Arguably the number one sight in India is the Taj Mahal. Located in the city of Agra in the state of Uttar Pradesh it is said to be the most beautiful building in the world. It is one of those things that is so iconic, it is burnt into our collective consciousness. Anyone remember that famous bench with an allegedly sad-looking Lady Diana?! Strangely it’s almost easy to dismiss, as we’ve seen it so many times in photographs – what could seeing the Taj Mahal & Agra in person possibly add?
As we found out, actually quite a lot! It takes being there to fully appreciate the vision, grandeur, workmanship, majesty, beauty and almost purity to this building, which changes from hour to hour as the sun cycles over head as it has done for hundreds of years.
Part of what makes this building so beautiful is the stone that it is made of – a local type of durable white marble which is also semi-transparent. This, coupled with a wealth of semi-precious pietra dura stonework means that the appearance of the Taj is in a constant state of flux.
The Taj Mahal, finished in 1653, is also an eternal love story as it was built as a mausoleum by the Mughal ruler Shah Jahan for his beloved third wife Mumtaz who died whilst giving birth to their 14th child. He was also later buried there by her side. Poet Rabindranath Tagore described the Taj as “A teardrop on the cheek of eternity” and we think that is spot on!
We spent a good three hours of the late afternoon at the Taj and were captivated by site. There are formal gardens, tonnes of great photo spots, a small museum, entry into the mosque and of course the opportunity to enter the mausoleum (magnificent, but no pictures allowed, sorry!) and the platform around it. Oddly, the throngs of tourists which so often spoil an experience or photograph actually added to our experience. The Indian ladies were incredibly well turned out in their beautiful colourful saris and it all just fitted together perfectly.
We also discovered a new phenomenon (for us at least!) – Indians love having their selfie taken with us! We are sure that this is all tourists, but we got to feel like celebs for a couple of hours. When we asked why they wanted a picture with us, the simple answer was that we are foreigners. Hooray for being exotic at least somewhere in the world. If you want to be left alone however, it’s best to nip it in the bud, as soon as one person got their selfie, then the floodgates were open and we were inundated. We’ve also coined a new word, which is the stealthie, for those who don’t ask first!
Alternative views of the Taj Mahal
We also viewed the rear of the Taj from the opposite bank of the Yamuma River, from a park named Mehtab Bagh.
You can also see the Taj from a distance from the superb red sandstone Agra Fort which also contains some more magnificent royal palaces built by Shah Jahan who was imprisoned here by his own usurper son until he died. Part of the love story is that he always had a view of his wife’s mausoleum from that gilded cage.
Aside from the Agra Fort, you can visit a ‘Baby Taj’ (I’timād-ud-Daulah). This is the mausoleum of Mumtaz’s grandfather and it is again in white marble with magnificent pietra dura work. It has the added bonus of beautiful gardens and a view onto the river where you can watch the local kids (who must be resistant to all disease) jumping around in the beyond-filthy water.
Diwali in Agra
We also took some time to check out the local market as it was Diwali, and the most interesting things on offer were the brightly coloured flowers which were used to adorn houses, businesses and tuk-tuks at this time of year. Later at the hostel we also got to join in a Hindu prayer so now we are proper Indians!
Overall we weren’t too enamoured with the town of Agra – coming from Delhi we were hoping for a quiet, tranquil, pastoral town that lived in the divine shadow of the Taj, in a constant state of mystical bliss. Well, it wasn’t quite like that. Agra is dirty, polluted and chaotic just like Delhi, only considerably smaller. However, the presence of the Taj does go some way to making you forget that you may as well be in one of Dante’s inferno’s circles, such is its power and magic.
The Taj is the perfect example of how architecture can transcend earthly boundaries and connect you with the divine. Also the size of the town meant that we could visit the other beautiful sites more easily than we could in Delhi, which is a massive plus. But let’s face it, people go to Agra for the Taj, we only felt a similar feeling when we visited Machu Picchu in Peru, these are the kind of man-made constructions that make the time, energy, hassle and money needed to visit them well worth it. If this is what the rest of India has in store for us, that is, mind-boggling chaos with the odd pearl of indescribable and transcendental beauty, then so be it. Simply put the Taj Mahal is the greatest man-made building we have ever been lucky enough to experience. Now we want more, India don’t let us down!