Agra is a very popular destination for tourists visiting India. Although the city itself is not particularly notable, it does have one key landmark that people flock to see – the Taj Mahal.
Looking out from our hotel room in the afternoon, it seemed as if the Taj Mahal, that we had just visited that morning had suddenly disappeared. That’s because, like many Indian cities, Agra is extremely polluted.
To try and combat that pollution and prevent the removal of its UNESCO World Heritage listing, the Indian government set up the Taj Trapezium Zone (TTZ). This is a ten thousand square kilometre regions around the Taj Mahal where strict emissions standards are in place.
It’s unclear whether this restriction is having any effect. It certainly didn’t appear that way when we were there, although apparently it has helped alleviate the acid rain that was damaging the monument’s marble facade.
The Taj Mahal
A Timeless Love Story
The Taj Mahal is mostly famous for its incredible architecture but the love story behind it also adds to its charm.
The Mughal emperor Shah Jahan was just a boy when he saw a beautiful young woman in the female-only market inside Agra Fort. He was disguised as a girl so that he could check out the ladies.
Her name was Arjumand Banu Begum. The emperor couldn’t reveal himself to her there but when he later ran into her outside the fort he proposed to her straight away. For some reason, she was only his second wife but she bore him fourteen children anyway.
Renamed Mumtaz Mahal after marriage, she died giving birth to the final child. Before she died she asked the emperor to build a monument dedicated to their love, so he spent twenty odd years building the masterpiece known as the Taj Mahal.
A Wonder Years in the Making
Designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1983, the Taj Mahal is known for its iconic white marble mausoleum but it also consists of several other building including an operational mosque.
The mausoleum is built from ivory white Indian marble which is inlaid white hundreds of precious stones from all over the world. The construction utilised about twenty thousand workers and one thousand elephants. The mausoleum was completed in roughly twelve years, with the surrounding buildings taking another decade to complete.
The mosque is on the left-hand side of the mausoleum as you look towards it. Because Islamic architecture is big on symmetry there is an identical mosque on the right-hand side that is not operational.
At each corner of the mausoleum is a minaret. The minarets serve no purpose other than to look nice. By design, they lean outwards by a couple of degrees so that in an earthquake they will fall away from the mausoleum.
Get There For Sunrise
The Taj Mahal is open from 6AM to 7PM on weekdays, except on Friday. On Friday it is open for prayers at the mosque between 12 and 2PM. You can also visit in the evening on the day of the full moon and two days before and after (except for Fridays and during Ramadan).
The best time to visit the Taj Mahal is in the cooler months at sunrise. The light is really nice at that time and there is often less pollution. You can also get some nice photos of the sun rising over the mausoleum. However, you certainly won’t be the only one with this idea! The lines fill up fast and people pour in once the doors open 15 minutes before sunrise.
No petrol powered cars are allowed close to the site. You can take an electric bus from the main street up to the ticket office. Alternatively, you can walk the short distance or take a rickshaw.
Entrance Fees to the Taj Mahal
Entry for foreigners costs Rs. 1100. Tickets are significantly cheaper for Indian nationals.
The ticket office accepts credit cards but don’t count on being able to use yours and carry enough cash. Their POS devices often fail to work (they were down when we visited). Once you ’ve paid for your tickets you can pick up your free bottle of water and head over to the entry queue.
At the entry queue, men and women must line up separately so that they can be searched by security. For security reasons, only five items are allowed inside the Taj Mahal. They are water (in clear plastic bottles), still cameras and small video cameras, mobile phones and small purses.
Hurry to Take Some Good Photos
Once inside you’ll need to move ahead quickly to take photos before the hordes of tourists (including the tour groups) catch up with you. You’re probably not going to be able to get photos without any people in them anyway, so after snapping off a few photos from outside, head to the mausoleum as quickly as you can, so that you can take a look inside without being squashed. Note that to go inside the mausoleum you’ll need to wear plastic covers over your shoes that they provide.
The two tombs inside the mausoleum are replicas of the ones in the crypt down below that are not accessible to visitors. They were actually created at the same time as the originals as was common in the day.
Afterwards visiting the mausoleum, go outside and take relatively undisturbed photos around the exterior before others catch up to you. Then go to the mosque before it gets too busy. From the mosque, you can take photos of the sun rising over the Taj Mahal.
Make sure you take your shoes off before stepping up onto the platform in front of the mosque. Be careful though. There are monkeys around who have been known to steal shoes!
Agra Fort is the other architectural masterpiece to see in Agra. The fort was where the Mughal emperors primarily lived while Agra was the capital city. As well as being heavily fortified it has some beautiful internal palace buildings.
The palace buildings have lots of examples of innovative architectural features such as water-cooled walls for keeping the emperor’s bedroom cool.
Shah Jahan, the creator of the Taj Mahal was sentenced to house arrest in Agra Fort by one of his sons Aurangzeb, who seized the throne from him. He was banned from ever seeing his finished creation in person although it is rumoured that his favourite daughter Jahanara would sneak him out of the fort to see the Taj Mahal in disguise.
Entrance Fees to Agra Fort
Entrance to Agra Fort costs Rs. 650 for foreigners Monday to Sunday and significantly cheaper for Indian nationals. It’s also a bit cheaper (Rs. 600) on Fridays or if you’ve already paid to visit the Taj Mahal.
You can pay by credit card, although just as with the Taj Mahal, the machines don’t always work. We had to pay by cash at both places.
Where to stay in Agra?
This heritage hotel is located in the heart of medieval Agra and offers luxury accommodations with spa facilities, and beautiful gardens. The suites are elegant and decorated in rich colours and fabrics and antique furniture. Prices start from AU$75. Click here for the latest prices.
The famous and magnificent Taj Mahal is just 1.2 miles away and you can request rooms with views on this iconic monument. The hotel also offers an outdoor pool and a rooftop restaurant. Prices start from AU$130. Click here for the latest prices.
Looking for absolute luxury? Check ourself in at the Oberoi! The Oberoi is located just 601 metres away from the Taj Mahal and features luxurious 5-star accommodations with 4 on-site restaurants. Prices start from AU$450. Click here for the latest prices.
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