The Taj Mahal is an epitome of love and is known for its exquisite artistry. This UNESCO World Heritage Site in Agra is a must-visit for every traveller and die-hard romantic. It is also one of the seven Wonders of the World. What is it about the Taj that attracts thousands of tourists each year? It isn’t easy to articulate in a single article, and although it has been the focal point of several write-ups, there is just so much that we can suggest. You have to experience the Taj, and you need to see it to believe it!
Yanni Concert at Taj Mahal
This trip was our second visit to the Taj Mahal. The first one was when the renowned music composer Yanni had performed at the Taj on a moonlit night in March 1997. My husband had surprised me with tickets to the show. We had barely managed to get flight tickets and decent accommodation as the who’s who were there. It was a truly mesmerising performance and is one of the most memorable moments and experiences of our lives. We had just paid a quick visit to Taj during the daytime and hadn’t explored anything else in Agra.
Since then, we have visited ‘The Taj Mahal of Deccan’, the ‘Bibi ka Maqbara’ in Aurangabad. It bears a striking resemblance to the Taj Mahal.
After exploring Delhi briefly, we are all set to drive to Agra. We set off from Delhi at around 10:30 am. The Yamuna Expressway is the fastest way you can reach Agra from Delhi and is a smooth ride. It’s around 2:30 pm that we reach our hotel at ITC Mughal. After check-in and a lunch of biryani and some starters, we are all set to explore the Mehtab Baug.
The Mehtab Baug and Taj Mahal are on the opposite banks of the Yamuna River. From Mehtab Baug, one can get an unobstructed view of the Taj Mahal across the Yamuna River. We get off at the parking area and get into an electric rickshaw which takes us to Mehtab Baug to avoid pollution around Taj. On reaching Mehtab Baug, we are told that the entry tickets need to be purchased online. We are caught unawares. This change has been a recent development by Uttar Pradesh Tourism to make travelling safe during the Corona Virus Pandemic. We are struggling with an internet connection. It’s getting dark sooner than expected. Just then, some locals tell us that there is another Taj viewpoint located outside Mehtab Baug, and we can get entry tickets at the counter.
Picturesque Taj Mahal
We rush, purchase entry tickets, and, low and behold, we see the Taj Mahal across the Yamuna River. Our excitement is palpable as we get to see the Taj Mahal in white marble and the Guest House and Mosque in red sandstone flanked on either side of the Taj Mahal. I had seen numerous pics of this kind and wondered how best we could get this view. We had finally found the right spot. We soon realise that the Mehtab Baug is right behind us. So, the view from Mehtab Baug and the viewpoint is the same!
We sit on the bench and admire the Taj Mahal. A monument that has stood the test of time has been one of the most photographed monuments in the world. It has been the subject of numerous ballads and tales. Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan built it in the loving memory of his wife, Mumtaz Mahal. The monument took 22 years to make, and more than twenty thousand workers from India, Iraq, Turkey demonstrated their architectural brilliance.
Black Taj – myth or reality
Behind us is the Mehtab Baug. There is a story that Shahjahan had planned to build a black Taj Mahal for himself here. But he could not do it as he was ousted by his son Aurangzeb. How much of this is true, one can never tell.
We notice a dilapidated monument on the banks of the Yamuna River. After some research, we get to know it is Jahanara Baug or Aram Baug.
The sun is setting, and we see the colours of the Taj Mahal change with an orange tinge now. We just wish we had reached an hour earlier to see Taj in brighter shades too. The white marble reflects sunlight, so the Taj Mahal’s colour changes during various times of the day. That’s the beauty of the Taj Mahal.
Sadar Bazar and Chaat Gully
After sunset, we set off to explore the Sadar Bazar, buzzing with tourists and locals. People are eating street food like chaat, momos, kulfi at the Chaat Gully. The Penchi Petha shop is also located here, which sells numerous variants of the sweet. Since it is Diwali, people are also in a shopping frenzy. The streets are choco bloc with shops selling shoes, jewellery, souvenirs and other knick-knacks. Women are sitting on stools and getting Mehendi applied on their palms.
Visiting Taj Mahal Complex
The following day, we rise early, and after a quick hurried breakfast, we head to see the Taj Mahal. The driver parks the car at the parking lot near the Shilpgram, and we meet our guide, Manoj Kumar. An electric vehicle takes us to the Eastern Gate. The entry gate made of red sandstone has 22 small marble dooms in two lines at the top. They represent 22 years that it took to construct the Taj Mahal, informs our guide. We enter the gate, and from the arch, we see the Taj Mahal with a light golden tint on its right from sunrise. There is a frenzy as tourists want to click selfies and pics with it.
Manoj explains that in winters, one cannot see the Taj from the entrance due to the fog, sometimes due to poor visibility. It appears as if the Taj has disappeared! There are water fountains and canals lined with trees that lead up to the monument. There are sprawling gardens on either side of the Taj Mahal.
Our guide throws one exciting fact after another about this monument. Contrary to what one thinks, the Taj Mahal is not square but hexagonal in shape. The four minarets tilt outwards so that in the eventuality of an earthquake, the minarets would fall outwards rather than on the central dome. The Taj Mahal is actually taller than the Qutab Minar. More than 28 precious and semi-precious stones have been inlaid in white marble brought from Makrana in Rajasthan. Jasper, turquoise, onyx, lapis lazuli, sapphire, jade, carnelian are the important ones. The Taj Mahal was covered with black scaffolding so that it wouldn’t be bombed by enemy planes during the Indo-Pakistan wars.
Princess Diana’s Bench
We then head to a raised platform in front of the Taj Mahal. Manoj Kumar wants us to sit on a bench here and click a photo with the Taj Mahal’s backdrop. Intrigued, he explains that Princess Diana had sat on this bench during her visit in 1992. It has since been christened as ‘Princess Diana’s Bench.’
Photos clicked, we now head to see the Taj Mahal mausoleum from close quarters. One needs to wear shoe covers and have a special entry ticket for the actual structure. On the left of the Taj Mahal is the red sandstone mosque. Only the successive generation of artisans who made the Taj are permitted to offer prayers here. Visitors are allowed to walk in and explore. Floral and geometrical designs adorn the walls and ceiling of the mosque. The Mihrab is in white marble with Arabic calligraphy adorning the arches. Latticework on the windows permits light to filter. We can see the Taj Mahal from inside the arch of the mosque.
It’s finally time for us to visit the mausoleum. Floral and geometric patterns adorn the Taj Mahal, and verses from the Quran are inscribed on panels at the entrance. Our guide points to some optical illusions that are built-in. Although the Arabic letters appear the same size from top to bottom, they are actually larger at the top and become smaller as they get lower. This was done to facilitate ease of reading. A three-sided column appears six-sided thanks to a black zigzag pattern carved on it.
We enter the arch-shaped doorway of the mausoleum and see the false sarcophagi of Mumtaz Mahal and Shah Jahan. The actual graves are in the basement and are out of bounds for tourists. The latticework jhali around the chamber allows light to trickle in. Photography inside the mausoleum is not permitted.
After exiting the inner chamber, stroll to the rear side of the Taj Mahal and can see the Yamuna River. The Mehtab Baug and Sunset View Point where we were the previous evening are across the river. Our guide points to a secret underground chamber which he claims was connected to the Agra Fort.
Shah Jahan was imprisoned by his son Aurangzeb and kept in Agra Fort. From a small room, he would gaze at the Taj Mahal, which he had so lovingly made.
The Guest House
The guest house made in red sandstone is on the right of the Taj Mahal. Although a guest house, it was never really used – as staying near a Mausoleum at night was considered a bad omen. I want to explore it, but our guide cautions that there are beehives, so it is not recommended.
Taj on moonlit nights
As we leave the Taj Mahal complex, our guide tells us that we should plan to visit the Taj Mahal next time on a moonlit night. Tickets for these five moonlit nights need to be collected in person. Only a group of fifty tourists are allowed at a time, and there is heavy security. One can only see the Taj from a distance and can’t enter the gardens or the mausoleum. The sight is to be seen to be believed. Moonlight falls on the white marble and illuminates it like a jewel in the dark.
The Taj Museum is located on the western side of the Taj Mahal gardens. We were running short of time and didn’t visit it. But do plan a visit if you like visiting museums.
Watching artisans at work
The subsequent generation of the original artisans who made the Taj Mahal has continued to practice the same techniques to make marble artefacts. We head to a workshop where an artisan demonstrates how the inlaying of the precious stones is done in marble.
The Taj Mahal is on the bucket list of every traveller. Whether you are a honeymooning couple, photographer, historian or anyone who likes all things beautiful, it will surely seduce you with its charm and beauty. Its aura will linger long after you have bid adieu to it.
We also visited the Agra Fort, Itimad-ud-Daulah and Akbar’s Tomb. But those are different travelogues.
Nearest Airport: Delhi
Distances: Delhi-Agra: 245 km (4 ½ hours by road via Taj/Yamuna Expressway)
Where to stay: we stayed at the ITC Mughal. You can do a net search for various options depending on budget and comfort.
Travel Tip: The Eastern Gate is the best entry and exit to and from the Taj Mahal. There are two types of entry tickets available. A regular one if you want to enter the complex, but you won’t get to see the mausoleum. For visiting the main mausoleum, you need to pay extra. Due to the pandemic, online tickets are only available. Mornings are the best time to visit the Taj Mahal complex and evenings for the Viewpoint near Mehtab Baug. Located 35 km from Agra is Fatehpur Sikri, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that is worth visiting.
Guide for Taj Mahal: Manoj Kumar Sharma 9319137645