Legend has it that when Shah Jahan was overthrown and locked up by his son, Aurangzeb, the only thing he could see from his prison cell was the Taj Mahal. Not a bad view, but a form of torture for the heartbroken Mughal emperor as he had commissioned the monument in memory of his wife, Mumtaz, who had died in childbirth.
As tributes to love go, the ivory-coloured marble mausoleum in the northern Indian city of Agra takes some beating. Even the most jaded traveller gets goosebumps on catching a first glimpse, either through the gateway arch or flawlessly reflected in the Yamuna river. Don’t put away your camera if a breeze stirs the mirror-like surface, though. Camels, water buffalo and boats add foreground interest to what Bill Clinton described as “perhaps the world’s most beautiful structure”.
The former United States president also said there were two kinds of people in the world: those who have seen the Taj Mahal and love it, and those who have not seen the Taj and love it.
Constructed in translucent marble, the mausoleum took 20,000 masons, artists and stone carvers about 20 years to complete. Painstaking attention to detail includes inlays of semi-precious stones and calligraphy verses from the Koran.
To see India’s most photographed attraction at its best, visit in the evening or during the calm of early morning, when the “teardrop on the cheek of eternity” gradually changes colour. Take a taxi or rickshaw to Mehtab Bagh (Moonlight Garden) before dawn for an entirely different perspective from the one most visitors experience. In the company of a dozen or so sightseers, watch the sun burn off clouds of mist over the Yamuna to reveal an exquisite mirage of domes and arches.
Celebrated visitors to the Taj Mahal have includes politicians, sportsmen, movie stars and a lovelorn Princess Diana, who, in 1992, was famously snapped alone on a seat now known as “Lady Di’s chair”. More than 16,000 people have added comments about the Taj Mahal to review website TripAdvisor. A handful rated it as terrible (one star), although some of them appear to be complaining about the journey from Delhi to Agra rather than criticising one of the seven wonders of the modern world.
Personally, I feel sorry for the Chhatri of Raja Jaswant Singh, a domed and pillared pavilion that TripAdvisor ranks 97th of 97 Things to Do in Agra. No one has written a review yet, so if you’re heading to the City of Everlasting Love …
If Shah Jahan were imprisoned in Agra’s Red Fort today, he might not be able to see his creation through the smog. Pollution from heavy industry – much of it unregulated – traffic, burning tyres and acid rain not only reduces visibility but stains the Taj’s famous façade. Mosquito-like flies leave patches of green and black waste on the centuries-old walls and the vigorous daily scrubbing needed to clean up the mess is damaging the mosaics and marble surfaces.
Compared with that and the state of the Yamuna river (right), other visitor complaints seem relatively minor. Yes, the touts are persuasive – their techniques have been tried, tested and skillfully refined – but a smile and a firm “no thanks” should do the trick. The Taj Mahal receives millions of visitors each year so even the most persistent hawker will move on to the next target once they realise you’re not interested.
The temperatures in the middle of the day can be overwhelming, as can the crowds. In theory, the monument opens at sunrise but lines at the entrance form long before that. Before entry, you’ll need to place your bags in lockers, be scanned, patted down and comply with a long list of prohibited items that includes camera tripods and, for some reason, toffees. By then, it’ll be too late for a sunrise photo. Oh, and don’t plan a Friday visit. The place is closed.
Moving down the scale of annoyances, the dual admission pricing irks some sightseers. Foreigners pay significantly more than Indian nationals, although the figure is still low by international standards. Entry fees probably weren’t an issue during a recent visit by the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, but unsightly scaffolding around the minarets almost created a diplomatic incident. At least the British royals were happy to pose for photos seated on Lady Di’s chair – some honeymooning couples refuse, insisting the seat is jinxed.
The Indian government and local authorities have allocated funding to clean up the city and introduced initiatives such as banning cars within 2km of the Taj Mahal. Sometimes though, throwing
large sums of money around isn’t what’s needed. In his novel The Great Railway Bazaar, Paul Theroux listens as a Burmese passenger apologises for the filthy trains in his country, claiming there isn’t enough hard currency to put things right. “But it doesn’t take much foreign exchange to buy a broom,” is the travel writer’s response; a point Agra’s bigwigs might do well to bear in mind.
Things are far from perfect at the Taj Mahal but the majority of tourists, including one Australian posting on TripAdvisor, tend to focus on the positives: “Even the long drive from Delhi, the traffic jams & the stifling heat could not detract from experiencing the wonder of the Taj Mahal.”
I don’t think I was quite as tolerant the last time I queued for hours in the heat and haze to ride on the Peak Tram. Tim Pile