“How could we come to India and not see the Taj Mahal? I mean, it’s THE symbol of India. One of the most beautiful structures ever. A wonder of the world. A must see…isn’t it?” These were the thoughts running through my head as we struggled to get train tickets to Agra, the city that holds the famous sight. Long lines, crowded ticket counters, sold out trains all conspired against our visit and my determination to see the Taj began to waiver. It took some effort but we finally made it. And then…wow.
The crowds were already queuing up at dawn and we joined their ranks. I think Shiva and Vishnu (or possibly both) decided to reward our perseverance in getting to Agra by coinciding our visit with World Heritage Day. This meant that our entrance to the Taj Mahal was absolutely free! We entered the grounds and walked through the main gate to behold the famous and stunning view of the Taj.
It was wonderful. Nathan and I perched ourselves on a bench to the side of the main aisle to peacefully observe the scene. And we were promptly asked to move so that a French tour group could take photos at the bench. That’s the downside of these beautiful sights – they attract huge volumes of people and the jostling to get that perfect picture can get ugly.
We took our time getting up close to the main building, the mausoleum emperor Shah Jahan built for his deceased wife. The building itself actually has a rather small footprint. The pedestal it stands on and the setting makes it seem much more grand. But as you get closer what you lose in grandeur you gain in great attention to details. The carved marble was inlaid with flower patterns and script or carved into fine, intricate lattices.
For me, the Taj really did live up to the hype. It has a timelessness that belies its 400 years of age. I believe this is a result its perfect proportions. The dome and the carved niches all have soft curves that provide an elegant beauty. In the end, it was well worth the trip.
Agra holds not one but two world heritage sights. A mere 2km away from the Taj is the Agra Fort, a defense complex turned palace. We admired the extremely tall camels pulling tourists to and from the Taj but decided to walk along the river to the fort.
The Agra Fort has its own, crumbling elegance to it. My favorite area was the scalloped archways of the Hall of Public Audiences where the emperor would conduct business. Emperor Shah Jahan actually was imprisoned here for the last eight years of his life where he could see his creation, the Taj, in the distance.
Maybe it’s India’s ancient religious history. Or perhaps it’s all the trash in the streets. But there’s something about India that makes you want to cleanse. (There’s also something about India that makes many tourists want to wear enormous parachute pants that I don’t see on any locals, but I digress.) Our cleansing centers around food and drink. While in India we have been vegetarian and sober, a sort of detoxing for our indulgences in Europe. We stuck to these ideals in Agra, where the food is mostly geared towards the touring hoards. While we enjoyed a decent thali at a restaurant our favorite meals were on the streets.
Our first and last meal of Agra took place in a little corner where three chow mein stands setup shop each night. For a snack, we enjoyed samosas or a fried potato chaat with chickpeas, tamarind, onions and mint chutney. For the most part, we found these in or around the market streets in Agra. These extended south of the Taj within a winding labyrinth of lanes with few other tourists.
Just before our train to Delhi, we walked past the the east gate to the Taj, straight to the riverbank. A Hindu temple occupies this site, but they don’t mind you sticking around the admire the rear Taj views. Surprisingly we were the only tourists there to watch the sunset light up the magnificent building. It was a peaceful way to say goodbye to an understandably crowded treasure of the world.