Agra and the Taj Mahal

26 May

The Taj Mahal is one of India's architectural marvels. But coming into Agra, its home city, you'd be forgiven for thinking you took a wrong turn somewhere.

Driving into Agra, the road appeared more eaten up by dust and litter than covered in concrete. Next to lines of charmless brick buildings were cows munching on plastic. My friend who had already visited had accurately called it a dump.

But few tourists, if any, come to Agra. We come for the Taj Mahal, and simply tiptoe around its host city until we make it past the red sandstone gates and can marvel at what is appropriately called one of the greatest buildings in the world.

The flip side of 44 degrees steaming heat is that tourists are few and far between. As we walked in through the gates to the Taj Mahal, we were almost entirely on our own. In the pale morning light, the marble monument loomed cool and majestically, only to glitter half an hour later when the sun climbed up its sides.

Thrilled to bits, we noticed that the “Diana seat” stood empty. The iconic photo of Diana, posing sad and alone in front of the greatest monument to love as her own marriage was collapsing, is today replicated by most tourists that make it to the Taj Mahal.

(Only later, thanks to Google Images, did we realise that all the locals and tour guides had put the label “Diana seat” on the wrong bench. The correct one is the one visible just behind us).

The Taj Mahal is a mausoleum, but also a monument to love. Built by Mughal emperor Shah Jahan as a tribute to his late wife, Mumtaz Mahal, the building kept 20,000 workers busy for 20 years before finally being completed in 1653. The name of the building is an informal, shortened version of Mumtaz Mahal. The real coffins of Mumtaz Mahal and Shah Jahan lie in a crypt below the building, but two tombs are placed in the middle of the mausoleum as representations of the coffins.

Stepping into the Taj Mahal, we found ourselves just behind two German tourists. Due to a minor hiccup that morning, we did not have a guide so when we heard English being spoken, we leaned in to eavesdrop. Their guide, a smartly dressed Indian in his forties, pointed to the finely cut marble on the tombs and the screen around them.

“See the beautiful carvings on the tombs? I'll take you to the shop where they sell beautiful cheese boards in the same pattern”.



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