Taj-struck in Agra

Some destinations are so hyped up, so seemingly magical and otherworldly, so commonly listed on bucket lists that they sometimes can lose their luster when you finally come face-to-face with them. So high are your expectations that the reality cannot possibly measure up with the image that you’ve built in your mind.

The Taj Mahal is not one of those places.

The Taj Mahal in Agra
The Taj Mahal in Agra

No, the Taj Mahal fulfilled every bit of my sky-high expectations and then some. I was expecting it to be easily one of the highlights of my week in India, and I wasn’t disappointed. Taj Mahal means “crown of palaces” in Arabic, and it’s a fitting name. It’s the crown architectural jewel of Agra, of Uttar Pradesh, of Rajasthan, maybe even of the entirety of India. You can’t argue with the fact that the shining white marble mausoleum, with its bulbous dome and the spindly towers that flank it, is one of the most impressive and iconic buildings in the entire world. 

Every bit of the hype is deserved.
Every bit of the hype is deserved.

When our bus first entered into Agra, I’d been gazing out the window, but most of my attention had been focused on whatever Nerdist podcast episode had been playing on my iPod. As I was stifling back laughter of some hilarious observation from Chris Hardwick, it appeared on the horizon: the Taj. It was tiny, barely the size of my thumbnail, but that didn’t stop me from squawking in total shock. It had taken a few seconds for me to find my voice; I settled for frantically gesturing out the window until I managed to excitedly crow, “Taj! Taj! Taj on the right!”  Even from miles and miles away, the Taj Mahal grabs something deep within you.

I managed to keep my cool for about three seconds...before letting my unbridled glee show.
I managed to keep my cool for about three seconds…before letting my unbridled glee show.

And up close, it is even more magnificent. As we’d waited in line to enter the surrounding gardens, I shook with excitement. There are a few moments in my life that I am sure I will remember for the rest of my years. Laying my eyes on the Taj Mahal for the first time will be one of them. Walking through the entrance gate to be greeted with the sight of a monument that, up until then, I had only dreamed of seeing in person made me weak in the knees. I may have even teared up a bit. I asked our guide if he was still impressed with the Taj Mahal, even after seeing it dozens and dozens of times, and he replied, “Every time is like the first time. It doesn’t lose its magic.”

The ripples of the pool's fountains make for amazing reflections.
The ripples of the pool’s fountains make for amazing reflections.

As we gathered together for a group picture, I couldn’t help but turn around every few seconds to catch another glimpse of the mausoleum. I wanted to drink in every second that I could, until the Taj Mahal was burned onto my retinas. It was sort of like coming face-to-face with your favorite movie star: I didn’t really know how to react, aside from staring in wide-eyed wonder. I was Taj-struck.

I got this money shot once the fountains were turned off and the sun started to dip into the horizon.
I got this money shot once the fountains were turned off and the sun started to dip into the horizon.

You think you can get a sense of just how immense the Taj is when you see pictures of it, but to tell the truth, it’s not until it rises above you, grandiose in its slick white marble and intricate carvings, that you can truly appreciate just how massive it is. At one point, one of my friends was at a loss for words and simply exclaimed, “Holy cow…” Aside from being the perfect assessment to use in India, it was also summed up just how awestruck the Taj makes you.

Looking over the reflecting pool towards the South Gate.
Looking over the reflecting pool towards the South Gate.

The closer you get, the more apparent it becomes that this is truly a one-of-a-kind architecture. Despite what most pictures portray, the Taj isn’t solid white, or even cream or beige. Instead, each marble piece has a unique whorled pattern, like creamy caramel syrup swirled through frothy milk on the top of a latte. This was probably my favorite realization concerning the Taj Mahal, because it made it far more than just one giant chunk of shining ivory marble.

The mottled pattern of the Taj's marble.
The mottled pattern of the Taj’s marble.

Near the end of my visit, I’d decided I’d taken enough pictures and parked myself on a bench near the southern gate of the complex. Staring at the Taj as it turned rosy pink in the dying sunlight, it hit me, more strongly than ever, that this gorgeous building, so loved and admired by people the world over, was truly a labor of love. It was commissioned in 1632 by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan in loving memory of his third wife, Mumtaz Mahal. That romanticism adds a whole new layer to the Taj’s magnificence. Imagine being so enamored, so hopelessly in love with someone that the only way you to know how to deal with your grief after they’ve died is building something like the Taj Mahal.

What a memorial.
What a memorial.

On a practical note, getting into the Taj Mahal can be a bit frustrating unless you play your cards right. First, not much is allowed into the complex. You can bring your camera, your phone, and…that’s about it. No food or drink, though a bottle of water is provided with your ticket. No stuffed animals to pose with you. No tripods. No makeup, like lipstick or blush. Be safe rather than sorry; just leave everything else behind at your hotel.

The setting sun behind one of the minor gates, from the terrace of the mausoleum.
The setting sun behind one of the minor gates, from the terrace of the mausoleum.

There are two types of tickets: one that costs 250 rupees and one that costs 750 rupees. Trust me. Spring for the more expensive ticket, no matter how much you might grumble about it. Having the “fast access” ticket means that the line to get into the Taj’s complex (as in, the surrounding gardens and walkways) will be much shorter. That’s all well and good, but having that ticket is much more helpful when you go up onto the dais of the Taj itself.

In front of the mausoleum.
In front of the mausoleum.

First, there’s a line to get up onto the terrace. You’ll have to shed your shoes and slip on the cloth slippers provided when you enter. Then once you’re up on that platform, there’s another line to get into the main room of the mausoleum, and that’s where your top-tier ticket comes in handy. The regular-access line when we were there literally circled the entire circumference of the pavilion. The wait to enter was over an hour; many of the tourists waiting to get in likely wouldn’t before the complex closed. But for the “fast access” ticket-holders, there’s no line at all. Spending those extra 500 rupees will make your life a whole lot easier.

Slippered feet for walking on the marble floors of the Taj.
Slippered feet for walking on the marble floors of the Taj.

That being said, I much preferred the exterior of the Taj to the interior of the mausoleum. You’re crammed in like sardines, and despite the fact that pictures aren’t allowed of the tomb, many people happily snap away with their cameras. Guards do their best to block the shots, but I still found it disappointing that people would so flagrantly disregard rules that were there in order to respect someone’s resting place. I was more than happy to retreat back outside and soak up the view from there.

And what a view it was.
And what a view it was.

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