In the early 2000s the world set out to determine the New7Wonders of the World. Of 200 monuments, the seven finalists were determined as follows: Chichen Itza, Christ the Redeemer, Great Wall of China, Machu Picchu, Petra, Taj Mahal, and the Colosseum.
I’ve had the great fortune to visit a handful of these new world wonders – the Colosseum (2007), Great Wall of China (2012), Machu Picchu (2016) and the Taj Mahal last March. And if you’re asking me, when it comes to monuments and attractions, the Taj Mahal is the world’s best reason to travel. Put otherwise, if you’re going to plan a trip around a bucket list-worthy place, this is it.
What makes the Taj Mahal so remarkable?
It’s hard to grasp that a building could be described as beautiful. Architecture can be handsome, inspiring or jaw-dropping but somehow the Taj Mahal is delicate, intricate, soft, feminine.
What you can not appreciate until you visit in-person, is the way the marble changes colour depending on the position of the sun, the delicacy of the hand-carved semi-precious stone inlay, and the astounding feat of exacting symmetry achieved on such a massive scale.
Contrary to reputation and appearance, the Taj Mahal is not a temple; it is a mausoleum. And while distinctly Mughal (Islamic) in its design, it is – above all – a monument to romantic love. The Taj was built by Shah Jahan to enshrine the body of his favourite wife, Mumtaz Mahal, who died shortly after giving birth to her fourteenth child. Devastated by her passing, Shah Jahan set out to build an unsurpassed monument to her memory. 20,000 men and 20 years later, his homage was complete.
Where to watch a Taj Mahal sunset
The Taj Mahal can be admired from the back side, across the river at Mehtab Bagh, which I highly recommend. Cost of entry is just RS100 and the paid admission means we’re not hassled by vendors once inside. Greg and I visit for sunset, knowing we’ll catch sunrise at the Taj Mahal the following morning.
Visiting the Taj Mahal for sunrise
We rise at 5 a.m. Night lies upon Agra like an inky black cloak. Jeet, our driver, and our guide, Avi, idle in the dust-choked street in front of our hostel. The streets are uncannily quiet – by Indian standards. Errant cows wander the street, nosing through the debris that has gathered in the gutters.
Like tributaries flowing into a river, tourists stream to the Taj’s vehicle drop-off point. From here, we walk with great haste. Avi deposits us at the queue – one for men and one for women – and scurries off to purchase our tickets. I stand among the first twenty women while Greg is queued some hundred men back. He signals for me not to wait once the doors open; he’ll find me inside.
Slowly, the veil of night lifts and dawn breaks. The crowd stirs with anticipation. Finally, the door is cracked open and we’re shuttled through security. After this check point, it’s a full on footrace to the Taj.
In the soft morning light, the Taj Mahal is dressed in a soft red glow. As the sun rises, she will transform from a soft grey and yellow to pearly cream and then dazzling white.
“This play of light is an important decorative device, symbolically implying the presence of Allah, who is never represented in physical form.” – The Rough Guide to Rajasthan, 2010.
I scramble to photograph the site before she’s overrun by the tide of tourists that swells behind me. Still on my own, I’m informally “adopted” by an Indian national who walks me through the gardens, pointing out optimal shots. “Here,” he points. “Now through this branch,” he indicates, framing the shot. He leads me to a reflecting pool where the Taj’s image dances on the water. It’s a shot I’m not sure I would have noticed in my haste. I’m thankful for his suggestions and a bit sorry I don’t have any rupees on me to tip him. He shrugs indifferently when I apologize.
In all reality, our sunrise “tour” of the Taj is first and foremost, photographic in nature. Avi speed walks us around the complex, snapping photos of Greg and I, and pointing out other iconic shots. A few hours later we venture inside the tomb which is flooded with mid-morning tourists. Avi recounts the history of the Taj Mahal, impressing upon us the symmetry of the structure. The complex’s only imbalance is the sarcophagus of Shah Jahan which sits to the right of his beloved wife.
A short while later Avi leaves Greg and I to enjoy the monument in some privacy. We retire to a stone bench and simply absorb the beauty. It’s fast approaching noon and the grounds have swollen with tourists. I’m a bit disappointed to leave and I can’t help stealing glances over my shoulder as we make our way to the exit. It’s a bit of a shame to have come so far to spend no more than four hours on-site, but I have a feeling, a hope, that my first visit to the Taj will not be my last.
Agra: Gateway to the Taj Mahal
I had been prepared to be underwhelmed by Agra. Plenty of guidebooks had described it as dusty, charmless and plagued by “rickshaw-wallahs”. We spent very little time in Agra, skipping Agra Fort because we had already toured New Delhi’s similarly-designed Red Fort. Our accommodation was the worst we’d stay in on our entire India trip and deserves no mention.
The evening we spent in Agra was made memorable by the grey-haired Brits we shared some beers with on our hostel’s rooftop. Greg and I had independently noticed the number of seniors travelling Rajasthan, and among the Westerners, we – as Millennials – numbered in the minority. It brought us both great pleasure to imagine ourselves globetrotting into retirement.