel had a restaurant and we greedily scoured the menu. Karl landed on peanut butter toast, delicious comfort food to ease the pain of the night before.
Five minutes later the waiter arrived with our plates held aloft and placed them in front of us with a head wobble. Mr Fluskey stared in dismay at his plate of peanut butter toast…. A piece of toast, covered in butter and scattering of un-roasted peanuts. I couldn’t stop laughing for a good five minutes. It was one huge plate of schaudenfreude. Oh how I hoped karma wouldn’t bite me in the bum.
Towards the Taj
The streets of Agra were dusty and crowded, very crowded. We walked down a thin road lined on either side by scores of stalls selling marble items. We were approached every two metres by a stall owner showing us another item that we could neither afford nor carry. If I was in the market for a marble pestle and mortar then I’d have been overjoyed but adding four kilograms into my already ridiculously overpacked backpack wasn’t on the agenda.
We were spat out into a small courtyard with the ticket office on our right hand side. Here we paid around £10 each for a ticket. Indian nationals get to enter for one tenth of that price but I don’t think I mind it in India, where the average wage is far, far below that of the UK.
On our second trip to the Taj (the time that we came with my Mum) we approached on a much larger road, much freer of stalls or tours. It was a much more relaxed and pleasurable approach.
After a security check, you come out into a large walled section of garden. Most visitors stand and look around confused. “Where is the Taj?” It doesn’t take too long to realise that everyone is coming and going through a large main gate.
It is a nice terracotta colour, which makes the white marble of the Taj a wonderful contrast. Your first glance of it is through this gate and it is at this point that you realise this isn’t going to be a let down.
The garden stretches out, satisfyingly symmetrical before you. Fountains lie between walkways that lead down towards the tomb. This view is actually the back of the Taj Mahal but it by far the most famous. Stop for a few selfies and one or two attempts at getting a picture free of crowds but then it’s time to move on and give others their turn.
The Taj Mahal Story
The Taj Mahal has been referred to as the ultimate romantic gesture. In 1636 Shah Jahan, a Mughal emperor, was heartbroken when his favourite wife, Mumtaz Mahal died giving birth to their 14th child. He began plans to create the ultimate resting place. He borrowed heavily from other building designs around his empire (for example, Humayan’s Tomb in Delhi) and created the Taj Mahal.
Not a piece of architecture, as other buildings are, but the proud passion of an emperor’s love wrought in living stones
– Sir Edwin Arnold
The huge dome stands 35m tall and dominates the imagination when somebody says “the Taj Mahal”. It sits atop the mauseloum that houses Mumtaz Mahal and the husband she preceded. The structure is made of white marble which was unusual and so all the more striking. The dome has a lotus design near the top and this is echoed throughout the whole buildings decorations.
The four minarets that stand on each corner of the building were actually designed to have a muezzin perform the call to prayer from them. They are around 40 metres tall and if you look closely, you’ll see that they all lean slightly away from the tomb. This was meant to stop them collapsing onto the main building should an earthquake take its toll.
To the East and West are two identical buildings, one a mosque and the other it’s mirror (he loved a bit of symmetry did Shah Jahan). The is one sneaky way to tell the difference. The floor of the mirror has a geometrical pattern but the mosque has the spaces marked out of prayer mats. This is a working mosque and every week the whole site is closed for everyone other than than those attending Friday prayers.
The Next Step
As you approach the building, past the bench made famous by Princess Diana, the scale starts to make an impact. The little plinth that it stands upon is actually larger than head height and you have to climb steps up to it. You need to leave your shoes here or put them in your bag if you prefer. There’s also the option to use shoe covers but these always make me feel really stupid.
Up on the second level you will start to notice details that you never knew existed. The marble isn’t just flat blocks, but patterned; beautifully so. The nooks and crannies of the building are all interesting and suddenly you realise why people can spend hours here. The marble reflects the light from the sky changing from a golden glow in the early morning to pink at sunset and bright white under the light of the moon.
Through The Tomb
Shuffling through the rooms, directed by unsmiling guards, and into the main burial chamber you can see more lovely detailing on the walls, but only after you eyes have adjusted from the bright light outside.
The two graves lie in the centre of the octagonal room facing Mecca. There are carved marble screens surrounding the tombs. Semi precious gem stones are intigrated into these screens, and unscrupulous tour guides shine lights through them. This is not allowed (but quite nice to see so I’m not complaining). You can also see the delicate marble flowers a little better! If you look up, you won’t see the inside of the huge dome but a fake ceiling with a sun pattern on it
You come back outside to the front of the building with a view over the river Yamuna. The first time we visited, it was so hot that people were lying in the shade under the Taj, on the marble.
We decided to give it a try, and it was kind of lovely lying down, cooling off on the marble and gazing up at the monument. I suppose it felt naughty too, you can’t go and lie around in Buckingham Palace, can you!?
I feel a little silly for doubting the Taj Mahal. Another of my little mottos says “It must be famous for a reason”. I loved it, and then I visited a second time and I loved it all over again. I am not a fan of Agra itself but the island of beauty that is the Taj Mahal is an absolute delight.
So to answer my question in a much simpler way: Is theTaj Mahal worth the hype? Yes!
Thinking of taking a trip to the Taj Mahal? Here’s some things that you might like to know:
Prices – Correct in June 2016 –
Foreigners : 1000 rupees (Rs500 of this is a levy paid to local government) You will get a shorter line and some water.
Under 15s : Free
Indian nationals : 40 rupees
06:00 – 19:00 on weekdays, except for Fridays when it closed to all but those attending Friday prayers.
Moonlight viewings are available for two days either side of the full moon apart from if this falls on a Friday or during Ramadan.
What to Take
The list of belongings allowed inside the grounds is quite small so avoid bringing to much.
- Camera/camera phone for those all important snaps
- They will give you water and show covers with your ticket
- A small ladies bag
- Extra batteries or external chargers
- Food, drink or chewing gum
- Fire arms/weapons (that’s juts good common sense)
- Smoking paraphernalia
- Big bags (don’t turn up with your backpack)
- Rumour has it, they are funny about books, games, cards, dice etc but these aren’t specifically banned.
If in doubt, go with the bare minimum.
Getting to Agra
Agra is very accessible. It is one point of the golden triangle (Delhi, Agra, Jaipur).
There are limited flights to Agra’s airport but it doesn’t have that much commercial traffic.
There are almost 20 trains a day from Delhi. Some take as little as 2 hours, some as much as 5. Do your research to make sure you get what you want. There are also connections with Chennai, Kolkata and Mumbai, and locations on those train lines. There are a few stations in Agra so if you are arranging a driver/guide, make sure you know which one you will be arriving into. It is even possible to take a day trip by train from Delhi. There is a good Travel Savvy guide, on how to do that here.
There are plenty of buses that travel between Delhi and Agra. The trip takes 4- 5 hours. The government buses are the most reliable. The roads are bumpy, the buses crowded and toilets are nonexistent. I would recommend the train over the bus.
It is very possible to drive to Agra. Driving in India can be tricky if you don’t know the “rules” so proceed with caution if you are driving yourself. We took a day trip from Delhi by taxi the second time we visited. It was a very early start and so we slept some of the way there and back…despite the bumps.