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Calling the shots

Photographing India's iconic Taj Mahal requires patience, tolerance and a healthy disregard for what you are told. Words and pictures by Tim Pile

 

Nothing really prepares you for an Indian railway station. There aren't any evening classes on the subject - not that they'd be of much help.

New Delhi railway station marches to its own beat and once you get into the rhythm, it soon starts to make sense. What appears to an outsider as chaos is, in fact, order; Indian style.

Holy men chat to holy cows; buskers beg and beggars busk. Perspiring porters barge past with no time for niceties and the tempting scent of curry mingles with other, less pleasing odours. "Incredible India," as it says in the ad.

It's a three-hour ride to Agra and a second-class seat aboard the Andhra Pradesh Express is more than adequate. According to my fellow passengers, the "general seating" carriage is the place to avoid unless you're a contortionist. They're reluctant to go into details and I'm reluctant to go and investigate.

Photographing the Taj Mahal, Agra's main claim to fame, has much in common with Indian train travel. You wait around for ages, unsure if things are going to work out, and all of a sudden everything clicks. Literally.

Planning ahead is crucial, as any cameraman will tell you. My research has me consulting internet photography forums, maps and weather reports. (A deep blue sky to contrast with the white marble is essential.) I discover where the sun will rise and at what time (6.39am). Browsing online images of Agra by the appropriately named and highly talented Steve McCurry is inspiring but leaves me feeling inadequate.

It's still dark at 5.30am and I'm relieved to find my driver dozing in his rickshaw outside the hotel. As a result of advice picked up on travel websites, we're heading away from the Taj Mahal. Sixteen kilometres away, to be precise.

Mehtab Bagh, or Moonlight Garden, lies directly across the Yamuna River from the magnificent mausoleum and offers an entirely different perspective from the one most visitors experience. At the entrance, an English-speaking shopkeeper confidently states that the park doesn't open until 8am. A tea seller confirms this, as does a man who emerges from some nearby bushes.

At 6.30am, just as I'm considering how much to offer the park keeper as a "horticultural donation", the gates swing open. In India, when three people agree on something, it's best to ignore it.

A race to scout out locations begins. Mehtab Bagh is perfectly aligned with the Taj Mahal, which looms in the pre-dawn half light like an exquisite mirage. I'm the only person in the park as the first rays of buttery sunlight illuminate the eastern side of the dome. Mist rises off the river, adding to the otherworldly atmosphere.

My progress to the water's edge for a closer look is blocked by an overzealous security guard, whose bark turns out to be worse than his bite. Having warned of the dire consequences of disobeying him he casts a couple of sideways glances then suggests "an agreement might be reached".

The sun arcs higher and it becomes clear what an awe-inspiring yet unsung vantage point Mehtab Bagh is. The Taj Mahal receives three million tourists per year but, at 7am, the visitor count on our side of the river peaks at 12.

Outdoor photographers do almost all their work during the "golden hours" of dawn and dusk, when the light has a warm glow. Mesmerised, we hypnotically click away as "the teardrop on the cheek of eternity" gradually changes hue from powder blue to amber and vanilla.

By 8am the ethereal light has vanished and so have my fellow spectators.

Agra is an unremarkable city and at first glance it's hard to fathom why the former capital of the Mughal Empire came to be known as The City of Everlasting Love. Everlasting traffic jams, more like. A little local history helps clear things up.

The Taj Mahal was built by Mughal emperor Shah Jahan as a mausoleum for his wife, Mumtaz Mahal, who died in childbirth. Begun in 1631, it took 20,000 workers 22 years to complete a monument that the heartbroken emperor described as "making the sun and the moon shed tears from their eyes".

Unlike the whirlwind coach-tour crowds, I've opted to stay in Agra overnight. Early the following morning I join a stream of bleary-eyed sleepwalkers heading towards the Taj Mahal ticket office. India is no stranger to acts of terrorism and security is understandably tight. The gates open to the public at sunrise, although we're too busy negotiating airport-style scanners, body frisks and bag searches to capture the moment.

I'm in the first group through, however, and we sprint towards the Western Gate, hoping to get "that photo". There's no wind and the rectangular reflection pool is still. For a few minutes we have the Taj Mahal to ourselves. Then waves of sightseers materialise and a little of the magic is gone.

Besides foreign visitors that have included Prince Charles and Lady Diana, the Clintons and Hu Jintao, the iconic World Heritage site attracts travellers from all corners of the subcontinent. Rajasthani women in traditional dress mingle with dark-skinned Tamils and broad-faced Buddhists. Everyone is happy to pose for a photo - as long as they can have one with you as well.

A few foreign photographers lose patience and bellow each time someone inadvertently walks into their carefully framed photo. I'm taking the opposite approach by trying to include as many people as possible in my pictures. This means "stalking" women in brightly coloured saris and surreptitiously snapping as they glide past the alabaster white walls.

The soft light and early morning shadows help to create depth but, before long, the Indian sun is too high and too fierce. My photos have begun to look washed out and one dimensional. It's a good time to leave - as I reach the exit, hordes of day-trippers are swarming in.

There's bad news at Agra station. All Delhi-bound trains are full and I haven't time to organise alternative transport. The man at the ticket window shrugs his shoulders and grimaces: "Do you mind travelling in the general seating carriage?"

 

Getting there: Air India (www.airindia.com) flies daily from Hong Kong to New Delhi. If the thought of travelling by Indian train fills you with dread and you're staying at the Taj Palace Hotel in New Delhi (palace.delhi@tajhotels.com), staff can arrange a car and driver for the three-hour trip to Agra. In Agra, the Gateway Hotel (gateway.agra@tajhotels.com) is a tranquil retreat offering magnificent views of the Taj Mahal from most rooms. The hotel prides itself on its flexibility. Test them by asking for a 4pm checkout and breakfast at midnight. They won't disappoint.

 

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Calling the shots

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