It was 3.30 AM when we alighted in Agra, a cold morning welcomed us as we dragged our luggage to Hotel Sarwan, a 700 metres walk from the railway station which took us through some dingy, dark lanes, thanks to Google Maps. We actually had to wake up the hotel management at that ungodly hour !
A few quick winks and we were ready to begin our Agra tour, we had asked our hotel to arrange for a cab, which promptly arrived at 6.30 AM, later on, we would have a lot of learning from this arrangement. Our driver wanted us to start the tour with Fatehpur Sikri but we insisted on going to the one place everybody around the world wants to visit - Taj Mahal ! We had read online that visiting the Taj early in the morning before it got too crowded was a good idea, especially if it was a Sunday.
Finally, the Taj !
If you grew up in Madras in the late 1980s, "arey huzoor, wah Taj boliye", would have been the longest sentence in Hindi the average person knew, the famous ad tagline was about the Taj Mahal tea but somehow, we came to associate it with the world famous monument itself. Every year our history books would remind us what a great architectural feat it was, until it was fixed in our minds that our lives were incomplete if we did not visit the Taj Mahal !
As you grow older and look at more pictures, hear opinions, you become curious about how you would react when you actually saw the monument. With all that buzz in our mind, we started our tour of Agra with a hot cup of tea from a road side stall. The cold weather and hot tea were just perfect company. Despite the chillness, this writer found wearing a sweater annoying, well, no Madrasi worth their salt would wear a sweater for such a long time !
Our driver dropped us at the Eastern Gate, the Taj has 3 entry gates, the Eastern and Western ones open at sunrise. It was around 7.30 AM but people had already queued up. When you spot so many foreigners, it sinks in that you are actually at the Taj.
The day we visited was the first day of the World Heritage Week 2017 and we had free entry though it took us about 20 minutes to pass the security check. We also had to get shoe covers to be worn when you climb the monument. Then, we proceeded towards the red sandstone archway and caught our first glimpse of the marble delight.
The first reaction? "Ok, so this is the Taj?" Then, we stood at the archway and through the arch, caught the full view of the Taj Mahal, this time it was "Holy, wow !"
It is a struggle to click this picture because there are too many people, all trying to frame this view and frame it you must, this is probably the best view of the Taj.
We crossed the archway and as we looked up, we could hear an imaginary drum roll in our ears, before us stood one of the 7 wonders of the world, the most photographed monument, India's tourist icon, the most famous symbol of love, Shah Jahan's dream !
The rising sun was lighting up the dome, the air was fresh, it was beautiful. And then came the buts, "This is great, yes, but...". May be we should have visited the Taj Mahal when we were younger, we could have been in awe of it or we should not have spent so many reams of exam paper describing a monument we had not even seen, so when we actually saw it live, it turned out to be an anti-climax !
Beside us, there were hundreds of people getting themselves clicked in the standard pose of touching the top of the Taj Mahal or sitting on the famous bench, men going down on their knees before their lady love, foreigners dressed up in Indian wear, somebody was dressed up as a groom, people shouting, guides reciting all the mugged up history - it was, for lack of a better word, as "touristy" as it could get.
We did not click too many pictures, it was hard to get any proper angle with so many people blocking your views, the internet has some really good pictures, here is our humble addition to the stock:
The slight tilt is because that is the best the photographer could do to stop from dashing onto some one or someone getting miffed at you for delaying their photo session of professing love. If only love was as romantic as a photo session before the Taj !
Walking along the paved path, we climbed upto the monument, wore our shoe covers and queued inside to see the graves of Mumtaz Mahal and Shah Jahan. Photography is not allowed inside and with the number of people, you hardly get a chance to view it in detail but one thing that holds your attention is the precision with which the floral designs have been carved on the marble. The design is the same across the Taj Mahal but it is no joke to get it right in every corner. Shah Jahan had these designs studded with gems, of course, all that is now history !
Behind the Taj Mahal, the Yamuna flows quietly. We forgot the crowd and gazed at the serene river, the cool winter breeze simply added to the effect.
A boat ride on the Yamuna would be lovely but there are no official boat trips and one has to look for boatmen who are willing to give you a ride.
We finally sat down to take in the entire setting, the river, the marble marvel, happy people and the fresh morning, this is what visiting a place means, not just seeing it, you need to get a feel of the place, an experience.
This is also when you get to indulge in some photography.
To click this picture, you might have to actually lie down on your back, much to the amusement of fellow tourists.
A little away from the Taj Mahal is the Mosque. On Fridays, the Taj Mahal is closed but the Mosque is open for those offering Namaz.
With a quick glance of the mosque from the outside, we thought it was time to leave. We walked by the gardens for some more pretty views of the Taj Mahal.
Here is a click of the Taj without the entourage.
It is hard to keep the minars out of the frame, we caught them peeking in from the corners !
We wound up our Taj visit with a short walk around the corridor near the entrance and one more round of some cliched photography.
Finally, the deed was done, we had seen the Taj Mahal ! Now we could call ourselves "tourists" !
But it was not over yet, walking back to the gate where we were to meet our cab, we spotted a young lady selling kachoris and aloo subzi. First, we were impressed by her confidence and then the warmth with which she called us "Bhaiyya", "Didi". As for the kachori and aloo she served us, it was out of this world !
Having those crunchy kachoris dipped in piping hot, spicy aloo subzi in the chill weather will make you forget even the Taj Mahal ! This was the real beauty. We can still recall the taste. We could have easily had atleast half a dozen of those but we did not want to over do it. We thanked the girl and when one of us asked her if she made it herself, we got to hear the lyrical, sing-song, Hindi dialect distinct to these parts, "woh dukaan se leke aate hai na, didi". While travelling, you sometimes come across people who, for some reason, become unforgettable, this girl, was one such person.
The kachori was our total paisa vasool moment of the Taj Mahal visit, buoyant with the feeling that only good food can give you, we got into the cab to the next place on our list.
One can find all the information about the Taj Mahal including the night viewing in every travel website and also at their official site http://www.tajmahal.gov.in If you wish to book entry tickets online, you could do so here: http://asimustsee.nic.in If you are visiting the Taj Mahal during the peak holiday season or weekends, booking tickets online could save you some time.
If you are carrying bags/covers, be prepared to spend atleast 15 minutes to get your bags scanned. This is in the early mornings, in peak hours, it may longer. Also, eatables are not allowed inside the Taj. It is always a good idea to visit the Taj Mahal early in the morning.
You could avoid the crowds and waiting time at the queue and being an important monument, it is a good idea to visit it first and spend some time if you like.
Despite, not being entirely awed by the Taj Mahal, we spent close to 2 hours here.
Each entry gate opens to a different area and could get a little confusing, remember the gate from which you entered and leave through the same, if you have parked your vehicle somewhere. Do not end up in Agra on a Friday, the Taj Mahal is closed on Fridays.
You could tie up with the local day tours but we suggest, you hire a cab and go around at your own pace.
We did not hire a guide, so we do not know how useful it would be. The official charges for guides is around Rs.250/-. Whether you hire a guide or not, it is always helpful to read up on the place you are visiting.
The walk from the entry gates to the actual monument area takes about 5 minutes, there are battery operated vehicles also.
If you are scared of monkeys like this writer, take the battery vehicles. There are too many wild monkeys, though they do not disturb you unless you go in their way.
If you want a boat ride, one has to find a way to the river and see if you can spot some boat men willing to give you a ride. It is not official, so one takes the risk on their own.
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