From Delhi we took a train to Agra, the home of the Taj Mahal. You may have heard of it. Agra the city has a reputation of being a bit uninteresting and filled with touts and hassles. The little bit we saw corroborated that reputation, but we were only there for one night and didn’t explore much, so we don’t have much to say about it.
As for the Taj Mahal, well as you might expect it was rather spectacular. We stayed the night at a lackluster hotel in the Taj Ganj neighborhood, which is within easy walking distance of the monument. We set our alarms for an unreasonable hour, and found ourselves walking groggily down the street in the dark, looking for a chai wallah. We found one at the gate, which wouldn’t open for another hour (we’d heard mixed information from people on what time the Taj actually opened, and since we wanted to be there first thing we decided to play it safe. Too safe.), and sipped the sugary goodness while we waited.
Entry tickets to the Taj Mahal are quite expensive at 750 rupees for foreigners, or about $15 USD. It’s worth it. When we finally made it through the gate we found ourselves in a huge outer courtyard, nicely landscaped and surrounded by the tall outer walls. And rising above the inner wall, like some kind of etherial white domed spaceship, we could just see the top of the Taj itself. I’ll say right now that I’ll spare you any more attempts at lyrical descriptions, and definitely won’t use the phrases “teardrop on the face of eternity” or “greatest monument ever built for love.” Every time I hear or read about the Taj someone says or writes those things, and they’re more than a little cliched by now. So stop that you people. Ethereal white domed spaceship is, as far as I know, original. Anyway it’s strange but that first incomplete glimpse I had of the monument is the one I remember the most, just floating up there in the early morning light.
We made our way through the inner gates and there it was, the Taj Mahal in
all its glorious splendour (whoops there I go again…). The place gets a lot of hype, but it really does live up to it. Everyone’s seen the pictures of the front of the Taj, with the long narrow reflecting pool in the foreground. That’s the view you get when you walk through the inner gate. There were a bunch of tourists clicking away with their cameras and we joined right in. Everyone takes way too many pictures at the Taj Mahal. It’s irrisistable.
Many of you probably know the story behind the Taj. It was built by the Mughal emporor Shah Jahan between 1632 and 1648 as a mausoleum for his late wife Mumtaz. Most of you also probably are familiar with the basic architecture and layout of the building, so I’ll spare you the details and you can read
about elsewhere if you need more info. I’ll stick with more personal observations that you probably haven’t read a million times before. First off, it’s crazy to find yourself actually at the Taj Mahal. It’s one of those places that seems so immediately familiar and yet so unreachably far away. Like the Egyptian pyramids, unless of course you’ve been there. And the pictures really do not do it justice. It’s huge, much bigger than I expected, big enough that you have to be pretty far away to get the thing to fit in a camera frame. The white marble surface catches the light in a really unique way, especially in the morning. Denae described it really well as looking soft and silky, like you could reach out and touch it and it would feel smooth and have some give to it.
Up close it’s the stones inlaid in the marble in pretty designs that really catch
the eye. The craftsmanship is amazing, and it continues inside the building. There’s a beautiful carved marble screen surrounding the tombs, and we spent a long time staring at all the intracate work. The grounds at the Taj are pretty impressive also, at least for India. Grass that is genuinely green and manicured, nice looking hedges and fountains and such, and behind the Taj is the Jamuna river, completing a beautiful setting where it was easy to spend several hours.
So we’d finally seen it, what most of the world considers the symbol of India. In short, I’d say that the Taj Mahal is the most beautiful building I’ve ever seen. It’s perfect.
After we’d had our fill of perfection we scurried past the screaming touts waiting to accost the tourists outside the gate, and hiked back to our hotel. We packed our bags and made made our way to Agra Fort, the second most famous attraction in town. It’s a huge walled fortress that used to be a kind of city within a city, as well as a palace for the Mughal rulers. We spent hours walking around here and didn’t see everything, and a lot of it is actually closed to the public. There were lots of courtyards and lawns to relax in, winding old passageways to explore, and beautiful architecture to admire. Many of the fancier palace areas were build with the same white marble construction as the Taj, not too surprising once you realize that Shah Jahan ruled from here. The famous emporer had a scheming son who managed to oust him from power, and Shah Jahan ended up living the last several years of his life a prisoner here. From his room there is a beautiful view of the Jamuna river and the Taj Mahal off in the distance. Supposedly he had plans to build a mirror image of the Taj, built entirely of black marble, across the river from the original, but the plan never came to fruition.
Finally we made our way to the train station to catch the seven pm sleeper
to Jaipur. For months we’d been traveling by train all over India and hadn’t boarded a train that was more than a few minutes behind schedule. It would be Allison and Mark’s first sleeper train, and we’d been bragging to them about the relative comfort and timeliness of the system. The train ended up being five hours late, time we spent drooling and staring vacantly into the distance and trying to block out the near constant drone of arrival announcements. Allison and Mark were very impressed.