Like most people, the Taj Mahal has been an item on my bucket list for practically my whole life. The tricky thing with bucket lists in the current travel climate (basically, selfies and Instagram are ruining travel, but that’s for another time and another post) is they can actually be more disappointing rather than exhilarating. For example, almost a decade ago, I went to the Forbidden City in Beijing with my family and it was wildly disappointing. The protective plexiglass that had been put up was dirty and had innumerable scratches on it, making it difficult to see what the glass was meant to be protecting. And the people. Lord, the hordes of people shoving their way around trying to see everything. More recently, places like Borobudur in Indonesia – while still beautiful and full of history – are so packed with people trying to get the perfect Instagram shot, that it’s hard to enjoy what the temple was originally created for: peace, prayer and thoughtfulness.
So, when we decided to go to India, I insisted that we head to the Taj Mahal, but was a bit weary about what would meet me there. Jesse had previously been, taking a weekend off while working in Bengaluru to see the modern wonder, and assured me I wouldn’t experience the same thing as what happened at the Forbidden City.
Still, I went in with extremely measured expectations. The Taj opens, allegedly, 30 minutes before sunrise and closes 30 minutes before sunset, so to avoid the crowds we gave ourselves a 5:15 wake up call. Anyone who knows me knows that rising before the sun is my worst nightmare, but it was a sacrifice I was willing to make to beat whatever crowds and tour groups arrived later in the morning. We arrived bright and early at 5:45 – sunrise was at roughly 6:10 and were met with a small queue of about 10 people, which felt reasonable. We’d also carefully thought out our outfits for the day. Not because we were concerned about our selfie game, but because there is a very strict list of things that you can and cannot bring into the Taj, and we did not want to find ourselves waiting in an additional line at a locker to drop bags off. Everything we had fit in our pockets with the exception of our nice camera, which Jesse carried around his shoulders, and the GoPro which I simply held.
As the gates opened, I began to grow antsy with excitement. In India, everywhere that involves a security screening has a separate line for men and women, so Jesse and I inched along through the screening check in our separate lines. I arrived at the patdown and had to explain each and every single bulky item in my pocket – cell phone, wallet, lip balm. Then she got the GoPro. One thing that is strictly verboten on the grounds of the Taj is a tripod. While the GoPro has a screw on tripod in the bottom of the camera mount, I had no intention of using it and simply assumed that the security guard wouldn’t even think to look for a screw-on tripod hidden within the handle of the GoPro mount. Boy was I wrong. The guard had clearly seen this camera and this mount before. I was told that I had to take just the GoPro tripod to the lockers before entering the premises. So I sprinted to the lockers, which were about 400m away from the entrance. It’s not a long distance, but as I left the main gate, I could see the long line of people behind me all working their way onto the grounds and into my future photos while I sprinted away to put a tiny piece of plastic into a locker.
Eventually, I made it onto the stately grounds, winded, frazzled, and annoyed. Not how I wanted to begin my Taj Mahal experience, but I took a few deep breaths before walking through the large sandstone arch that acts as the main entrance. And I am so glad I did because once I turned that first corner, the Taj absolutely took my breath away. Yes, there were lots of people, selfies galore, and people posing in a ridiculous fashion, but all of that gets lost in the beauty and grandeur of the building and grounds.
As you most likely know from the numerous photos of it, a large rectangular water feature lined with hedgerows leads up to the front of the Taj. And while it can be a bit of a crunch to squeeze in and get the obligatory photo there, you can easily step to the side and enjoy the beauty in the quiet and peace of one of the gardens that line the grounds. And it is absolutely worth doing this because it is an incredible structure. It was designed and built to be perfectly symmetrical, and because it was built on top of a foundational plinth, you’re basically forced to up gaze at it, and your jaw can’t help but drop. To the west there’s a mosque and to the east there’s…. well, there’s an empty building that looks exactly like the other mosque that has no purpose other than to make the whole grounds perfectly symmetrical.
None of this even speaks to the detail on the building itself. Once you’ve gotten past the beauty of the grounds, you make your way up to the structure itself. The stunning white marble came from around the Agra area, but the first thing I noticed was not just how beautiful the marble was, but how detailed the craftsmanship was. Scrawled along the arches of the entryway are quotations from the Quran meticulously inlaid into the marble with a rock known as jasper. To think, I can barely write a legible sentence with a pen on a sheet of paper, and yet these artisans perfectly inlaid rock into marble in some of the most elegant script you have ever seen. And this type of detailed inlay work covers every facade of the Taj. This, combined with the finely cut marble windows and screens makes for an overall awe-inspiring structure.
It’s easy to forget that this architectural marvel is ultimately a tomb that a heartbroken widower built for the love of his life. But once you feel like you have gotten your fill at gazing at the exterior (which you never will – it is so easy to search out new details on every inch of the exterior walls) it’s time to enter the mausoleum itself. The mausoleum is equally as stunning as the exterior of the building is, but there is one inconsistency here that’s missing from the rest of the grounds. The main crypt is for Mumtaz Muhal, Shah Jahan’s wife who passed while giving birth to their 14th (!!!!!) child. Shortly after the completion of the Taj, Jahan’s son overthrew him and kept him as a prisoner in the nearby Agra Fort, with a room overlooking the burial place of his beloved wife. After he passed, Shah Jahan was buried alongside his wife in the crypt of the mausoleum. Since it was never planned for Jahan to be buried alongside his wife, his hastily placed tomb is the only item within the entirety of the Taj Mahal complex that does not have a symmetrical complement.
I could go on and on and on about the different ways that the Taj blew me away. The morning light as the rising sun hits one of the four minarets on the foundational plinth, the carving on arches along the facade that are barely noticeable, the way the white marble still shines despite the intense Indian smog and pollution, but the truth is, you have to see it for yourself. India is a country of extremes, and the crowds, sounds and smells may not be for everyone. But one thing that is truly unmissable, even through all of the good and the bad, is the Taj. It is unlike anything you’ll find elsewhere in the world.