The Taj Mahal
Scratch the surface of Shah Jahan’s love life and you’ll find enough political polygamy and silk-clad concubines to create a Persian Game of Thrones, with his fourth wife, Mumtaz Mahal, lasting long enough to deliver their fourteenth child and immortalise the pair in the echelons of romantic history. Romance may not have initially stemmed from Mumtaz’s almost permanent pregnancy from 1613 to 1631 but zip forward a couple of decades to 1643 and you’ll find the completion of a marble mausoleum which would set the standard for romantic symbolism from here to eternity.
Estimated to have cost a total of 32 million rupees, about £640 million in modern money, the Taj Mahal represents the might of the Mughal Empire as well as one of the grandest, or guiltiest, gestures to a spouse ever. Millions of tourists are now drawn to this UNESCO World Heritage Site every year.
After entering on foot from any one of three gates: East, West and South, it’s the onion-shaped dome on top of the tomb that forms the central focus for visitors, with the interior perhaps a little less meditative than the views from the landscaped gardens outside. That said, there are always a fair few touts and ‘professional photographers’ hanging around the paths and water channels surrounding the Taj Mahal and if you want to have your photo taken then consider offering your own camera as you’re likely to get a better result.
Understandably, security is tight, so think airport check-in and avoid edible, sharp and electrical items, although one phone per person is usually allowed. Once inside the mausoleum you’ll be asked to take off or cover your shoes.
How to get to the Taj Mahal
How to get to the Taj Mahal
In order to reduce traffic pollution, getting to the Taj Mahal requires visitors to embark on the local ‘park and walk’ scheme or electric bus service. Cycle rickshaws from the car park to any of the gates don’t cost the earth and give something back to local workers as well as saving your legs from a 15 minute walk.
Going on an organised tour means that you can travel from Agra before sunlight and bypass the ticket desk queues at the East Gate as you follow your guide to watch one of the world’s most iconic scenes before taking a tour of the grounds, tomb and surrounding buildings.
Best time to visit the Taj Mahal
Best time to visit the Taj Mahal
As a working mosque, the Taj Mahal isn’t open to tourists on a Friday but the grounds are open for the rest of the week with East and West gates open from sunrise (6am) to sunset (7pm) whilst the South Gate is open from 8am until 5pm. March and April are often the best months to see the Taj at sunrise as early morning fog isn’t as prevalent as it can be from October to February. Seeing the Taj Mahal at night is also an amazing experience with a limited number of visitors allowed for five nights a month either side of the full moon (except for Fridays).
The key to avoiding the crowds is to go as early as possible, especially inside the mausoleum itself; best advice is to head for either the West or East gates about 30 minutes before they open.
Alternatively, you can chance your luck and head over about an hour and a half after the gates open – timing your visit after the initial early morning rush but before the 10am arrival of Indian tour groups. Your tour leader or local guide will know the local routines, and will plan the best time to visit depending on the time of year and day of the week.
A great way to capture the sun setting over the Taj Mahal is to move over to the opposite bank of the River Yamuna just before dusk where you’ll find the Mehtab Bagh Gardens, situated to the north of the main mausoleum complex, and blissfully tranquil.
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Places to see near the Taj Mahal
Red Fort, Agra
Just 2.5km down the road, the Red Fort of Agra is thought to have been Shah Jahan’s final resting place after he was imprisoned by his son, the sixth Mughal Emperor, Aurangzeb. Featuring large lawns, impressive Mughal architecture and some great views over the River Yamuna towards the Taj Mahal, the Red Fort is an experience in its own right and another fine example of the strength and the finances of the ever-impressive Mughal Dynasty.
This former capital city of the Mughal Empire was built by the third Mughal Emperor, Akbar, and can be found around 40km west of Agra. Featuring several water features, including a vast artificial lake, Fatehpur Sikri was only occupied by Akbar for a decade before he upped sticks and left for Lahore in 1585. The red sandstone public buildings, courtyards, Hindu and Islamic artwork, and places of worship, including one of India’s largest mosques, Jama Masjid, provide one of India’s most important collections of preserved Mughal architecture.
This intricately carved sandstone and white marble tomb provides the resting place for Akbar the Great as well as insight into his love of deep thought, science and the arts. Designed as a five-storey pyramid with the tomb below the cenotaph on the ground floor, this is another amazing example of Mughal architecture with marble panelled inlays, patterned ceilings and Islamic calligraphy providing a fascinating glimpse into the skills of 17th century Indians as well as the wealth and excesses of the Empire for which they worked.
Recommended reading material includes The Age of Kali by William Dalrymple and No full stops in India by Mark Tully
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