Like most people on earth, I was pretty excited to finally see the Taj Mahal in flesh. Despite all the hype, it’s every bit as good as you have might have heard. Alas, my joy was short lived upon being a part of the great crowd that had gathered around the entrance of the East Gate. It was a mêlée alright and I hated every bit of it. I had not imagined this.
The initial feeling of happiness was quickly taken over by helplessness and we had ended up not walking up the steps of the Taj Mahal – the most visited sight in India by some distance on our first evening in Agra, on the banks of the holy Yamuna river.
We had immediately set about finding the best ways of actually seeing the ‘Eighth Wonder of the world’ and not just ticking it off a list.
Top Tips for visiting the Taj Mahal.
1. A sleepy eyed wonder : Enquiries were made here and there and it was reiterated that early morning would be the best time to see this monument of love, in peace. We started early and were at the the South Gate at 5.30 am (Locals will tell you it is indeed the South Gate that will get you into the Taj first thing in the morning).
Some ten minutes were spent on buying tickets and security check; with a sprinkling of foreigners in tow and there we were – gazing at the mesmerising Taj Mahal. Even though it is a little nippy from November to February at such an early hour, you will be glad you did it! It is unarguably the best time to see the Taj Mahal.
2. Escape the pathways, there are lush gardens here : With the minimal crowd around, we could marvel at the magical structure to our hearts’ content. Appreciating the grandeur and beauty of the Taj from one of the benches in the tree laden green pathways was one of the best moments of our time in Agra.
You can hear birds chirp and hear the call of the muezzin, idling lazily on the beautifully laid out green bench. We were glad on making it here early in the morning and spent a good one hour gawking at the marble inlay work (called Pietra Dura) and were astounded to see the rich detail on beautiful white marble. There was silence even while inside the Taj and it wasn’t like herding cattle that we saw a day ago in the evening.
3. Camera & water bottle : The queues are long and security is omnipresent; lockers are outside the gates. In a nutshell, leave your bag at the hotel and come armed with just your camera, mobile and water bottle to avoid any delays and problems that might happen. I saw a family being denied entry because their kid’s toy wasn’t allowed inside and the little child wasn’t ready to throw it away. You don’t want to be losing your stuff in the crowd, anyway.
4. Spot a real guide and listen : Although fake guides and touts are dime-a-dozen, there are some good ones too. Keep a keen eye on the groups of travellers and stick your ear out and listen, you might stumble upon a well informed person sharing his knowledge. There is absolutely no problem in tagging along that group, then. (Shhhh. Don’t ask questions, yet!)
For the uninitiated, the Taj Mahal was built by the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan as a memorial for his wife, Mumtaz Mahal in 1631. Around 20000 labours worked on the construction of the Taj for over eight years.
5. The most perfect evening view, EVER : It is nearing evening and close to the most crowded time for being in the vicinity of the Taj. What do you do?
You head to the 16th Century orchards across the Yamuna, collectively called Mehtab Bagh (Originally built by the Mughal Emperor Babur), steal kisses while being blissfully alone watching the Taj from a distance with the sun setting on the far horizon. It will be your moment of the Taj Mahal experience – unique and yours alone with nobody to share. Very few people visit Mehtab Bagh for this visual private extravaganza!
6. Museum : Make a quick escape from the hustle and bustle and immerse yourself in the history by visiting the little museum located near the gardens around the Taj. Original Miniature paintings are lined up, along with ivory portraits of Shah Jahan and Mumtaz Mahal. There is an excellent collection of silver and gold coins dating from the same period, many kinds of stones and fossils are also on display. An interesting observation is spotting the celadon plates that supposedly changed colour if the food served on them contained poison (That was a first for me!).
Fear not the touts and march on regardless, for it is indeed a sight to behold. I quote perhaps the most famous lines written on the Taj Mahal.
Rabindranath Tagore proclaims it to be ‘A teardrop on the cheek of eternity’; it indeed is.
Note : The Taj Mahal is closed every Friday to anyone not attending prayers at the Mosque which lies inside the grounds of the Taj itself.