India has always enchanted us, appealing by turns to the traveler and adventurer in us, as well as the mystic and dreamer. It appears to have one foot in the ageless past and one foot in the future. Whether you are going to an Asram on an inner journey or going to explore the spices, colours and smells of India, one place you must not miss is the Taj Mahal, simultaneously the most romantic and the most technically amazing achievement in India.
Lonely Planet tells us that its creator, Emperor Shah Jahan, said it made ‘the sun and the moon shed tears from their eyes’. Every year, tourists numbering more than twice the population of Agra pass through its gates to catch a once-in-a-lifetime glimpse of what is widely considered the most beautiful building in the world. Few leave disappointed.
The Taj was built by Shah Jahan as a memorial for his third wife, Mumtaz Mahal, who died giving birth to their 14th child in 1631. The death of Mumtaz left the emperor so heartbroken that his hair is said to have turned grey virtually overnight. Construction of the Taj began the following year and, although the main building is thought to have been built in eight years, the whole complex was not completed until 1653. Not long after it was finished Shah Jahan was overthrown by his son Aurangzeb and imprisoned in Agra Fort where, for the rest of his days, he could only gaze out at his creation through a window. Following his death in 1666, Shah Jahan was buried here alongside Mumtaz.
In total, some 20,000 people from India and Central Asia worked on the building. Specialists were brought in from as far away as Europe to produce the exquisite marble screens and pietra dura (marble inlay work) made with thousands of semiprecious stones.
The Taj was designated a World Heritage Site in 1983 and looks as immaculate today as when it was first constructed – though it underwent a huge restoration project in the early 20th century.
Closed on Fridays, the Taj can be accessed through the west, south and east gates. Tour groups tend to enter through the east and west gates. Independent travellers tend to use the south gate, which is nearest to Taj Ganj, the main area for budget accommodation, and generally has shorter queues than the west gate. The east gate has the shortest queues of the lot, but this is because the ticket office is inconveniently located a 1km walk away at Shilpgram, a dire government-run tourist centre. There are separate queues for men and women at all three gates.
Cameras and videos are permitted but you cannot take photographs inside the mausoleum itself, and the areas in which you can take videos are quite limited.
Do not forget to retrieve your free 500ml bottle of water and shoe covers (included in Taj ticket price). If you keep your ticket you get small entry-fee reductions when visiting Agra Fort, Fatehpur Sikri, Akbar’s Tomb or the Itimad-ud-Daulah on the same day. You can also store your luggage for free beside the ticket offices.
From the south gate, entry to the inner compound is through a very impressive, 30m red sandstone gateway on the south side of the forecourt, which is inscribed with verses from the Quran.
Once inside, the ornamental gardens are set out along classical formal Persian garden lines – a square quartered by watercourses, with an ornamental marble plinth at its centre. When the fountains are not flowing, the Taj is beautifully reflected in the water.
The Taj Mahal itself stands on a raised marble platform at the northern end of the ornamental gardens, with its back to the Yamuna River. Its raised position means that the backdrop is only sky – a masterstroke of design. Purely decorative 40m-high white minarets grace each corner of the platform. They are not quite perpendicular, so that the effect of perspective makes them appear perfectly upright, an amazing feat of engineering. The red sandstone mosque to the west is an important gathering place for Agra’s Muslims. The identical building to the east, the jawab , was built for symmetry.
The central Taj structure is made of semitranslucent white marble, carved with flowers and inlaid with thousands of semiprecious stones in beautiful patterns. A perfect exercise in symmetry, the four identical faces of the Taj feature impressive vaulted arches embellished with pietra dura scrollwork and quotations from the Quran in a style of calligraphy using inlaid jasper. The whole structure is topped off by four small domes surrounding the famous bulbous central dome.
Directly below the main dome is the Cenotaph of Mumtaz Mahal , an elaborate false tomb surrounded by an exquisite perforated marble screen inlaid with dozens of different types of semiprecious stones. Beside it, offsetting the symmetry of the Taj, is the Cenotaph of Shah Jahan , who was interred here with little ceremony by his usurping son Aurangzeb in 1666. Light is admitted into the central chamber by finely cut marble screens. The real tombs of Mumtaz Mahal and Shah Jahan are in a locked basement room below the main chamber and cannot be viewed.
Go to India, discover yourself and discover an amazing country, but don’t forget to go the the Taj Mahal to wonder at this feat of engineering and art, created out of love, so many centuries ago.
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