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Last year during my trip to North India, I finally made one of my dreams come true: I saw the Taj Mahal.
I am very curious and appreciative of the treasures of our planet. That’s why whenever I travel, I’m always looking forward to visiting UNESCO World Heritage Sites. They are classified into three categories: monuments, archeological sites and natural wonders. To me, the Taj Mahal was the UNESCO monument I was expecting the most and the one I was dreaming to see. There is a reason it is one of the New 7 Wonders of the World.
Here is how I met with the Taj Mahal. We arrived in Agra at 3 am, from the Varanasi-Khajuraho train. We hadn’t booked any hotel and after being turned down three times, we took the first hotel that opened us the door. The hotel was a complete disaster but it offered us our first glimpse of the Taj Mahal in the morning, from the rooftop terrace. It’s here, we’re so close. Its majestic dome is taller than the other buildings in the city. We can even see one of the minaret and its huge ocre red entrance gates.
When we wake-up from this short night, we don’t rush to the Taj Mahal. We want this moment to be unique, so we wait til the next day. Meanwhile, we’re heading to Agra Fort. It’s an imposing citadel made of red sandstone, whose walls reach up to 20m high. Inside the Agra Fort, we will get a second view on the Taj Mahal, from afar.
And it’s actually interesting to visit Agra Fort BEFORE the Taj Mahal because this fort was extended by Shâh Jahân, the man that had the Taj Mahal built (in homage to his wife Mumtaz who died while giving birth to their 14th child, but everyone knows that story). By visiting the fort, you will already have an idea of the architectural style (besides the military part of the fort): there will be white marble and pietra dura.
The next day, we are woken-up by the call of the mosque, around 5 am. Today is THE big day. Entering the premises of the Taj Mahal turned out epic. Read the paragraph “Practical details” below to avoid wasting time on the D-day. Now let’s move on to the visit of a dream come true.
I wasn’t disappointed by my visit of the Taj Mahal. It met my expectations and let me tell you I had high expectations for the Taj Mahal, after all these years of idealizing it. Yet, I didn’t get that « WOW » effect. You know, when your heart beats rise up, you have tinglings in your fingers and the tears are closed to drop. I knew I was living an important moment and I wish I had that « WOW » effect to top it up, to engrave this day in my memory. It wasn’t the case but it didn’t ruin my visit of the Taj Mahal.
It was still a visit full of emotions, a moment of quiet and respect in front of this monument. Yes, despite the hords of tourists, I’ve managed to get some peace, alone with my thoughts, in different parts of the Taj Mahal gardens.
It is actually true that during the day, the colors of the white marble will change as the sun rises in the sky until its climax. When the sun was hiding, the Taj was sparkling white and when the sun showed up, the marble was turning into warm shades of beige, yellow, even gold. At this moment, with golden reflections, the Taj Mahal was absolutely beautiful.
For Paul, the visit was also memorable, but for different reasons. The previous night, we ate at the hotel’s restaurant. During the night, he got nasty stomach aches and spent the rest of the night in the bathroom. It was meant to happen to one of us, this time it was Paul. In India, you pretty much can’t avoid it. Anyway, Paul puked in the Taj Mahal gardens. He left a part of him there.
The Taj Mahal up close
After this less than glamorous information, but yet completely inherent to a trip to India, let’s get back to the beauty of the place. Let’s zoom in on the details, on the facades, the domes, the carvings…
At the bottom of the Taj Mahal
This is where we’ll ask you to put on the shoe covers you were given at the ticket office. Take your time to walk around the monument, several times. Linger over the details of the facades, on the arches, on the Pietra Dura, those semi-precious stones that are embed in the marble in the shape of flowers. Up to 35 gemstones have been used on the Taj Mahal. Don’t forget to check out the landscape at the back on Yamuna river.
Inside the Taj Mahal
The inside is not flabbergasting. Even though there are ornaments, carvings on the marble, we barely see them because it’s very dark inside (and electric torches are forbidden). It is also forbidden to take pictures inside. We walk through four empty rooms in a circle. The last room hosts the tombstones of the dead wife and the husband. A marble structure delicately cut out in honeycomb shape circles the tombs. In the centre, two small coffins. The real bodies of Mumtaz and Shâh Jahân are located in the Taj’s underground.
Anyway, the inside of the Taj Mahal clearly isn’t the highlight of the visit. The astonishment is happening outside the mausoleum.
Practical Details :
Entrance ticket for the Taj Mahal : 750 Rs for foreigners (includes shoe-covers and a small bottle of water). The South ticket office is located 1 km higher in the street. Electric golf cars will take you to the Taj entrance for free.
Opening hours : officially from sun rise to sun set. Which doesn’t mean anything, it is very vague and can vary according to seasons. We showed up in front of the monument at 5:20 am and we have waited for ever before they opened. I would say not before 6:45 am. Therefore, it is impossible to observe sun rise over the Taj Mahal.
Warning, the Taj is closed on Fridays, cult day for Muslims.
The entry procedure to the Taj Mahal : one queue for women and one for men. Body-search (behind a curtain for women) + all bags go through X-rays + all bags get searched + all bags gets emptied + go back to the begining of the queue because you probably had a forbidden item with you. The queue for women, who all have handbags, is awfully long, even early in the morning.
No food, no phone, no video camera, no tripod/gorilla pod/monopod, no cables of any sort (phone chargers, earphones), no guide books, no books… To be honest, don’t bring anything with you. In order to avoid any disappointment and waste another hour queuing, leave everything at your hotel. Bring only a few bank notes and your camera and nothing else. I had to queue again because I had a small notebook of white pages in my bag. Apparently, I can blow up the Taj Mahal with an empty notebook. Didn’t you know ?! It’s a weapon of mass destruction. Ridiculous.
How long does it take to visit the Taj Mahal ? When you pay 750 Rs and you know that you are visiting such an exceptional monument, you want to make the most of it. You want to be sure you saw the monument under every angle. You walk around the mausoleum again and again, even though you already did it three times, because you want to make sure you observed carefully enough every details (arabic writings, carved flowers, gemstones, columns with geometrical patterns…). You want to make sure you took in everything the place had to offer, that you made beautiful photos…
We could have stayed longer, but after three good hours walking around the site, we had seen everything there was to see. We left the city of Agra around 10 am and caught a bus to the ghost town of Fatehpur Sikri.
What to wear: The Taj Mahal is the only site in India, the only sacred place which you can visit wearing mini shorts and a tank top. No one will tell you anything. I was surprised and rather shocked by the improper outfit of some tourists. Even if it’s not a prayer place, it is a mausoleum, a sacred site, a place of pilgrimage to many Indians, therefore it is a place of respect.
Not recommended hotel : DO NOT go to hotel Shahjahan. We paid 1000 Rs, the fan was above the window curtain so we had absolutely no privacy in this room. Three plugs out of four were out of service. There were no sheets on the bed and no toilet paper. And worst of all, Paul got food poisoning at their restaurant. That was our worst stay in India. Apart from that, it is located 400m from West gate and 700m from South gate of the Taj Mahal.
Do not make the same mistake as we did. If you arrive from a night train, do make a reservation and ask your hotel to send you someone to pick-you up. Hotels in Agra are all closed at night. The receptionists sleep on the floor in the hotel loby but very few will open the door for you.
How was your visit to the Taj Mahal ? Did you get that “WOW” effect or were you disappointed ? Is the Taj Mahal on your bucket list ? What other monuments do you have on your bucket list ?