Friday, August 2, 2013

All about the Taj

Spoiler:  we made it there!

Agra, home to one of the most iconic monuments in the world and, as we would soon find out, approximately 90% of the world's fly population. In honesty, our expectations for Agra were very low. The general buzz from other travelers seemed to be, “Yes, yes, see the Taj. Definitely. Then get the hell out. As soon as you can.” So with that in mind, we allocated one night for the 'Taj' before a mad dash to Varanasi and across the Indian/Nepalese border.

We arrived by a 2nd class AC sleeper train from Udaipur, which was our most delightful train experience by several miles (or would that be kilometers?). A private cabin, lovely cool air, a surprising lack of “chai chai chai” vendors coming around during the wee hours. We were absolutely delighted to say the least. So after a dozen hours or so on the train, we floated out of our private cabin on a beautiful soap bubble, which instantly burst upon our arrival. After we navigated a swarm of pests (no, not flies, rickshaw drivers) and some dubious pricing at the fixed price rickshaw booth, we headed into town with a driver we liked reasonably well. (He flatly told a group of drivers to stop bothering us.) So we decided to look at a guesthouse he recommended. Even with his commission, it was substantially cheaper than our first choice, and I'm not entirely certain we sacrificed much on quality.

Getting a decent driver can really make or break your experience, so often it's worth paying a bit more for somebody who is reasonably honest. With that in mind, we decided to hire him to assist us with planning our exit from Agra and a trip to see the Taj from across the river. From the rooftop of our hotel, we got our first sneaky peak at the Taj (very exciting) before having a nap. Suitably refreshed from our nap, we were ready to confront the challenge of purchasing rail tickets. We had tried to purchase these tickets four days in advance, but they were already sold out. (Grrr. Honestly, it's one of the worst bits about traveling India, you're constantly worried you will be marooned somewhere and will never be able to move onto the next town.) Thus, most of our time in Agra, we were obsessing about our ability to leave it.

After arriving at the train station, we approached the ticket booth, requested tickets, and received our first “no,” which we treated as a jumping off point for negotiation. There was a bit more of “Nothing. No, all full, no. All sold out. Next week?” Then a lot more of insisting from us. Then our rickshaw driver got involved. Then there was more insisting,. Then this escalated for a request for a Taktal (which I think is emergency) ticket. Several forms later, and a trip to xerox our ids, we had the tickets in our warm little hands and were awash with relief. It was touchingly comic how sincere our driver was when he said, “Good man! What a good man to issue the tickets.” He shook his head, “Most just don't want to work.” (Because apparently 'working' in this context means refusing our requests for several minutes before taking a half hour to process our forms.)

We then headed off for a sunset view of the Taj, and it was rather spectacular. It is a rather odd experience to see such an iconic building in real life. It's very much a, “Hey, that looks exactly like it does in the photos!” Naturally, it wasn't without its minor hassles, several kids tried to extort money and we also had to demand legitimate tickets for entry into the nearby gardens. (They tried it on twice by not giving us tickets then giving us used tickets. We had contemplated jumping through a hole in the fence, because that was what the locals were doing, but thought better of it; the guards carried their machine guns in a way that was just too flippantly casual for my liking.) Anyhow, although it wasn't the most cooperative sunset, it was still magnificent to see the Taj in the afternoon light. Jon and I snapped some photos and just lolled about in the gardens, watching both the Taj and the gardeners until closing time.

The next day, we set our alarms for 4:45 in the morning, giving us plenty of time to make it to the Taj for a quiet early morning viewing. Although we were the first people in the queue, we experienced some setbacks when Jon was denied entry on account of his attempt to carry a weapon onto the premises. (Technically, it was a Swiss army multitool with nifty features like pliers, screwdriver, and can opener along with a penknife, but weapon makes him sound a little more badass and their objections more founded.) While I darted off for some photo ops, Jon was mired in bureaucracy. He was directed to some lockers to store his weapon, a ten minute walk away, but said lockers did not open for another 1.5 hours. So he simply folded it up and squirreled it away at the base of a tree. We then spent the next 3 hours or so exploring both the building and the grounds.

The story in brief is that Shah Jahan built the Taj Mahal for his third and favorite wife Mumtaz Mahal, and quasi political advisor, who died shortly after giving birth to their fourteenth child. Although they had wanted to marry from the age of 15, it took several years to fix an auspicious date for the wedding. He had married in the meantime to help solidify his status as a man, and it seems like for all intents and purposes, he was mostly a one-woman man. Apparently, he fell to pieces after she died—leaving a power vacuum seized by one of their sons, who imprisoned him in the nearby Agra fort until his death.

So, the Taj Mahal, the reason so many people come to India, one of the world's “modern” seven wonders. How did it measure up? Well, many have spoken of a slight disappointment with the Taj in real life, but I think it is worth a lot of the hype. However, to enjoy it to its maximum potential, one must fight the urge—somewhat paradoxically—to see it too closely. So much of the magic of the building rests in its silhouette against the sky. Standing on the plinth itself, the view of the bulbous dome is obscured and the magic of the building is diminished. Inside the Taj, in the faux tombs themselves, there is delicate marble work that is inlaid with semi-precious stones, but you can't really see the detail very well unless you bring a flashlight! So I think spending the time to view it from afar is the way to go. 
Slightly distorted view from the plinth

We spent about three hours at the Taj, and emerged to find Jon's Swiss multitool weapon was no longer squirreled away in the hollow of a tree, but was still there, lying a few yards away! Yay! We celebrated by eating a lackluster breakfast and napping before liaising with our rickshaw driver to take us to a couple more sights. Specifically, we stopped by the Red Fort and a mausoleum known as the “Little Taj.” 
The Red fort is a sprawling complex of massive sandstone walls and numerous important state buildings, although several areas were closed to public access, including the underground labyrinth that served as the harem. We did see some of the compound where Shah Jahan was held captive, which had a view of the Taj Mahal, and lore suggests he spent his last years looking at the mausoleum and pining for his wife.

The Red Fort also featured a perfectly proportioned Jon-sized door!

The real standout of the afternoon were the tombs of Mumtaz Mahal's grandparents, which is rather dismissively referred to as “Mini-Taj,” but is absolutely extraordinary. The exterior of the building is completely covered inlaid marblework, and the attention to detail is phenomenal. 

The area around the tombs was comparatively quiet, and we made friends with a few monkeys, birds, and the little guy below! It was actually rather nice to have some time away from the honking of the horns.

After we completed our round of sightseeing in Agra, we headed back to our hotel to pack up, then grabbed dinner at a rooftop restaurant with views of the Taj. Unfortunately, the weather got the better of us, because it started to rain, but even then the Taj still seemed to glow dimly in the moody grey sky. After a delicious meal, we bid adieu to one of the world's most famous buildings and headed off to board our train. Next stop Varanasi!
Rooftop View


  1. WOW ! how did you manage to explore the Taj that empty?

  2. It was early, slightly drizzly--which put some people off--and a lot of waiting for people to move out of the shot. :) Excellent site btw!