At the Taj Mahal: Part 1
The #2 question* my Western friends ask me when they hear I am working in India is “Have you seen the Taj Mahal?” As one of new 7 wonders of the world, the Taj Mahal is certainly the best known of India’s many historical places. And I daresay everyone knows the romantic story, how a Moghul emperor built Taj Mahal as a memorial for a beloved wife – in India the Taj is a top honeymoon destination. So, bowing to the inevitable, just after Diwali we three Salazars made our way to Agra, to see this renowned palace of love.
* The #1 question is, “Are there really cows everywhere?” Answer: Yes.
In later posts I’ll share both the details and my impressions of the Taj, but today let me give some info on how we went about our visit. We were not part of a tour, nor did we get any guide, and for us these things were excellent choices. We saw a great many groups on tours, trooping about soldier-fashion. The advantage of a tour is there are no surprises and you see what you are supposed to see. The downside is, you can’t set your own pace, you are locked in to whatever timetable the tour has set. Since we are used to getting about here in India, we had little need to join up with a tour.
Which brings me to guides. If you visit on your own guides will accost you, flashing laminated badges and cards that supposedly are government-issued certifications. They will enlist you in casual conversation, “Oh, what country are you from? Are you liking India?” and quickly cut to the chase that for only Rs. 300/400/500/whatever, they will put their encyclopedic knowledge at your disposal and personally show you the deepest secrets of the Taj. The reality will be they will add numerous other charges – for example to supposedly get ahead in queues – and then relentlessly steer you to souvenir shops run by their relatives. On top of it all their knowledge is not much more than this:
My advice: Do what we did, read wikiPedia and other references on the Taj before you get here, and you will know as much, if not more, than all the guides.
The actual site of the Taj Mahal is very large, a complex of buildings and gardens over 42 acres in size. The complex has three accessible gates: West, South and East; the North side of the Taj Mahal is on the banks of the River Yamuna. We arrived at the East gate. Our driver waited in the parking area while we made our way to the adjacent ticket and visitors center:
Inside here you buy your ticket. If you are a foreigner this will be Rs. 750 per person, somewhat over $10 US. With your ticket you will get a bottle of water and some booties for your shoes – make sure you keep these!
We reached at about 9 am. I very much recommend arriving this time or even earlier. The lines will only get longer and the day will only get hotter the later you arrive.
The actual complex is about a mile from here. Every 5-10 minutes some electric shuttle vehicles will come by to take you to the real entrance. Every such vehicle is equipped with these helpful warning signs:
None of us had brought “nife” nor “helmate”, so off we went. After 5 mins or so ride, the bus/cart will drop you off just outside the first set of gates:
Just inside is a security check, and here is where the strange “prohibited items” list comes into play. There are guards there who will pat you down and check all bags, parcels, etc. Bring with you as little as possible! You risk getting sent back to the ticket building where you will have to check your contraband in a locker. This nearly happened to a Canadian tourist who came in near to us. His offense: He had a large bandana that featured the Canadian flag.
In terms of the crowds and getting around inside the grounds, these scenes show what we encountered:
We didn’t find the crowds bad. The main thing to watch for is everyone jockeying to get un-impeded photo-op locations. We saw at least 10 cases of someone doing the wildly original pose where they hold their hand in grasping position up and to the side and the shooter frames the shot so it can later be captioned, “Look, I am holding the Taj Mahal!” But by and large everyone was friendly and happily disposed – the place does radiate a certain peaceful nature.
Well, all happily disposed excerpt for this guy:
I snapped this while we were resting on a bench; this critter had no fear of us and I assumed it was because of long exposure to people. 15 seconds after I took this pic Kim screamed out, “AAH! What that – ?” The cheeky bastard had jumped up on the bench behind us and bit her finger! Later we saw touts who for a few Rs. provide handsful of meal, which you then can use to attract these pests to come and eat out of your hand. We did not partake of this service and thereafter took great glee in scaling pebbles and twigs at other chipmunks we saw massing to attack.
One last bit of logistics: With your ticket you receive some “shoe muffs” or booties. To walk on the actual palace you need either to remove your shoes or to wear the booties. Like most foreigners, we don’t like walking barefoot so we put on the booties:
If you decide to go shoeless, be aware that a) You need to carry them with you since there is no safe place to leave them, and b) You will be walking on bare stone for 100s of meters which, depending on time of year here, can get scaldingly hot. Use the booties.
Once you are done seeing the Taj you should exit the same gate where you arrived; ideally the same carts/shuttles can take you back. There are other options, like this:
The pre-paid shuttle was taking a long time – we waited 15 mins or so – and so we decided to engage a pony trap much like this one:
Like so much here, you bargain for these services. Do not get into any vehicle until you fix a price! Whatever they say, you say 1/2 that. If he re-states the original price, walk away – they will follow. If you get to a price you can live with, get in and go. Our pony driver asked for Rs. 200, we settled on 150. The difference is less than $1 – but it would not be India if you didn’t bargain.
Also on the walk back from the gate and the drop-off point are some small restaurants and many souvenir shops. We had no need of souvenirs, which mostly are miniature Tajs. We did stop for lunch – where we were the only westerners in the place – and had parathas and a dish of paneer korma for a grand total of Rs. 225.
How long did everything take? We arrived at the ticket place around 9 am, and returned 12:45 or so. I don’t think you need much more time to see what you want to see at the Taj Mahal. If you are in a big party, and/or you feel like taking your time, you might spend another hour or so. We in fact had more than enough time to go from the Taj Mahal to see Agra Fort, and then to get back to hotel in plenty of time for shower and dinner.
Those are the details of how we did our visit. It may seem odd, but for us we get significant satisfaction when, well, things just go as planned. Taking a trip like this there’s 100s of things that can go wrong, from missing your driver, to getting swindled or pickpocketed to getting denied entry and more. Even though we’ve been living here more than a year we still read all the travel sites we could find, especially India Mike – forewarned is forearmed.
The planning is worth it. After all your travels you finally reach the inner gate to the gardens, which is darkness all around, but through the archway you glimpse the palace, so white and ethereal it seems like a cloud:
Next time, I’ll do my poor best to show the many beauties of this wondrous place.