How do I begin to define a structure that is more iconic brand than historic monument?
A name that instantly conjures up romance and grandeur even when claimed by a humble tea stall, let alone some of the finest hotels and resorts? And whose Chinese made plastic likenesses outnumber the citizens of this overpopulated land?
The Taj Mahal, as I am sure all of you know, is considered a symbol of devotion of the vainglorious but art loving emperor Shah Jahan (King of the World) to his favourite queen Mumtaz Mahal…although his documented sexual proclivities cast aspersions on the myth of his undying love.
Yet, this is possibly the only mausoleum in the world of this scale and beauty not conceived for the monarch himself.
So the myth endures. As evidenced by the long lines of newly weds queuing up to strike romantic poses on the ‘Princess (Diana!) bench’. Or the lip-locked western tourists hoping to seal their love eternally.
Love is good for business. But the enduring myth edges out the fact that this is still a resting place of the dead. With a working mosque next door.
If I had been born a decade or so earlier I would have honeymooned here. (Clubbed with Kashmir of course.) My sister did. As did most everyone from her generation that could afford the trip. We were creatures of habit that way. If that is where everyone went, then that is where we followed.
Then the hype dulled the Taj Mahal’s allure a bit and we (slightly) younger lot looked for less frequented destinations. By the time R & I had saved up enough to travel, the lure of the newly opened (to us) west was more compelling than the charm of a monument that by then was literally coming out of our ears.
In the end, we arrived here more with the intention of putting an end to the “You still haven’t seen the Taj?” question rather than a burning desire to see it.
Considering all that, despite the hype and the cliches of greatness, the Taj Mahal did not disappoint.
It is monumental. it is majestic. it is perfect. So perfect in fact, so cleverly conceptualised its details, that the dominant impression is that of pure simplicity.
I have been thinking about why some people are underwhelmed by the Taj. The common thread among those I know, is the day trip from Delhi. Granted, the new super fast highway gets you here much quicker, but monuments like these are meant to be savoured. The more time you have to sidestep day trippers, the better will be your enjoyment of the site. And the better your photographs. And then there are the alternate views, equally rewarding.
Stay overnight. Or two. There is more to Agra than the Taj Mahal.
TAJ MAHAL TRAVEL TIPS
GETTING TO THE TAJ MAHAL
By Flight: Agra airport is around 7 km from the city centre and is serviced by several domestic airlines flying in from major cities across india.
By Train: Agra Cantonment and Agra Fort are short taxi/auto rides from the centre. Average train journey from Delhi takes around 1.5 to 3 hours. The most convenient trains connecting Agra with Delhi are the Gatimaan Express (non-stop), the New Delhi Habibganj Shatabdi Express and the Taj Express. Tickets can be purchased from the Indian Railways website, from travel websites or travel agents and even from the International Tourist Bureau at the New Delhi railway station. Book well in advance during peak season.
The luxurious Palace on Wheels and the Royal Rajasthan on Wheels also include a stop in Agra.
By Bus: Average journey by bus from Delhi to Agra takes around 3- 4 hours. Buses ply between Agra Idgah Bus Stand and several North Indian cities. Buses depart hourly from the Anand Vihar terminal in New Delhi and cost ₹750 on average.
By Car: The 221 km distance can be covered in about 3+ hours via the Taj Express Highway. The older Mathura Highway (if a stop at Mathura is on your itinerary) is just a few kilometres longer but takes an extra hour or so depending on traffic.
BEST TIME TO VISIT
Winter months between mid November to February are most pleasant. December and January are busiest. April and September are blazing hot but (most luxury) hotel room rates drop to half from April 1st upto September 30. So shoulder season might be worth considering if you enjoy luxury and think you can put up with the heat.
Open daily except Fridays. Ticket counters open one hour before sunrise & close 45 minutes before sunset. Which is approximately between 6 a.m. to 7 p.m.
The Taj Mahal is open for night viewing for 30 min. every full moon night and two days before and after, from 8.30 pm until 12.30 am. Night viewing is not available on Fridays (around the full moon) and during the month of Ramadan.
ENTRANCE FEES (2019-20)
Note: Taj Mahal has reopened (for daytime visits only) on 21 Sep 2020. Manual ticketing isn’t available currently. Entry tickets can only be bought online until further notice.
Adult Indian: ₹50/ Foreigners: ₹1100/ SAARC and BIMSTEC Citizens: ₹540. Free entry for (all) children below 15 years of age. There is an additional fee of ₹200 (for all) to enter the mausoleum.
Tickets can be bought up to 24 hours in advance from the ticket counters. Foreigners will need to show their passports. Domestic citizens can manage with driving licences or any other official identification document.
Night Viewing Fees (five days around full moon as stated): Adult Indian: ₹510/ Foreigners: ₹750/ Children below 15 years: ₹500. Night viewing tickets can be bought 24 hours in advance from the Archaeological Survey of India office on Agra Mall Road between 10:00 am and 06:00 pm.
If it is any consolation, the steep foreigner price includes shoe covers, a bottle of water, a tourist map of Agra and the golf cart transfer to the gate. Foreigner ticket holders also get priority entry to the site ahead of Indians. Even those already in line.
There are two functional gates. The East Gate is closest to the higher end hotels. Get dropped off at the Shilpgram parking area then walk (10 min) or take the golf cart up to the ticket counter. The ticket counter is well before the main entrance to the monument. Tickets cannot be bought anywhere else.
Security is strict and all bags will be scanned. You are only allowed to take bare essentials into the site: wallet, cell phone, camera, and a water bottle each. Food stuff, tobacco, lighters, electronics like chargers, headphones, tablets etc, sharp implements/knives and even camera tripods are strictly banned. Extra batteries might also be disallowed so make sure your camera is fully charged.
Drone cameras are strictly forbidden.
Cloak rooms are available near the ticket counter (at the east gate) to store larger bags. Footwear is not allowed inside the mausoleum and will need to be covered with the cloth covers elsewhere around the monument. The actual graves at a level beneath the sarcophagi are out of bounds for the public.
WHAT TO WEAR
Covering arms, shoulders and knees isn’t mandatory but it is advisable to respect the sanctity of the mausoleum and working mosque. Daytime is warm even in winter so wear light, breathable garments. Carry a light jacket for evenings and early mornings.
WHERE TO STAY
The most atmospheric by far, and boasting the best views, is the Oberoi Amarvilas Agra close to the East Gate.
Find the best option to suit your dates and budget from the wide range of hotels in Agra.