11.06.2012 - 11.06.2012 42 °C
If there is one landmark people associate with India, it is the Taj Mahal in Agra. Going to India without visiting it was simply not an option. We wondered, however, if it really could live up to the incredible hype? Too high expectations can ruin any experience and our expectations for the Taj Mahal were high.
We had decided early on to do Taj Mahal as a day trip from Delhi (more about Delhi in the next blog post) rather than spending a night there, in order to limit our stops. Due to the school holiday season, we couldn't get train tickets and instead opted for a car with a driver (it's a legitimate backpacker option, honest...). There is an abundance of operators selling these packages and after some shopping around and bargaining we managed to get a decent price. Slightly more expensive than going with a train or a bus, but pretty fantastic as we got to decide when and where to go (avoiding stopping at expensive stops, not having to be held back or rushed by other travellers etc.)
Agra is around 250 kilometres from Delhi so we started at 6 am to get there in good time. Amazingly, the road to Agra was almost entirely without potholes so the ride was pleasant - we could even read our books.
Four hours later we arrived outside Taj Mahal. We were immediately attacked by a thousand hawkers but by now we feel a bit like Morpheus in The Matrix - we just glided through the crowds, (seemingly) unbothered. Motorised vehicles are not allowed to drive up to the site which is great,as it makes it more tranquil (pretty rare in this country!). The walkway up to the gate was also very clean - it's impossible not to notice these things in India.
We got our entry tickets and were next approached by official, or maybe it was "official" guides. They showed us the prices on their laminated badges but of course, as always in India, nothing is ever fixed - after a bit of haggling we had a guide for a third of the price. Our guide turned out be excellent, and really managed to explain and point out interesting details that we wouldn't have appreciated by ourselves.Taj Mahal is all about symmetry. The Taj has exactly identical faces on all four sides. Its not only the Taj itself but also the grounds and the gates around it that are perfectly symmetrical. It's impossible to explain with words, but it's so impressive, and it starts already outside the main gate.
A quick stop outside the main gate to the Taj Mahal - our guide making sure we get in the right mindset before entering
The gate - amazingly impressive in itself and just a means to transport you to the main attraction
Our guide was quite amusing and gave us strict instructions on how to approach the temple "start here, in the middle! Walk in a straight line and watch the Taj, without looking to the sides! Don't be distracted! This is an important experience!".
On the way in - not taking our eyes off the Taj
He was right. It was a great experience to walk towards and through the gate, seeing the Taj Mahal grow as we were approaching through the gateway into the light. We were also relieved - it did live up to the hype.
The Taj Mahal and us
Four months without going to the gym hasn't affected Helena's strength at all
Our guide had all sorts of crazy ideas for photos - he set this one up of an awestruck and sweaty Grant before the Taj
It's a funny feeling to be faced with such an iconic tourist site that you feel you have grown up with and seen a thousand times before. But it was as impressive as we had hoped, and full of beautiful details when you get up close. We learnt a few interesting facts and statistics and we won't bore you with them here. Nothing can really transmit the feeling of seeing it anyway. The main thing is that it is a mausoleum commissioned by Shah Jahan, for his favourite wife Mumtaz Mahal, who died while giving birth to their 14th child. The construction started in 1623 and was finalised in 1653. The things men do for love!
We had a look inside (where no photographs are allowed) and it's magnificent as well. We were amazed by the beautiful details of the architecture and the intricate decorations and carving, inside as well as outside the building. Still, the main effect you get from gazing upon the Taj Mahal from a distance. There are also a number of optical illusions which all serve to make the Taj Mahal even more beautiful for example flat pillars that appear jagged from a distance due to the tile details on them. Taj Mahal is an example of Mughal architecture, which is a combination of Persian, Turkish and Indian architecture.
So, final verdict - it IS as good they say!
After the Taj Mahal we went to the other main sight of Agra - the Agra Fort. Shah Jahan was put under house arrest here by his son here shortly after the completion of Taj Mahal. Luckily he had a good view of the Taj Mahal from there and was buried in the mausoleum next to his wife, after his death.
View of the Taj Mahal from Agra Fort
The fort is allegedly one of the most impressive Mughal forts in India. But it is very difficult to follow the Taj Mahal and also the amazing forts we saw in Rajasthan. It was beautiful but we didn't linger for long as the heat was excruciating.
Inside Agra Fort
We decided to head back after the fort and were back in Delhi in the early evening, around five hours earlier than if we had gone on a bus tour - amazing! Our driver took us, despite our protests, to a shopping centre on the way back, hoping to get some commission. He had already been quite disappointed when he realised that we already had had lunch when we came back from the Taj Mahal and hence wouldn't eat at a place that would reward him for us eating there. It wasn't until we angrily told him to take us back to the hotel that he reluctantly took us back - which obviously affected his tip. Everyone is trying to do this in Delhi but we had expected better when we had paid extra for our own driver.
Regardless of the driver's vain attempts, we were very happy with what would be almost our last bit of sightseeing in India. Taj Mahal is every bit as amazing as people say!