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My travel to India wasn’t without its challenges but it gave me the chance to experience things I’ve never imagined before. It was a love-hate experience, the best of which was my visit to Taj Mahal – the world-renown symbol of eternal love.
Some mistakenly think of the Taj Mahal as a palace, but in fact, it is a mausoleum, constructed from 1648-1653 by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan in honor of his late wife, Mumtaz Mahal. In 18 years of being married, they had 14 children. Mumtaz Mahal died while giving birth to their 14th child. Her last wish was that her husband builds a tomb, lavish and more beautiful than anything the world has ever seen. She wanted that tomb to be built in her memory. And that’s what Shah Jahan did. Taj Mahal was built to be the greatest monument to love in the world, and after four centuries it still is.
Myths and controversy surround the Taj Mahal. On its completion it is said that the emperor ordered the chief mason’s right hand to be cut off to prevent him from repeating his masterpiece.
How to Get There
The Taj Mahal is located in the city of Agra, about 200 km South of New Delhi. It can be accessed by taxi, bus, train, and (limited) air services. We hired a car and took the new Yamuna Expressway from Delhi to Agra. The state-of-the-art express way, reduces the travel time between Delhi and Agra to just over two hours, depending on the traffic around Delhi area.
The highway abruptly became a narrow road with cars screeching and chaotic traffic; and suddenly we found ourselves driving through areas littered with mountains of garbage. From what we could see, the slum dwellers lived in dire conditions, I instantly felt scared with the surrounding and even thought of going back, but our driver (from the department of Tourism in New Delhi) assured as that he is going to bring us safely back to Delhi after visiting Taj Mahal. A good way to convince us to just go on with the tour.
Entrance to the Taj
As soon as we reach the place, we were introduced to the assigned tourist guide and bought the ticket – 750 INR per person quite expensive but worth it. TIP #1 : The Taj is closed every Friday to anyone not attending prayers at the mosque.
Entry to the grounds is easy, and within a few minutes we’re walking through the red sandstone outer walls of the compound, with the Taj still out of site. There are four gates to the main grounds, with the North Gate being the largest. 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! As the saying goes “A grand site needs a grand entry”.
This is the North gate where we went through. You will have to run through a security check point before you are able to enter this sacred place. Cameras and videos are permitted but you cannot take photographs inside the mausoleum itself, and the areas in which you can take videos are quite limited. TIP #2: Only water, camera, film, batteries, medicines, and other similar essentials are allowed. No food, sharp objects, tripods, or electronics, if you have any of these items, you can leave them at the reception.
This picture was taken from within the gate. The way the monument was built, creates an illusion of the Taj Mahal structure being even bigger than it is. You can experience that as you walk through the inner gate.
Once you’ve gone through the North Gate, There is a garden in front of the building divided into four parts by paths; this is supposed to represent the gardens of Paradise. Named after its lotus-shaped fountain spouts, the Lotus Pool located in the middle of the garden reflects the tomb. TIP #3: Best area for photograph is by sitting on the marble bench here.
Visitors have to remove their shoes and socks before entering the mausoleum. Foreigners get a shoe covering (booties) along with their ticket so they don’t have to remove their shoes, they did make us pay Rs. 750 while Indian citizens had to pay Rs. 20. TIP #4 : Wear slip-on shoes for easy removal.
The minarets are built tilting outwards so that they won’t fall on the main building in case of an earthquake, whose only purpose is for the aesthetic value.
A closer view of the Taj Mahal’s intricate inlaid calligraphy, a series of verses from the Qur’an written in a delicate calligraphy and inlaid in Jasper. As another fun fact, the text column actually gets wider as it nears the top of the building, tricking the eye into making it look uniform all the way up.
The Taj Mahal up close. The flowers are carved into the marble.
A personal guide explaining the Taj’s inlay detail and methods used. A knowledgeable guide is a definite asset when visiting the Taj. TIP #5: Bring a small torch into the mausoleum to fully appreciate the translucency of the white marble and semiprecious stone.
Inside are replicas of Shah Jahan’s and Mumtaz Mahal’s tombs. The real ones are in a locked basement room, below the replicas and cannot be viewed by the public. Ironically, Shah Jahan’s tomb is the only thing in the complex that is out of symmetry, since his son who imprisoned him added it after Shah Jahan’s death. Unfortunately, taking photos inside is prohibited, so this was all I got.
The Yamuna River as seen from the Taj Mahal.
The dome where Shah Jahan’s son imprisoned him for eight years.
On the east and west sides of the tomb are identical red sandstone buildings. On the west (left-hand side) is a mosque. It is common in Islam to build one next to a tomb. It sanctifies the area and provides a place for worship. The replica on the other side is known as the Jawab (answer). This can’t be used for prayer as it faces away from Mecca. It was made only so there would be symmetry with the mosque.
After 3 hours of admiration of this massive structure, it was time for us to leave. Our tourist guide persuaded us to go to the marble factory where the actual art of putting precious stones on the marble is being exhibited and will let you experience it. Yey! However after the presentation the owner would tried every trick in the book to make us buy something – to the point of not telling us the right way to the exit. Following their direction would only lead you to another chamber with different products
Although it was rather irritating experience of the local-high – pressure sale tactics (can’t blame them for trying), it actually added to the overall unique taste of the Taj Mahal experience.
TIP #6: As the case is pretty much everywhere in India, your driver will take you to a carpet shop, a jewellery shop, a curio shop, or a combination of the two at some point during your trip. Sometimes you can get good stuff, but remember that your driver is receiving a kickback from everything you buy, so shop accordingly. It goes without saying, NEVER pay list price; start off at least 50-60% less than what the tag says. Always haggle!
Looking back – The Taj Mahal’s romantic appeal never grows old; it never ceases to amaze me, not only because of the striking white marble mausoleum that majestically rises at the end of its grounds, but also for its representation of an undying love.
TIP #7: Keep your ticket to get a free entrance at Agra port!