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Visiting the Taj Mahal

While planning our trip to India, I read very little about the Taj Mahal. The Taj Mahal is located in Agra, about a 4 hour drive from New Delhi. As an iconic structure, the Taj Mahal is on many people’s bucket lists. Others call it a tourist trap. After traveling all that way to India, and being so close, there was no way we were going to miss it.



The money shot!


We left New Delhi while the city and surrounding country side were blanketed in fog due to the cold weather. It was so bad that we could barely see the buildings on the side of the highway. Since the British left in 1947, the town of Agra was used as a center for industrial development, which means factories are everywhere. It took a tough government stance to significantly reduce the amount of atmospheric pollution that these heavy industries produced. By the time we arrived at our hotel in Agra for a late lunch, the fog had dissipated. Our hotel was so close to the Taj Mahal that our balcony looked over some hills directly to it. I’ll review all of our India hotels later, but I had to mention how amazing it was!



Foggy view from our hotel balcony…still mystically beautiful.



Most guides will tell you that the Taj Mahal looks the best at sunrise. Truthfully, they think sunset is just as great. In the winter, the cooler temperatures lend themselves to fog. In that case, when there is no fog, head out to see the Taj Mahal. You never know when the opportunity will close again. So we set out for the Taj Mahal at about 3:00pm in the afternoon. The basics information about the Taj Mahal is that it was built by Shah Jahan in the 1600s as a monument and tomb for his wife that died giving birth to their 14th child. It took 22 years and 22,000 people to build.

Our hotel (Oberoi Amrvillas) provided a golf cart and driver for the short jaunt to the Taj Mahal. I appreciated that our guide had already secured tickets, the required shoe covers for the tomb itself, and navigated our way through the gardens to avoid masses of people, but still have spectacular views. As tourists go through the gate and get their first view of the Taj Mahal it is truly spectacular. I think the sheer size of it is the most overwhelming thing. As you get closer to the monument, the perfect symmetry from all sides is astounding. I can’t even hang a picture frame level on the wall at home with modern tools! But these builders were able to make everything perfect back in the 1600s.



When the decoration becomes more evident…


Although the Taj Mahal is occasionally cleaned using only organic materials, the marble is very unique. The quarry that the marble comes from is so old, that the marble is non-porous. It won’t stain like the marble some people put in their kitchens these days and have to worry about staining. The quarry is still in operation today. During our visit, one of the minarets was covered in scaffolding for cleaning.



Stones inlaid in marble…


I’d just assumed the Taj Mahal was all white. My iphone photo above looks yellow, but it wasn’t. The intricate carvings with Islamic writing and floral decoration were a surprise. I’d never seen up close photos that showed all the details. The builders used stones like jade, onyx, turquoise, coral, etc. and inlaid them using tiny hand tools. Inside the Taj Mahal was quite dark. So our guide used a flashlight directly on some of the inlaid flower work. The orange stone (coral maybe?) was the only stone that was translucent. The shape the flash light had come close to…glowed! It was so cool!



Inlaying stones with those tiny hand tools…?


Contrary to legend, these artisans were not killed or mutilated so that they could not duplicate this art for others. The ancestors of these artisans are still working on the preservation of the Taj Mahal today. The Indian government has also set up a few shops with demonstrations so that they can make and sell items with this ancient method for tourists. They estimate that there are just over 1000 of these artisans left. Our guide took us to one of these shops. I ended up buying a small octagonal marble piece with a little bit of inlaid flowers to use as a cheese board. The marble is from the same quarry that was used for the Taj Mahal. They had large table tops, vases, urns, etc. I’m not much for souvenirs, but the idea that it was an item that I could “use” is what sold it for me. If I bought a pretty vase to display every time I traveled, I’d be over run! I’ll use another post to talk about all of the shopping we did in India.

The bottom line with the Taj Mahal is GO! I think it’s too iconic of a structure to miss. Did he build it to  stroke his own ego? Did he build it because of the enormous love he had for his wife? Maybe it’s both. The only non-symmetrical thing at the Taj Mahal is inside the tomb. After he died, they put his tomb next to hers, off center, since hers was in the middle. Sounds like the makings of a sappy romance to me.

We only stayed one night in Agra, with our incredible view of the Taj Mahal. But we didn’t need anymore time there. Especially since the fog was back the next morning. If you’ve been fortunate to visit the Taj Mahal, what did you think? Tourist trap or must see? I’m interested to know what you think!

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