India is a fascinating country with a distinctive history and culture that’s so far away from its outside world. Historically, the Indus Valley Civilization (IVC) began in the Bronze Age over 5,000 years ago; Religiously, Hinduism is the third largest religion in the world after Christianity and Islam; and culturally, it has more than two thousand ethnic groups and 23 official languages – and amongst all these, there is one national monument that stood out as a declared winner of the New 7 Wonders of the World, the one and only, Taj Mahal.
Taj Mahal, therefore, is the most visited tourist attraction in India. It could be overwhelming to many first-timers. Some of them may be already worrying about hygiene (from the water to air quality), what to eat and drink (whether local food is safe), how to get around (in the chaotic traffic and domestic animals roaming on the side of the road), safety, accommodation and more… Now they also have to consider the admission tickets, the best time to visit, the visiting crowd, the itinerary planning, and even more… Don’t worry, I am here offering a list of travel tips and all you need to know about the Taj Mahal, to prepare you for your visit!
Let’s clear up some criticisms
Some people may have a bad experience with annoying guides, aggressive street vendors, and noisy crowds. Some people may think the structure was actually smaller than expected (huh? really?). Some people may think it’s not as exquisite as some other architecture that they have seen… While my visit was fortunately quite pleasant, I was also impressed by what I have seen. Before I go on to elaborate and dive into the juicy details, allow me to rebut these claims really quick:
First – being the most popular tourist attraction in the country, you can’t really expect the entire ground is always deserted for you to move at a glacial pace (You know how that thrills me). Still, there are times that the monument is less crowded with beautiful sunlight and temperature. If you really can’t deal with the street vendors and on-site guide, I suggest you hire a local guide or join a local tour so at least you have some backup fending off the disturbances had it got too “unpleasant”.
Secondly – the Taj Mahal is an Ivory-white marble mausoleum that is 73 meters tall and roughly the same size of the Sydney Opera House (it’s a weird and probably meaningless comparison that I have here…). Anyway, it’s true that the structure may not be as colossal as many cathedrals in Europe (if you want to put it that way), good things come in small packages. It is a World UNESCO Heritage Site and a national attraction for a reason.
Lastly – While beauty is really subjective and it’s hard to argue which is better or worse, the Taj Mahal is… unique and one-of-a-kind. Well yes, it sounds like a lame explanation that “of course, everything is different”, however, the Taj Mahal is a manifestation of Mughal architecture style, which is known for its symmetry and decorative amalgam. Furthermore, the Taj Mahal is (almost) the only all-white Mughal architecture in such massive scale and so well preserved. Simply speaking, it’s difficult for you to see anything else like that in other places in the world.
Taj Mahal 101
Let’s start with some historical facts about the Taj Mahal. Taj Mahal is an ivory-white marble mausoleum and the resting place of Mughal emperor Shah Jahan and his third wife, Mumtaz Mahal. Constructed in Mughal architectural style, it took about 22 years to build between the years of 1632 and 1653. The cost was about 32 million rupees. 28 types of jewels were used with brick-in-lime mortar veneered with red sandstone and marbles.
The emperor took inspiration from building the tomb white while grieving his wife’s death. Since then, numerous replicas could be seen in places all over South Asia and the Middle East from Bangladesh to Dubai. Shah Jahan is a powerful Mughal emperor in the 17th century and his wife passed away after giving birth to his 14th child, 30-hour labor, before the age of 40. He is obviously his favorite as he built such a spectacle dedicated to her, with his other wives and favorite servants buried in mausoleums outside of the Taj Mahal.
Keeping it white: It has been like moving mountains to keep Taj Mahal white for years. It was once a shiny white, and then it turned yellow, brownish-black, and green. Toxic air and filthy water have been its worst enemies. With a population of over 2 million, Agra is one of the world’s most polluted cities. The terrible air pollution was caused by Heavy traffic in Agra and industrial development. Not only the smoke and fumes left a stain on the walls, turning them grey, but they are also a key ingredient of acid rain, which corrodes the exterior of the Taj Mahal. Once the problem was identified, the authorities have taken a series of measures (that were quite costly) to salvage the beauty and dignity of their national treasure. Now, only electric vehicles are allowed near the Taj Mahal, and a four thousand square mile environmental radius was declared to help control emissions. While the external factors are alleviated, cleaning of Taj Mahal is also no easy task. First of all, we are not supposed to scrub the walls with a chemical detergent like what we do for our toilet bowls; secondly, can you imagine the elbow grease you need to organically clean the entire structure? The cleaning and restoration of Taj Mahl began in 2018, using a mud pack called “Fuller Earth”. The clay is applied to the marble to lift the stains and then washed off with distilled water. This is an effective but slow method. Cleaning on the peripheral wall has been completed and scaffolding was removed in mid-2019, the next stage of work is to clean the four chhatris on the roof (but it might be delayed due to the coronavirus outbreak). I visited in December 2019 and the Taj Mahal was absolutely stunning with a radiant glow!
Taj Mahal was assigned to a Persian architect, Ustad Ahmad Lahauri. Back then, the Indians had a close tie with the Persian and Islamic culture and it was reflected in their historic architecture. Mughal Architecture is a type of Indo-Islamic architecture developed from the 16th to 18th century and it was deeply influenced by Persian and Central Asian art. Mughal buildings could be found all over India, and places like the Red Fort in Delhi, Fatehpur Sikri (which I will be introducing in another post), Agra Fort, and Taj Mahal are some great examples of this type of architecture.
Mughal buildings are typically rectangular-shaped halls topped by a large bulbous onion (or “onion-ish” shaped) dome and surrounded by minarets at the corners. Marbles and red sandstones were common material used, and most of the buildings are in red, except, of course, the Taj Mahal that is all white on such a large scale.
All sides of the buildings were delicately decorated with geometric bas-reliefs, engravings, inscriptions, or sculptures; the facade or Iwan of a mosque was always painted with plant frescoes and verses of Koran. (“Iwan” is an arch-shaped embedded space at the front and on the side)
Symmetry plays an important role in Mughal Architecture, and it extends to the layout of its gardens or courtyards. Most monuments usually had a garden on all four sides of the building. To make the Taj Mahal look straight, the four minarets at the corner of the Taj Mahal were actually built leaning outward, and visually the tower would look standing straight from afar. This is also a safety measure to ensure that in the incident of collapse, they would fall away from the tomb instead of crashing into the central structure.
Legend has it: It’s been a legend that the architects of the Taj Mahal were killed after the construction of the Taj Mahal to make sure that they can never repeat what they did in any place else. It may not be the first of hearing something like this (Haven’t you heard that Ivan the Terrible blinded the architects of Saint Basil Cathedral?) There’s no proof that supports this legend. It is more believable by the historians that they were asked to sign a contract.
Ticket price and opening hours
Foreigners: 1,000 Rupees (~US$14) India nationals: 40 Rupees
Free for Children (under 14-years-old)
Opening times: 6 am – 7 pm daily (except Fridays)
There is a mosque in the Taj Mahal and it’s still functioning. So, the site is closed on Fridays for locals to have their prayers.
Taj Mahal in the moonlight: 2 days in every month during the full moon, the Taj Mahal is opened to the public at night for a special viewing. The color of the Taj Mahal changes under the full moon and it is a special experience. However, the tickets for the moonlight viewing cost 750 rupees but they sell out really fast. The ticket should be purchased between 10 am to 6 pm, one day in advance from the Archaeological Survey of India office on Mall Road.
The best time to visit the Taj Mahal
The best month to visit Agra and Taj Mahal is probably during springtime from March to June because of the weather. It may be surprising to some, north India does get chilly during winter, the temperature can drop to single-digit degree Celsius in the morning and at night. The flip side, however, is that the monument could be very crowded during the peak season. As for me, I visited the Taj Mahal in December and I was told that heavy fog may shadow the view occasionally from November to February. It’s true that the sky was not perfectly clear but I still found the view pleasant with a lesser crowd. The scorching and rainy summer is considered a bad time, but still, the monument opens at any time of the year.
The best time of the day is for you to visit early in the morning. In general, the monument is less crowded (and yes, we are taking the crowd very seriously), and it’s cooler with nice natural lighting. In fact, the ivory-white monument’s color changes as the sunrise and it looks quite different. If you are visiting there on your own, get to the ticket booth a little bit earlier than its opening at 6 am. Usually, there’s already a queue outside the booth as early as 5 am! The day that we arrived was not as busy and we entered smoothly. All in all, unless you signed up for one of those VIP exclusive tours (yes, there are such things and money does solve a lot of problems) that beat the crowd and bring you in as early as 5 am. You should always expect a crowd before the monument is officially opened and just try to get there as early as possible – it is in general, the best time.
How to see or shoot the Taj Mahal without tourists
It seems like it is a great deal (or some sort of accomplishment) for us bloggers to beat the crowd and take pictures of the monument with no other people around. Well, if you are determined to do so, and you are not planning on spending a fortune to join an exclusive tour, the least you can do is to get there really early (let say 5 am) and be at the very front of the line. There are a few things that you need to be aware of:
- Go to the West or the East Gate. Compared to the South Gate, the East and the West Gate are usually less busy and the ticket office and front gate are separated. It takes at least two people to hold the front spot of these two lines in order to get a head start once the gates are opened.
- Travel lightly. Bring a small backpack and save the hassle of getting through the security check. There is a list for banned items including food, headphones, selfie sticks, and tripods. For more, check out the official website for the list. We had a hired driver and a guide and we left our belongings in the car. My advice, just bring your wallet, camera, and your phone, leave everything at the hotel and pick them up after your visit.
- Bring cash and the exact change. Save time on dealing with the ticket purchase.
Once the gates are opened, people start flooding in like they are running a marathon; the tour groups usually walk at a slower pace and they need some time to get to the main site (which is about a kilometer away from the entrance). If you move fast and rush to the building, you will have a good period of time to have space to yourself (with very few people) and take pictures with no people in the background. All in all, if you can enter the site early, the place is big enough for you to shoot your perfect photo, or to see the Taj Mahal without tourists. You just have to shoot creatively.
Do you need a guide?
We had a guide and it was nice to have someone to give us a little bit of background information about the site and tell us what to see as it could be a bit overwhelming at first. Our guide took us through the site with ease and took us to places to shoot pictures with different angles. Of course, our guide is also a good helping hand to take us pictures. However, don’t get a guide at the entrance because there are only that many official guides at the Taj Mahal and many of them are lurking at the entrance posting as guides or photographers. You won’t be able to tell if they are the professional ones and won’t want the trouble of haggling and negotiating when all you want to do is enjoy the site at your own pace.
Another option is to download an app like the Taj Mahal CaptivaTour which gives the much-needed commentary about the Taj Mahal’s history and important information; also, you may get an audio guide.
Going inside the Taj Mahal
I was honestly wondering if entering the Taj Mahal is possible before my visit. It was because most of the pictures that I saw were the exterior of the Taj Mahal! It didn’t occur to me that visitors can enter the building. One reason is that visitors are not allowed to take pictures inside the Taj Mahal.
So, what’s inside the Taj Mahal? The inner chamber is beautifully decorated inside as you see the cenotaph of Mumtaz Mahal and Shah Jahan side-by-side in an octagonal chamber, shield by a marble carved lattice screen. These are merely monuments for visitors to pay respect. Islamic tradition forbids the decoration of graves, and so the real sarcophagi are buried in the plain crypt beneath at the garden level.
Thanks to our guide, he gave us a good introduction of what to look at, and we could get up close to see the beautiful engravings on the wall of the Taj Mahal. Once we entered the hall, it got very dark. The securities/guides waved us over and showed us how the beautiful gem would glow when they lit them with a torchlight; The hall is also well-designed that their singing voices will be echoed loudly.
Is it closing? I have read somewhere a few years back about a list of places that you should probably visit now (before they are gone!) as they are vanishing and will disappear or become unavailable in the near future. Places like the Great Barrier Reef (due to coral bleaching), Maldives and Venice (because it’s sinking), and Madagascar (facing threat of deforestation). Interestingly, the Taj Mahal is on the top of the list because the tourism officials were considered closing to the public for good within 5 years. It is still opening now, but the threat was real. Between the crowds and air pollution, we have to be mindful and help protect this world wonder.
Creative ways to shoot Taj Mahal
While tripods and selfie sticks are not allowed in the Taj Mahal, there are still ways to shoot the Taj Mahal with a little bit of creativity. In general, everyone would want to take a picture of the Taj Mahal once they enter the gate and see it for the first time. That’s why the entrance is always crowded with people rubbing shoulders, trying to get a good shot of the entire ground. My suggestion is to control the urge of spending too much time on that spot and enter the Taj Mahal as soon as possible. Leave it until the end of your visit because the entrance and the exit are the same places.
- Wear black or something colorful that will have a contrast to the white building; in other words, it may not be a good idea to wear all white
- Get up close and admire the beautiful decorations on the wall!
- You can take some beautiful pictures with the reflection of the pool in the garden.
- Get creative with your pose
- Sunlight is your friend, and go to the east side in the morning to catch the best lighting possible for you and the Taj Mahal
- Take a shot of the Taj Mahal with the door that will frame the picture nicely
- Explore the other buildings on the site, they look magnificent as well!
- Shoot outside of the Taj Mahal, actually, the giant structure could be viewed all the way from Agra Fort, and the Mehtab Bagh (Garden Complex) is a great place to view the Taj Mahal on the other side of the river.
Mehtab Bagh is a Charbagh complex in Agra, North India. The historic garden lies north of the Taj Mahal complex and the Agra Fort on the opposite side of the Yamuna River, in the flood plains. The garden complex, square in shape, measures about 300 by 300 meters and is perfectly aligned with the Taj Mahal on the opposite bank. The garden itself does not have much to see (and some places are still in maintenance and restoration); This is still a popular attraction because it’s a great location to view the Taj Mahal from afar; and if you look closely, the garden has an old water system if you are interested to learn more about the architecture or engineering.
Nicknamed the “Baby Taj”, this is a preview of the real Taj Mahal. This tomb was built between 1622 and 1628 (just 4 years before the construction of the Taj Mahal), by Mehr-un-Nissa or Nur Jahan, for her father Mirza Ghiyas Beg. On the east bank of the River Yamuna, this was the first Mughal tomb to be built in white marble. The square tomb of seven meters is on a raised platform of red sandstone, at the center of the walled garden. The garden, Char Bagh, was actually quite impressive at the time it was built. Like many other gardens in the country, it has a sophisticated watering system with areas that grow orchards, fruits, and aromatic herbs in the past.
To me, “Baby Taj” is for you to get warm-up and where you could understand a little bit more about history, art, and architecture. The place is well-preserved and it is less crowded, where you could get up close to see the architectural ornamentation and elaborate frescoes. While the two are built in the same period of time, I do think it truly served as a blueprint for the construction of the Taj Mahal.