The Taj Mahal: the most famous monument in India, a UNESCO World Heritage site, possibly one of the wonders of the world, depending on which list you consult. Everyone I talked to about where to go in India said, “And of course you have to see the Taj Mahal.”
With places like this, that are so well-known in popular culture and about which I’ve heard for so long, I always wonder if the real thing will live up to the image that I’ve created in my mind.
Before I went, I heard a lot from other travelers about Agra, the city where the Taj Mahal is located. They all concurred that the city was not a pleasant place to be, that it is a giant tourist trap, that people weren’t as friendly as in other places in India, etc. So I always asked them, should I just skip it? No way, they said.
It’s absolutely worth it, they assured me.
So I went, and I do think they were right
There are always so many people trying to visit the Taj Mahal on any given day that the recommendation is to wake up around 5am and get there before sunrise. Then you can be one of the first people in the gates, which allows you to see its magnificence in the early morning light and also to get a picture that doesn’t have a ton of other people in the background.
However, as previously noted, I am not a morning person and even though I had two mornings in Agra to try to get there by sunrise, I did not succeed. By the time we arrived at the ridiculously late hour of 6:30am, there were already tons of early birds who had swarmed in ahead of us. Good for them. It was still amazing, even with hundreds of other people sharing the experience.
In India, people say the Taj Mahal is one of the greatest symbols of love, because the ruling Shah had it built to in 1632 to honor his late wife, whom he loved dearly and who died giving birth to their 14th child. The monument is actually a mausoleum, where the remains of the Shah’s wife were entombed. And later, the Shah’s own tomb was added beside that of his wife.
It is a romantic image, I guess, to think of this heartbroken Shah deciding to put all his resources into building something beautiful for his wife’s memory.
And now it is one of the most-visited touristic sites in the world. As we walked past their tombs inside the building and people snapped photos (despite the numerous NO PHOTO signs), I wondered what the Shah would think of the spectacle that his monument has become now.
Up close, the best part is getting to see all the intricate details that make the Taj Mahal special. After seeing it, I understand why it took nine years to complete the decorations after the initial structure had been finished. There are lines and lines of beautiful Arabic calligraphy, which inscribe verses from the Qu’ran on the monument. And there is a lot of inlaid stone work, with decorative flowers and other designs. It’s gorgeous.
We accidentally fell into a tourist trap and ended up visiting a workshop where people are still doing the same painstaking stone inlay work that they did on the Taj Mahal. It was pretty cool to see, even though I was displeased that our tuk tuk driver had tricked us into going there. It is very detailed work, that they are still doing completely by hand.
Allegedly, almost everyone who does this kind of work in Agra is descended from one of the people who originally worked on the Taj Mahal.
It seems like something they just tell tourists because it makes them more likely to buy their goods. But then, there were 20,000 people who were originally employed in the 1600s to work on the construction, so hey, it’s possible. Now these alleged descendants use their skills to create tiles and plates and other things that tourists can buy and take a piece of India home with them. Honestly, it is a pretty nice souvenir and I thought about buying something for my family until I thought about having to carry these heavy items around for the next few months. And of course, they weren’t cheap.
The Agra Fort – has some similar stone work to the Taj Mahal
As for Agra as a city, I ended up agreeing with everyone else who told me there wasn’t much to recommend it. It’s like any place that has a huge tourist attraction; it has a ton of hotels, lots of buses going in and out with people who want to see the attraction, lots of kind of tacky restaurants for the people to eat at, and a bunch of local residents trying to earn some money by selling some cheap souvenirs to those people.
But it was a pretty cool experience, and a nice end to my India trip. After visiting there, it felt like a good ending point, though I would have loved to spend many more months in India. The morning after I saw the Taj Mahal, I went back to my hotel and somewhat impulsively booked a flight to Kathmandu for two days later. It just felt like time to say goodbye.
It’s so incredible. I spent less than two months in India, but it changed me as a person. I left a piece of my heart here. And I left so much unseen in this massive country. I’m not sure when it will be possible, but I know I will be back here at some point with more time to spend. I want to keep discovering the things that India can teach me about humanity and about myself.