The Taj Mahal: How to Wander the Wonder

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Honestly, it wasn’t until my fourth visit to India that I visited the Taj Mahal. I was always interested but had been delaying the experience, believing it to be a little overdone, overwhelming and stressful. Having been a few times now I’ve discovered that actually you cant ‘overdo’ the Taj; it has its reputation for a reason! And overwhelming, yes, but in a wonderful can’t-get-enough-of-this-beauty kind of way. As for the stress, it exists, but with a little research and prep it’s totally manageable. Read on for my personal tips and insights…

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The Love Story

A wonder of the world, the Taj Mahal is known as a monument of love; ivory-white marble created in the 15th century in memory and as mausoleum for a woman; Mumtaz Mahal. It all started in 1607 when a young prince, Shah Jahan, was strolling through the Meena Bazaar and among silk and glass beeds, saw a glimpse of a girl, a muslim Persian princess named Arjumand Banu Begum. It was love at first sight and 5 years later the young couple were married; Shah Jahan eventually became Emperor of India. Though Shah Jahan had several wives, as was typical at the time, Arjumand Banu was his favourite and he named her Mumtaz Mahal meaning “the Jewel of the Palace”. She accompanied him everywhere and her sharp mind assisted him during his political moves. It was during the birth of their 14th child that his beloved wife died. While on her deathbed, Shah Jahan promised Mumtaz Mahal that he would never remarry and that he would erect the world’s most beautiful monument in her memory. 22 years later, through the work of 22,000 labourers, the mausoleum was finished. When Shah Jahan died in 1666, his body was placed in a tomb next to the tomb of Mumtaz Mahal.

The Other Stories

It’s a beautiful tale that certainly stirs the imagination, but what’s not to be forgotten is that those 22,000 labourers were in fact slaves, ordered to work on the project of their king. In the 22 years that it took to complete, the cost of the project equated to about $1 billion USD in todays currency; a price which was extracted from the Emperor’s subjects in the form of imposed taxes. Even today if you take a visit to the Taj, there is a stark contrast between the richness of the building and the impoverished city of Agra in which it stands. It is important to consider context when marvelling at these grand creations.

It is also widely claimed that Shah Jahan ordered all 22,000 workers hands to be cut off once the Taj Mahal had been built, so that they might never build anything as beautiful again. Some versions of this story also say that the architect’s eyes were taken out! This is commonly considered to be a very unlikely myth, a metaphor that was for some reason considered literal. At the time Shah Jahan was planning further construction; the Taj was not his ultimate creation and he had designs of a ‘black Taj Mahal’, his own mausoleum that would be built on the other side of the river. Had he chopped off the hands of his labourers then he would have no work force, and other scared labourers would not have worked for him on projects such as the Red Fort, Jama Mosque etc which were built at later dates. In contrast, it is actually said that chief engineers were granted their own villages to support their personal expenses. The story that the workers hands were cut off possibly stems from the fact that the laborers promised to only work for Shah Jahan (in exchange for a sum of money). Their future creativity was therefore compromised, a similar metaphorical feeling to chopping off a hand.

Sunrise over the East Gate: choose a 6am tour to avoid the crowds and the heat!

Sunrise over the East Gate: choose a 6am tour to avoid the crowds and the heat!

Dress respectfully and allow plenty of time to wander and wonder

Dress respectfully and allow plenty of time to wander and wonder

Your Visit

Itinerary Scheduling

Most people visit the Taj in Agra as part of a ‘Golden Triangle’ tour (Delhi-Agra-Jaipur), or as an add-on while passing through Delhi. As Agra is close to Delhi, where most international flights arrive, it makes sense to do this at either the beginning of your trip or as the last thing before you leave. In my opinion, doing it first or last depends on the length of your trip. If you’ll be in India for a while I recommend going as soon as you arrive, as your energy and excitement levels will be high and it’s a great way to kick off your tour. After long periods of time in the country you might find yourself reluctant to enter the tourist circus again right before you leave. If you’re on a short trip however (less than two weeks) it’s a good idea to dive into the rest of your itinerary first, saving your Taj Mahal visit until the end, making sure you go out on a high!

Timing and Seasonal Considerations

The Taj Mahal is in the city of Agra, which is relatively close to the Himalayas and can get quite cold in winter (7 or 8 degrees at night). This means that during November-March there is often a thick fog around the Taj Mahal during the morning and nights, due to pollution in the city; in the mornings of the coldest months the fog is sometimes too thick to see the building at all! If you’re visiting during this season don’t worry: just plan your visit for midday/afternoon (after 11am is a safe bet), by which point the sun will have burnt off most of the fog.

If you’re visiting during the warmer summer months then my advice is to do the opposite: plan to go in the early morning so that you avoid the crowds and the midday heat. The Taj Mahal opens at sunrise (6am or 630am depending on month) every day (except Fridays) and the ticket counters open 30 minutes before sunrise. If you are not with a guide or organised tour, then you need to get tickets yourself from the ticket counter at 5:30 or 6am, and then make the short walk back to the Taj Mahal Gate to line up with your ticket. You’ll find that even at this early hour crowds will be gathering, but trust me, the middle of the day will be even busier!

There are a lot of organisied day-tours from Delhi, which means a lot of midday visitors to the Taj. Be ready and try to avoid the crowds by going earlier or later!

I advocate to embrace an early tour during the warmer months; it can be quite fun! You can get in the mood with a cup of chai at your hotel when you wake at 5am, get your tickets set and join the line as the sun begins to rise. At first when you enter the Taj Mahal the light won’t be at it’s best: this is thus the perfect opportunity to listen to your guide (if you have one) or wonder around and take in the scenery. Soon the light will be perfect for taking photos and you’ll want to allow plenty of time to patiently wait or coordinate with other visitors so that you can get your perfect shot. The local guides are expert Taj Mahal photographers: they know all the best angles to help you out!

You can also visit at night: every full moon the Taj offers nighttime moon tours. Just remember that it’ll probably be too foggy to see anything during winter.

Remember: Choose your timing depending on the season and don’t plan to go on a Friday (the Taj Mahal is closed every Friday).

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View of the Taj Mahal and Yamuna River from Mehtab Bagh gardens.

View of the Taj Mahal and Yamuna River from Mehtab Bagh gardens.

Arriving

From Delhi or Jaipur you can either take a private taxi, train or local bus. Trains from Delhi take 2-3 hours and can be booked in advance online, at the airport or through a travel agent. Train prices depend on the type of coach you wish to travel in: if booking through a travel agent make sure you tell your preferred choice or they will likely book a more expensive ticket. The national train website can be confusing for first time visitors and if in doubt, go through a local travel agent (contact me if you need recommendations). Note that trains often need to be booked at least two weeks in advance.

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By road from Delhi it takes around 3-4 hours and taxis can be booked in advance (online or through your hotel/guide) or you can book a government taxi at the airport. Local buses are best booked through a local tour agent, there are many agents in every city (and practically every street) of India; your hotel should be able to help you too!

Agra itself does not have much to offer, unless you’re interested in purchasing marble work or carpets with reduced tax rates. There are some good deals to be found if you are! Otherwise you’ll want to make sure your visit is as efficient as possible so that you maximise your time in India. I recommend staying for one night and arriving to Agra mid-afternoon. This gives you time to check into your hotel and then venture out across the river before sunset to the ‘Moon Gardens’, Mehtab Bagh, where you can get a beautiful view of the back of the Taj Mahal. The back and the front are identical so you can get some great photos here! Last entry into the gardens is 5pm and the gardnes close at 6pm, the price is 200INR for international visitors. From here you can get an early dinner and an early night, ready for a sunrise tour the next day.

If you’re travelling during winter, it might be better to arrive mid-morning and then go straight to the Taj Mahal after checking your luggage into your hotel (if staying the night). You can then visit the gardens later in the day, or you might even choose to move onto your next destination straight away and not stay in Agra at all.

At the Taj Mahal

Ticket prices are 1100 INR for foreigners, or 1050 INR if you pay by card. This includes shoe covers, a bottle of water, tourist map of Agra, and bus or golf cart service to the entry gate if necessary.

Night Viewing tickets cost 750 rupees for foreigners and 510 rupees for Indians, for half an hour’s admittance. Once you have your ticket you can enter from either the West Gate (close to ticket counters) or the East Gate (about a 1 km walk). Note that there are seperate lines for women and men when you then enter the Taj Mahal (this is standard practice in India). There is then a strict security checkpoint which includes a bag search. Large bags are not allowed inside, only small bags containing essential items. You are able to bring one cell phone, a camera, water bottle. Make sure you do not bring any food, tobacco, lighters, electrical items, camera tripods, knives, pens/drawing items. Drone cameras are strictly prohibited and mobile phones must be kept on silent.

Guide: If you would like an offical guide for Agra, you can book at either:

Indian Tourism Office
191, Mall Road, Agra - 282001
Tel : (+91) 562 - 2226378

U.P. Tourism office
64, Taj Road, Agra - 282001
Tel. : (+91) 562 - 2226431

Moving On…

If you’re heading home from here, I’d recommend treating yourself to a taxi so that you can sit back after your visit and drive onward to Delhi. Most hotel checkouts are 11am, which gives you time for a shower and late breakfast (most hotels serve until 10am and later at special request) after your sunrise tour -or you can pack your bags and leave in reception if you’re visitng during the middle part of the day. Always allow for plenty of time to get to the airport -travel can be heavy and things can often take much longer than anticipated. If you have time to kill in Delhi, there are lots of cheaper hotels close to the airport where you can rest before travelling home, or you could spend a final day in the city collecting souvenirs.

If this is the beginning of your trip, then my favourite route is to head to Jaipur from here and start your journey into Rajasthan! Investing in a private taxi is an excellent option (cost between 2500-5000INR depending on car, company and booking agent service fee), as you can take advantage of some other sights along the way. Worth stopping off for are Akbar’s Tomb in nearby Sikandra (15km), which is the final resting place of Akbar the Great, the famous Mughal Emperor. This tomb is absolutely stunning and yet often quiet, a relief after those Agra crowds. Another great and photogenic stop is the deserted city of Fatehpur Sikri (35km from Agra), which dates back to the 1500s and which is also a UNESCO World Heritage Sight. I recommend staying with a guide (or your taxi driver!) here, as there have been reports of tourists coming into conflict with local crowds in this area. Personally I had no issues, though there were some persistent locals who I had to work hard to leave me alone.

It is possible to visit both of these stops in the same day as your Taj Mahal morning tour, and still arrive at Jaipur before nightfall or early evening.

If you are interested in hiring a Rajasthani tour guide to continue your adventures then please get in touch and I can help with your itinerary planning or put you in touch with the best of the area!

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Fatehpur Sikri, 35km from Agra

Fatehpur Sikri, 35km from Agra

Akbar’s Tomb, Sikandra

Akbar’s Tomb, Sikandra

Photography by Victoria Leader and Precious LaPlante, all rights reserved.