I visited New Delhi, India on business in March. It was a good time of year to visit; the weather was quite pleasant–low 80’s F and low humidity. I knew that New Delhi might be as close as I would ever get to the world-renowned Taj Mahal, so I arrived from the U.S. very early Saturday morning to allow myself to recuperate and get to Agra, the city where the Taj Mahal is located, before beginning business on Monday. I was traveling with two business colleagues, and we arranged for a driver to take us to Agra on Sunday. Agra is about 130 miles south of New Delhi. At the time, it cost about $180 total for the driver (who was our guide also) and the van for the day. It is also possible to fly between the two cities or take a train.
We had originally been discouraged from traveling to Agra that Sunday; due to Holi Festival (celebrating the “triumph of good over bad”) the locals believed our travel might be disrupted by the celebrations. Actually, it turned out to be a good day to go–the traffic was light, and we found the celebratory crowds to be no problem. We also got to see many people drenched in pastel colors, and we (and our van) got a little splash of color ourselves (learn more on my upcoming “Street Scenes of India” post). Our drive took about 2.5 hours each way, and it was exhilarating to say the least—with cars speeding towards us in our lane, and bicycles, carts, and even elephants on the road and in the towns we passed through.
We arrived in Agra about 11 am. As we walked to the Taj Mahal entrance, young children were offering all kinds of items for sale. I bought a little jade elephant and a book. The omnipresent poverty is heartbreaking, and whenever I could buy a little something to help out, I did. The entrance fee to the Taj was about $20, which is incredibly steep in India, but more than worth it.
The term “Taj Mahal” means “Crown Palace” and it doesn’t begin to describe this world wonder. Agra was the capital of the Mughal (Muslim) Empire for over a century. The Shah Jahan, a Mughal emperor for 30 years (1628-1658) built the Palace in memory of his beloved wife of 19 years, Mumtaz Mahal, to immortalize her after her untimely death, at age 39 during the birth of their 14th child (!) It is said that before her death she requested her husband create a symbol of their love for their posterity. I don’t think she would be disappointed in his attempt to honor her wishes.
The Taj is on the banks of the Yamuna River. The stunning white marble was quarried 230 miles away in Makrana, Rajasthan state. The 35 different types of precious inlaid stones were imported from all over Asia and the Middle East.
The entrance gate to the Taj Mahal is quite a sight itself. There are two rows of 11 white pinnacles on the rooftop representing the 22 years it took to construct the mausoleum.
As the Taj Mahal comes into view, its brilliant white marble is almost blinding in the mid-day sun. It has to be the most beautiful man-made monument in the world. The Taj exudes an awe and reverence today, even 350 years later.
Before entering the plinth of the Taj, shoes are removed or covered with slip-on covers, both as a symbol of respect and to keep the plinth and Taj clean. Prior to visiting, I knew very little about the vast inlaid stone work in the marble that is part of the exterior and interior decorations.
Some of the inlaid stone is done in thin multiple layers, and is only visible in certain lighting. Floral patterns come into full bloom when the light shines through the layered stone work.
I cannot comprehend the effort and expense that went into the Taj’s construction. Even the river flow was altered for the construction. Part of the beauty of the Taj is its total symmetry–the buildings, courtyard and gardens are all balance and symmetrical in their design. The four minarets at each corner of the plinth surrounding the Taj Mahal are constructed in such a way that if they ever fell, they would not damage the main structure.
Inside, in the main level are replicas of the tombs of Shah Jahan and his wife (the actual tombs are located in the crypt below the main level and are not accessible). There are also four rooms inside the mausoleum that were planned for other members of the royal family.
There are two identical buildings, both mosques, on either side of the Taj. Most pictures do not focus on them, but they are beautiful red sandstone creations in themselves.
Interestingly, Shah Jahan was going to build a replica of the Taj Mahal in all black marble, as his own mausoleum, but did not live long enough to make this dream a reality. He was imprisoned by his son Aurangzeband spent his lastfew years at the Agra Red Fort, not far up the river from the Taj.
Since we just had the one day, we only had time to visit the Taj Mahal and do a little local rug shopping nearby, before returning to New Delhi. Please note that marble jewelry boxes and other souvenirs representative of the Taj Mahal can be purchased much more cheaply in other locations—ask a local where the best deals are. There a number of other interesting sites in Agra, including the Agra Red Fort (1565), and other exquisite tombs, but none can compare to the Taj Mahal.
I am indebted to Rajaram Panda, Mittal Publications, New Delhi 2007, for the historical and factual information about the Taj Mahal in this post.