A few folks I know who have also traveled to India felt underwhelmed at best by their Taj Mahal experience. I totally get it. There’s this thing of beauty that is supposedly so remarkable that it’s oft photographed and referenced making it completely familiar, even when it’s far away. And then when you’re there and it’s in front of you, it doesn’t quite offer the transformative experience that you expected. I hear this happens often with the Mona Lisa.
My experience was different.
But first, a history, because I’m not sure the Taj Mahal’s story is quite as well-known as her appearance. Mughal emperor Shah Hahan was so grief-stricken when his third and favorite wife died during the birth of their 14th(!!) child. He expressed his grief and love for his wife by commissioning the Taj. Work begain in 1632, and the mausoleum — the big, white marble structure you’re familiar with — was completed in 1648. The other buildings that comprise the Taj were completed five years later.
didn’t get the memo
The emperor’s wife is buried in the floor in the very center of the mausoleum, and Shah Jahan is buried somewhere inside too (I believe our guide said he was off to the side, a sort of diss made by one of his sons.) To the west of the mausoleum is the mosque, and because the emperor was obsessed with symmetry, a matching building was erected to the east side and presumably used as a guest house. The buildings and gardens are surrounded by walls, and there’s a gate that would be mighty impressive on its own grounds but pales in comparison to the mausoleum.
impressive gate is impressive
Catching the first glimpse of the Taj Mahal through the gate gave me that weird out-of-body feeling that I get when I’m finally experiencing something that’s much anticipated. You know, like when you’re living your wedding day/graduation/other milestone — things Hollywood directors love to make movies about because they’re supposed to be so monumental — and you’re like, ‘Hey, this thing is actually happening RIGHT NOW and it’s … surreal? Mind-boggling? Not actually happening?’ That’s where I was when the Taj introduced herself.
We had arrived in Agra mid-afternoon and were on our way to our lunch/supper meal (we seriously only ate twice a day every day) when our tour guide for the day told us we’d be heading to the Taj Mahal after eating. This was news to us — we had all been of the mindset that we’d get up early and go at sunrise the next day, but the tour guide was having none of it. As it turns out, that was a good thing. The palette of the sunset was a gorgeous backdrop to the Taj and intensified as we got closer to the building and the evening drew nearer. With the changing sky and the building growing ever larger in our viewfinders, there was a very subtle shift in the experience. It stopped seeming so surreal and familiar and started feeling like a far more profound thing.
What I think is most remarkable about the Taj — aside from its roots in a love story — is seeing its details up close. I had always been of the mind that the marble was etched just with some sort of black finish, but I was so, so, so wrong. It’s also encrusted with precious and semi-precious stones like lapis lazuli, carnelian and jade. The color of the white marble has a depth that isn’t evident in long-distance photography. And while perhaps the size is about what you would expect from photos or perhaps even smaller, there’s still something breathtaking about being close enough to touch it.
obligatory ‘does not do it justice’ comment
Technical notes for if you ever decide to visit:
- We had planned to get up super early and go at sunrise. During the summer this is a great idea (hardly any crowd, no lines, beautiful sky, easy photography). During the winter this is a bad idea as the overwhelming fog may make your visit to the Taj Mahal a disappointing one. You can get the same benefits of sunrise by going just a bit before it closes for the day. Also, it’s closed on Fridays so don’t go on a Friday.
- Take your camera but not much else. By the time you get to Agra you’ll probably be used to this, but many things are banned at touristy locations for safety or religious purposes.
- You’ll probably also be used to this, but you must still prepare yourself to walk past all the hawkers and beggars at the edge of the Taj property. They’re relentless.
- The Taj was one of the two places that members of our group were asked to be in photos with Indians just because we were Westerners. Don’t be alarmed by this. It’s a curiosity thing rather than anything malicious.
the wall and the moonrise on the way out