By Sandra Hutchinson
This is my third blog post on the trip my husband and I took in January, 2017 to northern India.
The Taj Mahal — termed one of the “wonders of the world,” and probably India’s most famous structure, is actually a marble mausoleum that was constructed by Mughal emperor Shah Jahan after the death of his favorite wife, Mumtaz Mahal. Completed around 1653, it is perhaps the best example anywhere of Mughal architecture. After this “monument to love” was constructed, one of the emperor’s sons murdered his three elder brothers and overthrew his father to acquire the throne. Shah Jahan was imprisoned at Agra Fort, with a view of his beloved wife’s tomb, until he died. He is buried alongside his wife in the Taj Mahal.
The Taj Mahal sits on the banks of the Yumana River, on a large site that includes formal gardens, water channels, a mosque, four minarets, and a guest house. It is located in Agra, a city several hours south of Delhi by car or train. It is generally mobbed with visitors, somewhere between 7 and 8 million a year. As with other government sites in India, there’s a lower price for Indians (40 rupees) and a much higher one for foreign tourists (1000 rupees). The site is closed on Fridays. Our guide told us that on Fridays, the descendants of the people who helped build the Taj Mahal can visit for free, but we did not independently confirm this.
You approach the Taj Mahal by passing through an archway in a sandstone gatehouse. As you walk through, the marble structure appears in the distance, almost glowing. It is breathtaking. Both my husband and I had tears in our eyes when we first saw it.
The Diana bench— Of course I had to seek out the “Diana Bench” at the Taj Mahal, where Princess Diana was photographed in 1992 looking lonesome without Charles, who was presumably off with Camilla. Prince William and the Duchess of Cambridge sat on the same bench when they visited the site in 2016. I asked our guide to show me where the photos were taken, and he had me sit on a bench for my own photo, telling me that was the “Diana bench.” It was only as I was writing this blog post and looking at the photos of Princess Diana and William and Kate that I realize I wasn’t sitting on the correct bench, but was on one farther distant from the monument. Not to mention that there isn’t another soul in sight in the royals’ photos, in stark contrast to a normal visitation day.
As you approach the platform, where you climb steps to get up to the base of the structure, visitors remove their shoes or cover them with booties, since it is a holy Muslim site. When foreign tourists purchase tickets, they are provided paper booties. Nonetheless, I learned to always have socks with you when there’s a possibility you might enter a holy site. This is not only for hygienic reasons, but because marble and stone floors are cold.
The exterior of the mausoleum is heavily carved and features a lot of inlay work with precious and semi-precious stones.
Inside the building, there is an intricate marble screen that surrounds the two tombs that hold the remains of Mumtaz Mahal and Shah Jahan. It was almost impossible get a decent photo inside because it was dark and very crowded.
About two and a half miles from the Taj Mahal is Agra Fort, which was the principal residence of the Mughal emperors until 1638, when the Mughal capital was moved from Agra to the Red Fort in Delhi. It’s essentially a walled city, surrounded by a moat that is said to have had crocodiles in it back in the day.
Fatehpur Sikri – the “abandoned Mughal city”
Twenty-four miles from Agra is Fatehpur Sikri, founded in 1569 by Mughal emperor Akbar. It, like Agra Fort and Delhi’s Red Fort, was a royal residence and political seat of the Mughal Empire, from 1572 to 1585. It was later abandoned and is now a UNESCO World Heritage site, operated as a museum. Parking is offsite, and visitors are driven in a shuttle van to the complex.
The site includes 16th century palaces, mosques, guesthouses, and private and public audience halls. We visited on a misty morning, and there were few visitors, giving it a surreal feeling. There’s a mixture of Hindu and Persian architectural elements.
Chand Baori Stepwell, eastern Rajasthan
Many tourists head to Jaipur, the capital of Rajasthan, after visiting Agra and Fatehpur Sikri. If that is your route, there is a slight detour that can be taken, to see Chand Baori, one of India’s stepwells. Said to be one of the largest stepwells in the world, Chand Baori was build during the 8th and 9th centuries. Stepwells were built in arid regions of Rajasthan to provide year-round water. As the water level went down, the steps allowed people to still access the water. The step well is about 64 feet deep, and the steps form an M. C. Escher-esque maze.
Finally, just for fun, and since you’ve read this far, I’d like to share this photo of a camel pulling a cart filled with bricks, which passed by us as we were waiting to go through a toll booth on one of the highways. Not certain, but I don’t think he paid a toll!
Next up— Jaipur, Udaipur, Jodhpur and Jaisalmer!