When my trip to India became a possibility, my first thought was that I had to get to the Taj Mahal. Of all of the many amazing places to see in India, the Taj Mahal captivated me. The stunning “shrine to love,” as my guide described it, is located in Agra, about a three to four hour drive from Delhi. My first day free was a trek to see the Taj, as well as two other notable monuments in the area, the Agra Fort and Fatehpur Sikri (more on those two sites in another post).
My visit to the Taj started early: a driver picked me up at my hotel in Delhi at 5 AM. We left the sleeping city in the dark; the absence of traffic a striking contrast to the hustle I had observed throughout the sunlit hours. The drive, while long, was quiet, with Indian music serving as the soundtrack to the ride. My driver explained that the music, which he put on with my permission, was a series of prayers that were listened to in the morning, as a start to the day.
The moment we exited the freeway, I was confronted with the real India. Buses overflowing with people, cows and pigs walking freely in the streets, and traffic. Oh the traffic! It was like nothing I had ever seen before. (A note on the animals on their walkabouts: this is not the result of poor animal management; rather, letting cows and pigs wander about is part of the Hindu faith, tying into different Hindu religious stories. More information can be found here.) Everywhere I looked on the crowded streets, I saw people going to work or school, maneuvering in and out of trucks and auto rickshaws, greeting one another and hurrying along. Carts filled with fruits, vegetables, and bright yellow and orange flowers for Diwali. It was hectic, busy, and alive. I was surprised to see so much trash everywhere: piled up along the side of the street, in vacant lots, on fields. It was awful—especially when I noticed people and animals trudging through it to get to their destinations.
The Taj Mahal was our first stop, and it was absolutely worth the drive. The Taj, an “integrated complex of structures” built by Emperor Shah Jahan in memory of his third and favorite wife, Mumtaz Mahal, was completed in 1653, having taken over 20 years to be built. The Taj is more than the white marble mausoleum; it includes several halls and gardens. It is known for its symmetry, the semi-precious stones that are inlaid in the marble, and the romance that surrounds the story of the Emperor and his wife. The two had, according to historians, a deep love affair, and the Emperor was devastated by her death. He commissioned the Taj so that the world would know of their love. I found it all terribly romantic.
For me, seeing the Taj in person for the first time left me stunned. It’s gorgeous. I found myself overwhelmed a bit, moved by this place I had only seen in pictures. Its beauty was definitely part of my reaction; the fact that I was even there was another reason. I had always wanted to go to India, but I never thought I actually would.
My guide, Mr. Sharma, accompanied me throughout the Taj. We arrived early in the morning, around 8:30 AM, as the crowds of tourists were growing. Mr. Sharma got me in and out of lines and directed me to perfect photo spots. Having someone knowledgeable of the site escort me through was a treat; he knew so much about the architecture and development of the Taj—much more than I would have gotten from my guidebook. If it’s feasible when you travel, I recommend getting a local guide to show you around historical sites. It really does make a difference.
Mr. Sharma, for instance, shared that laws in the Agra area prohibit heavy industry in order to preserve the Taj as a top tourist spot, the fear, naturally, being that industry would contribute to even more pollution thereby destroying the views of the site. He also offered some great advice for dealing with pushing street vendors—ignore them. He offered this up upon realizing my “no, thank you” was just causing them to push more. Once I followed his advice, the number of people following me around, offering their services and wares declined notably (a strategy I’ll employ for future travel).
I wandered around the property with Mr. Sharma and on my own, exploring the buildings, getting my photo taken with locals visiting the Taj (I guess blondish hair is still a novelty), and relishing the beauty that permeated the space. I could have stayed at the Taj all day! But I had other spots to see, so I begrudgingly left the magical place behind.
Before I left for India, I read this post from Lillie at Around the World “L”. In it she provides some helpful tips for first time visitors to the Taj. Check it out to get a sense of what you can and cannot bring in, how ticketing works, and what you must make sure you don’t miss on your visit.
More on the other sites I visited in the Agra area, as well as my day exploring Delhi, to follow soon.