It was a running joke amongst my friends that we had never see the Taj Mahal. We’ve lived in Delhi all our lives (27 years) and we couldn’t travel four hours to Agra to see one of the new seven wonders of the world. So last month, we finally made it to the mausoleum (for a friend’s bachelorette, funnily) and I came back with a divided mind. The dichotomy of the ‘Taj experience’ left me bewildered.
We left at 6.30am to beat the Monday morning traffic, and reached the city in under four hours after a stop at Starbucks on the way. The drive on the Yamuna Expressway is smooth, with just a handful of cars moving like ants on the highway. As the heavy-lifting was done by my friend, I gave a salute to the rising sun and sorted out her mehendi playlist. Hitting the city, we were reduced to a crawl, experienced bumps and met with road closures. Still, the hotel kindly gave us the room keys, three hours before the time to check-in, and we spent the day lazying around the Tajganj area.
Getting To The Taj Mahal
It was the next afternoon that we made a beeline to the Taj Mahal, about three kilometres from where we were staying. Unsure of the parking situation, we let our car rest in the hotel and booked a cab. Now this is where it gets interesting. The cab dropped us off a kilometre away from the gate, insisting that we had to take an auto-rikshaw to enter the complex. Obstinate and unwilling to get bullied by the rikshaw mafia, we decided to walk it. Sizzling under the blazing sun, we reached the complex in 15 minutes and on the way, bought shoes covers that were being sold by kids for Rs 5 each.
Even before we got the tickets (Rs 50 + 200 for mausoleum entry), a pack of ‘licensed guides’ flocked to our side. One of them gave me an id (yes, I asked for credentials) the word ‘government’ misspelt. Another accompanied us to the ticket counter, where we enquired about the charlatan guides. The response was, “There are no government licensed guides, but they all know bits about the Taj. Don’t pay them more than Rs 300.”
The next stop was the locker room in the opposite direction (west gate), where we had to store our bags and food items. It reminded me of old school kirana stores–two people sat on plastic chairs, took the bags and gave hand-made receipts. No lights, lots of backpacks and a tiny entrance to the room. On a board outside the ticket counter, it said that the locker rooms were free; when I asked him why he was charging us Rs 30, he said, “Not at this gate; at the other one.” Now am I mulish enough to walk back and then more to find out the truth? No.
Walking back, we picked one of the guides from the beehive for Rs 500 and then made it inside.
The Taj Mahal Experience
The two-toned Darawaza-i-rauza is the grand entrance. The red sandstone structure is decorated with 22 chhatris, denoting 22 years that were spent for its construction (1631-1653). The beautiful calligraphic inscriptions on the white marble are worth admiring: you will find floral patterns inlaid on marble as well as writings from the holy Quran. This gate, once upon a time, was the centre of an artisan market and the caravanserai; both are now gone. Cross the threshold and the ivory-white monument glistens straight ahead, flanked with lush gardens and packed with tourists.
The Mughal gardens of the Taj Mahal symbolise paradise. They are divided into four equal squares with the ‘basin of abundance’ in the centre by canals. In this unconventional design, the Taj sits at the edge of the gardens, not in the centre. If you pay close attention, you’ll see the recurrent theme of four–four gardens, four cardinal points, and four minarets–which denotes the four rivers of paradise.
Designed by Ustad Ahmad Lahori, the Taj Mahal was built on the banks of River Yamuna, to provide water to these greens and to keep its timber foundation strong. Emperor Shah Jahan depleted all of the Mughal empire’s resources to build this grand mausoleum for this beloved wife, Mumtaz Mahal, who died while giving birth to their 14th child. The octagonal monument is a mix of Mughal, Persian and Indian styles of architecture and design. The symmetry is unmissable; everything harmonious and balanced, apart from the cenotaphs of Mumtaz (at the centre) and Shah Jahan (to the west) in the main mausoleum. The inlays, patterns, and floral inscriptions on the facade of the structure as well as on the walls inside pour life into the monument.
It took about two hours to completely see the Taj Mahal, the gardens and the museum. On the terrace of the main mausoleum, our guide tried to coax us to buy souvenirs from the shops outside. When we said no, he took the fees and promised to meet us at the gate to show us the stones used. Of course, we never saw him again.
It’s unnecessary to say that the Taj Mahal is nothing like I had ever seen. The sheer grandiose of the monument, the history that made it a wonder, the story behind its construction and the ties it has to our rulers–I can’t deny that it’s a humbling experience. But will I brave the tourist traps again? I don’t think so. There won’t be a next time for me to the Taj Mahal, I’m pretty certain about that.
What To Do In Agra
Close to the Taj Mahal, this 16th-century fort in red sandstone is home to the Jahangir Palace and the Khas Mahal.
Another UNESCO World Heritage Site, Fatehpur Sikri was the capital of the Mughal empire for about a decade during the reign of Akbar. The fortified city has one of the largest mosques in India and three palaces.
Where To Stay In Agra
We stayed 3.4 kilometres (10-minute drive) from the Taj Mahal at DoubleTree by Hilton, Agra. The hotel features restaurants, a bar, a spa and an outdoor pool.