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Trip to the Taj Mahal, Agra
Having been invited to New Delhi for a family wedding, I made up my mind to travel to Agra and visit the Taj Mahal and Agra. I was glad I did. The splendour of the Taj Mahal is undeniable and mesmerising. It reminds one of a delicate and precious gem which is easily breakable and must be protected.
The Road to Agra
We left Delhi by a government Delhi tourism mini-van at 7:15 am. It was bitterly cold early morning in Delhi on March 12, 2015. There was some confusion about the pickup venue near the Coffee Home, but the driver eventually asked around and found it in a lane on the other side of the road. It was 13 degrees Celsius. Even stepping out of the car to ask for directions was daunting because of the freezing cold. The road is wonderful and one zips along it like upon a cloud. At 7:50 am we hit the Taj Mahal highway which was even nicer and wider. We were told that we’d be back in Delhi by 10 p.m.
The Yamuna Expressway
At 8:20 we stopped for half an hour at the Highway Masala Motel. The coffee was delicious at Rs. 75, but don’t buy stuff at the curio shop here. It’s frightfully expensive and you’ll find the same stuff in Delhi’s famous shopping area – Janpath for much cheaper.
Five minutes after the motel was a tollgate with a sign that read: “Golden Miles of Yamuna Expressway, 165 km 6-lane access controlled connecting Noida to Agra.”
At 9 a.m., despite the sun shining through, it was still foggy so we couldn’t see far into the distance. I was constantly looking for the magical silhouette of the Taj Mahal. At 9:45 a.m. we reached another tollgate complete with “Public Amenities” and a restaurant.
In the City of Love
And tollgate number three at 10:33 am and by now the fog has lifted to reveal fields with crops. After the Taj Mahal, we would visit the Red Fort in Agra. We arrive in the outskirts of Agra at 10:43 am and my heart beats faster. We take a U turn at the beginning of Agra town and we’re in the ‘City of Love’ off the highway. Narrow streets winding through pretty villages with hotels announcing “Golden Curry”– some sort of a speciality in these parts.
At 11 am we pass the palace of Mumtaz Mahal’s father in a crowded area. We cross the Yamuna River with lots of buffalo on its banks. And suddenly, seven minutes later, the walls of the elegant Red Fort can be seen on the right, all beautiful red sandstone and on the left in the near distance, the perfectly symmetrical Taj Mahal which makes me gasp in wonder.
The Taj Mahal at Last!
A Rs. 80 entry ticket covers the Taj Mahal and the Red Fort and allows your mobile and camera. Security is high. No vehicles are allowed anywhere on the vast 144 sq. Km area for fear of pollution damaging further the pristine marble. No cigarettes allowed either. There are camel -drawn carts waiting to carry tourists. We enter via the West Gate, then disembark and walk the short distance to the Taj Mahal. It’s a one and half hour stop, enough time to take in one of the world’s seven wonders. We are given plastic covers to wear over our shoes and some are barefoot. My pictures say it better than words.
I could have wept at the beauty and perfection of the Taj Mahal.
Our guide tells us that the quarters surrounding the Taj Mahal around the four gateways were built for labour. The gateways are named after the various “begums” of the emperor. The marble was sourced from Rajasthan and the sandstone from Agra itself.
The Taj is built on a raised platform. Two identical palaces in red sandstone – the eastern and western palaces – flank the monument, presenting the white marble structure in an aesthetic setting.
Shah Jahan’s Unlucky Number 22
We are told that 22 was an unlucky number for Shah Jehan. The structure with the Yamuna flowing beside it, covers 22 acres. The Taj Mahal took 22 years to build. Shah Jehan died on January 22, 1610. Three supervisors for the construction were hired from Persia and another was in charge of the calligraphy. One from India designed the marvellous gardens with their waterways. The structure is harmonious medley of Hindu and Islamic architecture. Mumtaz Mahal actually died 300 km away in Bahanpur, while Shah Jahan died at the Agra Fort.
The Lost Treasures of the Taj Mahal
It is pretty crowded as we make our way inside the monument after walking across a vast red sandstone courtyard. The entrance is breathtaking with its marble facade inlaid with flower and leaf motifs in semi precious stones. The precious stones and rare metals including gold had been vandalised by the Jats during their possession of the city long ago.
Over the course of time, other precious items were robbed such as an entrance door of jasper, gold leaf from the screens around the tombs, rich carpets and enamelled lamps. Despite the British Viceroy Lord Curzon’s attempts at restoration, many of its treasures failed to be restored.
Words of the Holy Koran are engraved on the walls. It is a curious space inside. Four empty rooms surround the central chamber with its domed roof where lie the tombs of Emperor Shah Jehan and beside his, the smaller one of his queen, the woman for whose love he is said to have built the Taj Mahal. It is rather dark inside and the tombs are surrounded by a high filigreed screen.
I must say that the Taj Mahal is more impressive from without. I had hoped to see it in the rosy light of dawn or by moonlight when it is said to look its most beautiful.
I was intrigued to see workmen working on one of the exterior walls of the Taj Mahal, using multani mitti (a special type of clay used to beautify skin) to restore the lustre of the marble.
Is the Taj Mahal a Tomb or a Mahal?
Controversy still rages over the matter of the origins of the Taj Mahal.
- Was it a temple to Shiva?
- Was it a Rajput palace?
- Why did the British hold balls and celebrations on the marble terrace?
- Why would anyone want to dance at a tomb?
- Why is it called a ‘mahal’ (palace) instead of a tomb?
- Why are there hundreds of sealed rooms below the Taj?
- Why are there symbols pertaining to Lord Shiva in the inlays?
- Why does the entrance face south and why isn’t there a window facing the direction of Mecca?
According to the Jats, the monument does not celebrate Shah Jahan’s love for Mumtaz Mahal, his favourite queen, but of Lord Shiva for his consort, Goddess Parvati. And if it were a Moslem structure, why did the entrance face south and why wasn’t there a window facing the direction of Mecca? Why are there symbols pertaining to Lord Shiva in the inlays? Shah Jahan’s official biography states that he had seized a domed palace by a river in Agra from the Rajput in-laws he detested.
Did Shah Jahan Love Mumtaz Mahal?
The gem merchant Tavernier mentions in his memoirs that Shah Jahan had dumped the “much-decayed corpse” of Mumtaz Mehal into a hole in the gardens of the Taj during a picnic! And the Taj was turned into a tomb much later according to him. It was probably Mumtaz Mahal’s favourite son, the Sufi Dara who had transferred her body into the tomb inside. The emperor’s biography reveals him as cruel and womanising. He would have the breasts of the women he bedded cut off.
Does the Black Taj Exist?
No, said our guide, although the foundations had been laid for this replica of the Taj Mahal. The Black Taj was to be connected to the Taj Mahal via a silver bridge. It was to be Shah Jahan’s personal mosque, but his son Aurungzeb wasted his wealth, usurped power and imprisoned his father in Agra Fort.
The Taj Museum
The palace to the west currently houses the Taj Museum where you can see a collection of weapons and other artefacts of the era.
Shopping in Agra
The U.P. Handicrafts Development Centre has some great traditional stuff at wholesale prices and it’s tax-free. My super-soft and light pashmina double weave shawl in midnight blue and silver-grey cost Rs. 2000. It’s reversible, with a darker hue on the other side. I was grateful for my shawl on the way back to Delhi.
Banarasi Silk Sarees and Marble Handicraft
The famous Banarasi silk sarees in vibrant colours, some double-hued cost Rs. 2000. Marble handicrafts such as jewellery boxes, plates, vases, ashtrays, miniature replicas of the Taj Mahal, etc. abound. The charming salesman took us into the handicraft section where we were shown how the marble objects are made using traditional methods. Sand is used to shape tiny semi-precious stones to embed in the marble. A single tiny leaf in the inlay can have four to five stones. I was grateful for my shawl on the way back to Delhi.
How to Tell Fake Marble from Pure
We discovered the way to tell fake marble from the pure: pure marble will not leave a mark on wood, but will score it. Also, as demonstrated, marble is more translucent when lit from within or beneath.