Thursday, 6 September 2012

Taj Mahal, Agra

Getting used to train rides again and from Khajuraho it was only an eight hour trip, nothing compared to 22 hours like the last one or some of the legs I did in Russia. Arriving late in the evening, nipped up to the guesthouse's restaurant to grab a bite to eat and see the Taj Mahal in the last light of the day. At first glance it seemed a little small compared to what I had in mind, perhaps I was thinking it would be on the same scale as all the sights in Beijing for some reason.

Now there are other sights in Agra ranging from Agra Fort, Akbar's tomb, Mehtab Bagh; botanical gardens with a view of the Taj and the small town of Fatehpur Sikri some 40 kms away, not too mention all the other smaller temples the city has to offer. However, there's really only one attraction you come here for when you're pressed for time, especially as the city itself boasts little and less to hold a visitor's attention once the sights have been exhausted.

According to the guidebook, the Taj Mahal is the world's most beauitful building and especially picturesque at sunrise; a bold shout and one that had to be investigated. Getting up well before the crack of dawn and making it over to the west gate in plenty of time, it became apparent that the guards and other employees were never going to be ready in time to have the giant wooden gates open in time for a sunrise shot, let alone the 6am opening time they insisted upon. By the time the gates were finally opened to the public, it was bright with a bare minimum of pink in the sky, that sunrise shot lost forever. You're better than that lads, get it together.

Once through security it was basically a case of running like a child intent on the back seat of a rollercoaster in order to get some pictures of the Taj without having other people in it. My first burst of pace in this fiscal quarter brought me to the gate ahead of the Indians who had sneaked in without having to be security checked. Success.

After about 30 minutes of taking photos and trying to get that perfect shot, the place was overrun with tourists coming in and it was time to put the camera down for a second and actually take stock of the reason I had come in the first place.

With its perfect symmetry, starting with the dome in the middle to the four minarets at each corner of the marble plinth which raises the Taj to its elevated position, the Taj Mahal dominated the skyline, with nothing in the background to suggest the position of where you were, just blue skies. Pools with fountains making up their spine flanked by well tended gardens and trimmed trees and bushes lead up to the shining white marble structure, with many spots along the way where anyone can stop to appreciate the workmanship that went into it from vantage points and benches.

As you get closer, you have to climb some stairs and either remove your shoes or put pre-dispensed covers on your feet, your choice. Once at the Taj's level you can go inside to inspect the false tombs, the real ones are below and off limits to the public, walk around the perimeter and check out views of the Yamuna river, Agra Fort some kilometres further up the river, not to mention, check out the Taj itself from all angles.

However, as beautiful as it was, I couldn't help but feel a little disappointed by it all. From what everyone has ever said and written about the Taj, I was expecting to be blown away and experience similar feelings to those experienced in Beijing where everywhere I went exceeded expectations and then some. It just felt like something was missing here.

The design of the exterior is exquisite, no question, with passges from the Qur'an written in calligraphy upon the facade, the white marble inlaid with semi-precious stones and carvings so intricate I can't begin to imagine how long they took. However, I just couldn't feel a connection to any of it, I guess I'm just heartless when it comes to Mughal architecture. 

Once inside the mausoleum and within looking distance of the sarcophagi, I got my torch out to check out the interior designs but was instantly ordered to turn my lights off by some official lurking in the shadows who continued to watch like a hawk until I put it back in my bag, rendering many patterns within useless as I couldn't make them out in the darkness.

Minor gripes aside, the symmetry of the place is astounding. The Taj's aficionado and then ruler of the Mughal empire, Shah Jahan, went to such extremes to maintain this, that an exact replica of Masjid mosque on the west of the complex was erected on the east side. It served no purpose from what I could see, just there to continue the extravagant visual aesthetics of the Taj complex.

The mosque itself is actually still in use, rendering visits to the Taj on a Friday a waste of your time as you will not be granted access unless you are coming for prayers, something I might have had difficulty trying to blag I feel. Any other day is fair game though.

Although I was disappointed to have missed the sunrise, getting there before the masses is a good idea unless you want thousands of people in your photos or touts offering you everything Taj related from postcards to snow domes.

Having arrived so early, I was amazed to find that I was done by 9am, something I hadn't quite envisaged as I thought it would take much longer to walk the Taj itself and see what the grounds had to offer, mostly they just offered various angles from which to observe the Taj as shown below.

Taj Mahal in the morning for sunrise
First pic of the day
Taj close up
Grand Entrance Building to the Taj Mahal complex
Mosque...or is it?
Calligraphy on the Taj's exterior
Shot from the southeast
Shot from the southwest
As mentioned before, it is beautiful. However, as for being the most beautiful building in the world,  I'm going to have to disagee I'm afraid, not that I have any other suggestions at this time. Apart from it's stunning symmetry and the tombs, there really isn't much to see once you have inspected the marble carvings and taken more photos than you thought possible of the same thing.

Of course, this being my second trip to India, I couldn't leave without seeing the Taj again, but upon reflection, I was left so underwhelmed that perhaps believing into the built up hype of certain places should be avoided. Something to think about for my future travels perhaps.

One thing for certain though, there's no way cage diving with Great Whites and going on safari in Kruger Park to spot the 'Big 5' will be a let down, so I will bid farewell to India and get ready for the excitement that awaits in South Africa.


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