Day 151: Agra, India. Today’s big plan was a visit to the Taj Mahal – or ‘the Big T’ as Jim calls it – something we’ve been looking forward to for ages.
Every article we’ve read warns of massive queues to buy tickets, then more big queues at the entrance gates, then more for the cloakrooms. Granted the massively inflated price that foreigners pay (a whopping 22 times more than locals) at least gives us the privilege of a separate, and less busy foreigners entrance gate.
We’d already agreed a 5am start to watch the sun rise wasn’t going to happen, so we enjoyed a snooze on after yesterdays’s crazy sleepless night on the overnight bus from Mandawa to Agra. We left all our unnecessary belongings at the hotel, to avoid having to use the cloakroom at the Big T, had a leisurely brunch in town, then wandered around to start queueing for tickets around 12:30.
And here’s the thing. There wasn’t a single person in the foreigners queue for tickets, and when we got to the Taj Mahal, there was no one in the foreigners queue there either. Some god or other must have been smiling down on us – we walked straight through and found ourselves staring in awe at the Great Gate only a couple of minutes later.
Tickets limit visitors to a three hour stay, which was more than adequate. We started with the mandatory pictures from the gardens (and no, we didn’t do a ‘Charles and Di on the bench’ pic.) The architecture is simply stunning, and it deserves its reputation as one of the most beautiful buildings in the world. Rudyard Kipling described it as ‘the embodiment of all things pure’, while its creator, Emperor Shah Jahan, said it made ‘the sun and the moon shed tears from their eyes’.
Then we put on our shoe covers, which are included in the cost of the ticket, and made our way up to the platform of the Taj. The shoe covers clearly aren’t meant for larger sized feet, and Jim’s looked quite comical stretched to the limit over his trainers.
We walked around the outside of the Taj, then went inside to the Mausoleum. Buried there are Shah Jahan’s favourite wife, Mumtaz, and beside her in a later addition is the Shah himself. The tombs are surrounded by finely carved marble screens and are a little tricky to see. The walls are covered in Arabic script and many beautiful flowers, all inlaid with mother of pearl, black marble, and other semi-precious stones.
There’s a strict ‘no photography’ policy inside the mausoleum with security guards shouting at anyone who dares to try to sneak pics near the entrance. However at the back of the mausoleum there were no guards, and it was a like a secret photography club in action. People were snapping pics and selfies and one girl shot an entire 2 minute video of the interior.
The mausoleum was quiet enough that we were lucky to be able to go around for a second look – we’re guessing at busier times of the year it turns into a solid human push and shove, just to get a couple of minutes inside.
Next we explored the two buildings flanking the tomb, that are similar in design. To the east is a sandstone and marble building once used as a guesthouse, and more recently as a meeting hall. The ceilings are beautifully inlaid with marble decor. And to the west is a near identical copy, but which is configured as a mosque with a centre altar arranged to point to Mecca, and with marble and sandstone prayer mats inlaid into the tiles on the floor.
We visited the small museum, which has some of the original letters of the land being purchased for the Taj Mahal, which was built in 1631. It was interesting to see from how far and wide the different semi-precious stones had come, including corals from Iraq and malachite from Russia.
We walked around the grounds and sat on a bench for a bit. A family stopped to chat and ask where we’re from and insisted their little boy had to sit between us for a photo. The poor boy was a bit freaked out, however they dragged him over, and pushed him onto the bench. And we of course took a pic of them for our album of random strangers.
When we’d had our fill of the Taj, we walked back into town for a coffee, then headed home for a rest before dinner, stopping at a fruit stand along the way.
We had dinner at a great little rooftop restaurant in town, which looks out over the Taj Mahal and has fabulous street art in its stairwells. Interestingly the Taj isn’t lit up at night (for a variety of reasons), however we were still able to see the moonlit silhouette from the rooftop.
Then home for another good night’s sleep. Tomorrow we’re planning to visit Bharatpur Bird Sanctuary, about 25km west of Agra. Which Jim is already referring to as the Big B.