In the Taj's long shadow

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 23 July, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 23 July, 2011, 12:00am


It is a poor and dirty country covered in a thick blanket of smog, which can cause long delays in flights all year round. It is a place where no foreigner can walk on the street without being surrounded by desperate beggars.

'Incredible India', as the country promotes itself, is like the durian: you either love it or hate it.

Yet it draws millions of tourists each year. India's rich culture and long history is one reason for that. It is also a diverse country with the old and the new existing side by side.

Then there's of course the Taj Mahal - a true architectural wonder.

It took me seven hours to drive from New Delhi to Agra city, where the magnificent mausoleum is located. And driving in India, let me tell you, is no child's play. There were few traffic lights and trucks and tuk-tuks sped down the road like there was no tomorrow.

But it was worth it. The moment I saw the Taj, from afar with its long triangular reflecting pool in front of it, I was blown away by its splendour.

The Taj Mahal is one of those rare attractions that look magnificent both from a distance and up close.

During the day, the building's beauty blends in well with the clear blue sky and the green garden it is set in. At night, the moonlight lends it a sense of the mysterious.

The central focus of the Taj Mahal is a tomb 35 metres tall. It is a white marble structure on a square plinth with a symmetrical building topped by a massive dome.

The construction of the mausoleum began in 1632 by Mughal emperor Shah Jahan in memory of his beloved wife Mumtaz Mahal. It took 21 years for the principal mausoleum and the surrounding buildings to be completed.

The interior of Taj Mahal is as stunning as its exterior. An inlay of semiprecious gemstones adds a further layer of royalty to the exquisite architecture.

The Amber Fort is another attraction that draws more than a million visitors each year.

It is located on a hill in Amber village, just 11 kilometres from Jaipur town. It was constructed in 1592 and underwent several improvements in the next 150 years.

Amber Fort is divided into four sections, each with a separate gate and courtyard. The elegant Sila Devi temple in the first courtyard is where animal sacrifices were once performed. In another section, visitors can inspect the private quarters of bygone rajas.

One of the biggest attractions in the fort is a relief, known as the 'magic flower', which is carved in marble at the base of a pillar.

India definitely has its wonders. Visiting many of them takes patience and stamina, however. The country is notorious for its poor hygiene. It is an absolute no-no to drink tap water unless it's boiled first.

It's also advisable to make sure that bottled water comes with an intact seal.

India is famous for its scams, which includes refilling bottles with tap water.

Street vendors hawk myriad snacks, sweets and delicacies, but it is better to avoid such fare unless you are brave enough to risk stomach problems.

I speak from experience. During a visit to the country two years ago, I suffered from a severe stomach upset and high fever.

Yet for all the hardships that India can throw at you, it can be a deeply attractive place with an endless variety of sights to explore in a vast and exotic country.

Once you get over the culture shock (while making sure to keep your medicines at the ready), you are in for a visual thrill - and a sensory overload.



A visa is required for people of all nationalities. For Hong Kong permanent residents, a single-entry six-month tourist visa costs HK$355. It only takes one working day to process the application.

Health and safety

Vaccinations against diseases are highly recommended, especially for travellers who will be staying there for several weeks or months. Examples include malaria, rabies and yellow fever. Another quick word of advice: Never drink tap water. Quench your thirst only with bottled water.


The Indian currency, called rupee, is a closed currency, which means you are not allowed to bring it in or take it out of India. You can get rupees at the airports and banks in India.

Weather and climate

The weather varies from region to region. In the mountainous north, it can get very cold while it's blazing hot down south. In some areas, the temperature can change dramatically between day and night. Generally, the coolest time is from December to February. The hottest is from March to May.