The Bucket List Guide to the Taj Mahal
“Since we are going to be India for the Rickshaw Run, we should probably see the Taj Mahal. I mean it is on my Bucket List and I can’t imagine coming back to India just to see the Taj.”
This was my conversation with Darcee and pretty much everyone I had talked to before leaving for my epic India Rickshaw Run. It was as if one of the most recognizable buildings in the world was a “if we have time” secondary/bonus add on to my Bucket List travels through India. However, our day adventure in Agra, exploring the Taj Mahal and the Agra Fort would prove to me why this IS a “must see” destination and needs to be on everyone’s bucket list!
The Story of the Taj Mahal
Rudyard Kipling once described the Taj Mahal as “the embodiment of all things pure.” This could be due to its beautiful white marble or perhaps it is due to the story surrounding it.
The Taj Mahal was built by Shah Jahan as a memorial for his third wife, Mumtaz Mahal, who died giving birth to their 14th child. It is said that the death of Mumtaz truly broke the heart of the Shah and he immediately ordered the construction of the Taj as a mausoleum for his most beloved wife. Starting in 1632, it would take 20 years to build this monument of love, but upon its completion, Shah Jahan said it made “the sun and the moon shed tears from their eyes.”
According to legend, Shah Jahan wanted a replica of the Taj Mahal in black marble that would serve as his final resting place built directly across the Yamuna river from the original. However, one of his sons, Aurangzeb, felt that his father had caused a major strain on the empire’s finances with the Taj and a replica would ruin them entirely. Therefore, he overthrew Shah Jahan and imprisoned his father in the nearby Agra Fort where he could only view his beloved memorial from a distance till his death.
After his death it is said that one of his daughters then took his body and buried it next to his beloved Mumtaz Mahal in the Taj Mahal in 1666.
In 1983, the Taj Mahal was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site for being “the jewel of Muslim art in India and one of the universally admired masterpieces of the world’s heritage.” (http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/252)
In 2007, it was declared one of the world’s New 7 Wonders of the World by the New7Wonders of the World initiative. (https://world.new7wonders.com/)
How to visit the Taj Mahal and Agra, India
Of course Agra, India has much more to see than just the Taj Mahal. However, on our visit to Agra, we only had one day to explore the Taj Mahal and the Agra Fort in 7-8 hours. Though we missed out on several other wonderful things to do in Agra, we found it very easy to cross the Taj Mahal and the Agra Fort off of our bucket list in 7-8 hours.
Getting to Agra
Being that Agra is only 200km from Delhi, there are multiple ways to get there including private car, Uber, taxi, or bus. Each of these takes 4-5 hours to get there depending on traffic and can range in cost and comfort.
However, the most popular and fastest way to get to Agra is by train. Tickets one way on the Gatimaan Express from Delhi to Agra were approximately 750 INR (about $11.00 USD) each and place you on a nice clean train with decent bathrooms. The quick and easy 2 hour train ride comes with a large bottle of water & a meal included in the ticket price but please remember to tip the train servers as we were told that they mainly live off the tips.
*Please Note: In my opinion, the India Train website (https://www.irctc.co.in) maybe one of the most frustrating and impossible travel websites in the world to operate. They often put restrictions on when a person (tourist) can purchase ahead of time and declined both of our credit cards online. Therefore, ask your hotel or a travel agent to purchase the tickets for you. We had a local friend in Delhi purchase ours for us. You can also buy them in person at the train station where I used my credit card with no issues for our return tickets.
Getting to the Taj Mahal and around Agra
One of the interesting aspects about the many parts of India we visited was their laid back approach toward tourists. However, this laissez faire approach was not found in Agra. Don’t get me wrong, you definitely don’t feel hustled as compared to many other places in the world, but be prepared as you exit the train or bus stations.
With that said, we were told by many of our local Indian friends that a tour guide is not necessary but highly recommended for the Taj Mahal because there signage to tell the history to visitors. In this day and age of information on the internet, I tend to be a little anti-tour guide unless its free or cheap. However, after many recommendations I felt that it would be beneficial.
So if you opted for the train, you will exit the Agra Station to a sea of Tuk Tuk (auto-rickshaw). You will need to grab one to even get to the Taj Mahal but you will have a couple of unique options: 1) to just pay to ride to the Taj Mahal (about 100 INR in a Tuk Tuk) but you will then have to figure out transportation from there or 2) negotiate a day hire which is what we did (600 INR in a tuk tuk for the day).
When we arrived we decided to change our return ticket to an earlier time. This ended up being a blessing in disguise as we exited about 20 minutes after the crowd was swarmed by tuk tuk drivers. When we finally exited, we were approached by a driver who negotiated with us a deal for the day:
- Stop off for a clean bathroom stop if we needed it
- Option for an Official Guide certified from the Approved guides office (500 INR)
- Ride to the Taj Mahal gate
- A trip over to the Agra Fort
- Ride to 3-4 types of shops if you want
- Return back to Agra Train Station by 4:15 for our 5:15 train
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Exploring the Taj Mahal
We opted for the Official Tour Guide from the Approved guides office and it was great. Ari, our guide, walked us down to East Gate where we obtained our entry tickets. As of January 1, 2017 entry ticket prices for foreigners are 1,000 INR, 40 INR for Indians and free for children under the age of 15. The Taj Mahal entry fee also includes a bottle of water and shoe covers which are necessary to walk around the main mausoleum. Make sure you pick them up when you buy your ticket.
There are several entrances into the Taj Mahal, so just follow your driver or guide to the easiest gate and follow your specified line to enter. There is a shorter line for the foreigner tickets and one specifically for women and men even amid the foreigner lines.
When you finally enter, you are greeted by the Gateway Entrance that leads you to the gardens in front of the mausoleum. Ari, our guide, was very excited to point out the symmetry of the entire property from the gates, through the gateway, across the ponds, to the center of the mausoleum inside the white marbled Taj Mahal itself.
One of the bonuses of using a guide was not only to hear about the architecture and history of the property, but they also make great photographers! I noticed that Ari and other guides are trained to take you to the best photo op spots.
After walking through the Gateway Entrance, you enter the main garden where you will be taken around the gardens, told of the history and legends of the Taj Mahal, taken to the “Princess Diana Bench” for a wonderful photo, and then toward the mausoleum. We never felt a sense of urgency with our guide, which was nice as he would let us walk off to just drink in the beauty of the building.
As you approach the actual mausoleum, you are required to put on your paper shoe covers or remove your shoes altogether. The mausoleum itself is pure white with Arabic inscriptions containing verses from the holy book of Quran that surround the entrance way. Also along the walls and above the archways are colorful ornamentations of flowers. What is interesting is that both the black inscriptions and the colorful flowers are not painted on the white marble but rather colored marble or precious stones that have been cut and inlay into the white marble background.
Another interesting tidbit is that the 4 minarets surrounding the main mausoleum are slightly tilted outward away from the dome. According to legend, this was done in case of an earthquake, the minarets would fall away from the resting place of the Shah’s love.
When entering the mausoleum, please note that no photos are allowed inside out of respect. When exiting the mausoleum, you will circle around the back to look across the Yamuna River where, as Ari pointed out, the Shah’s black replica was supposed to be built. From here you are free to explore the guest house or the mosque on either side of the Taj Mahal.
Other Things to do In Agra
* Please note that if you save your receipt from the Taj Mahal, you will receive a little discount to enter many of the other sites in Agra!
- Akbar’s Mausoleum: This marble and sandstone mausoleum honors one of Agra’s greatest emperors of the Mughal dynasty. About 10km northwest of Agra Fort, this mausoleum is beautifully constructed and a must see if possible.
- Mehtab Bagh: These gardens are a series of 11 parks on the Yamuna’s east bank. The gardens are perfectly aligned with and a great view of the Taj.
- Agra Fort: If you only have time to visit one other site in Agra besides the Taj Mahal, then I would recommend going to the Agra Red Fort. This is the fort that Shah Jahan’s son banished him to live out his final days. The fort is magnificent with many sections and corridors to explore. You don’t necessarily need a guide to explore the fort since there are plenty of signs written in English and Hindi that describe the history of each specific section.
So as you can see, the Taj Mahal and Agra, India ARE a “must see” destination and needs to be on everyone’s bucket list! Are they on yours? Have you ever been to the Taj Mahal or Agra, India? If so, tell us about your experience visiting these great bucket list destinations in the comments below!