“You gotta go dude... It’s the Taj!” he said in a thick Texas accent.
I had gone back and forth about whether or not I would actually visit this shrine to tourism. Was it really worth my time? At that point I was leaning towards skipping it. Maybe it was a genuine change of heart, or maybe it that thick southern accent triggering my American nostalgia, but I decided that this guy was preaching the truth. As much as I hated it, I was pretty much obligated to go.
The famed Taj Mahal resides in a city called Agra, which is just a 3-hour train ride southeast of New Delhi. It is an accepted fact that Agra, aside from the Taj Mahal, is a total shit hole – really just the worst. In planning a trip to Agra you should spend as little time there as possible. Many people will just get a hotel for 1 night, but it’s also doable as a day trip from New Delhi. I just wanted to get this over with, so I chose the day trip. Joining me would be a German fellow from my hostel in Delhi.
We had actually intended to take a bus to Agra from Delhi, but the morning that we intended to leave, we discovered that the bus ride was not a mere 3 hours as we had been thought – it was 6 hours. At 10am, it was too late to make this a 1-day trip if we wanted to take a bus. So we went to the train station instead and got the next available ticket.
When we arrived at the train station in Agra it was mid-afternoon. The first item on our agenda was to purchase our ticket back to New Delhi for later that day. It took a little while to track down the right office since we didn’t trust anybody that tried to give us directions. You have to be careful with things like that in places like Agra and Delhi. People make their living scamming white folks like me. Finally we bought our tickets. Based on our time of departure, we had roughly 4 hours to knock out the Taj Mahal, and the Red Fortress (Agra’s lesser known #2 tourist attraction).
There was a crowd of Indian security guards sitting in the train station parking lot in a circle chewing tobacco and talking loudly. From them we purchased a prepaid tuk-tuk to the Taj Mahal for 100 INR (1.52 USD).
Our driver dropped us off at a crowded junction 15 minutes from the train station. Ahead we could see road blocks so we thanked him, paid him, and sent him on his way. Beyond the road blocks were a few square kilometers of green space. Walking through that green space felt like being in a city park during some sort of summer festival. But there was no festival – it was just the Taj Mahal.
Lumbering through the crowds, below the monkeys that were swinging from trees, were some of the biggest camels I’ve ever seen. The Bactrian camels (2 humps) that I saw up in the Himalayas were barely bigger than horses. These camels however, were freaking dinosaurs! Most of them were towing carts full of Indian tourists. Bewildered, we walked on by, still searching for some sort of signage to help direct us.
Eventually we found our way to the entrance to the Taj Mahal. The line to enter the main area was at least a mile long, and there was not a single other white person in it, which surprised me. It wasn’t though before we realized that that was because there’s a different procedure for foreigners.
We went to the foreigner ticket counter and bought 2 tickets for 750 INR (11.43 USD) each. This ticket included entry to the Taj Mahal, a voucher for a small discount for the rest of the tourist attractions in Agra, a bottle of water, and little booties to cover our shoes. Oh, and a tour guide. Our tour guide was definitely less than 5 feet tall. We were 6-4 and 6-5, so we were having trouble keeping track of the little guy as he led us through the crowds.
As I said, the line to get in was at least a mile long, and we got to ditch all of it. Our little tour guide pushed through all of it to let us through. We were through in a matter of minutes. Once we were in however, the security guards rudely informed me that the backpack I was wearing was too big to bring any further. Annoyed, our little tour guide led me back through the line to find a locker for storage. I think that there is a storage area somewhere a ways back towards the main road, but this guy had other ideas. He made a sharp left turn for the nearest gift shop, where he convinced the workers to hide my bag behind their desk. Then his little legs led us quickly back through the whole line again.
He led us a ways further and stopped at the Taj Mahal gateway. He told some history about it that I totally forgot. I was too busy peeking through the doorway to listen to intently to what he was saying.
Then the time came. We walked through the door, and there it was. It was surreal because it was exactly like all the pictures I had seen. And now here it was in front of me. It was much more impressive than I had thought, mainly because it was ENORMOUS! There was no water in the reflecting pools on the grounds around it, and there was some construction being done on part of it for general upkeep. Apparently there had been an earthquake that had recently challenged its structural integrity. It survived though, and in spite of the construction, and empty reflecting pools, it was very cool. So here it is – the picture:
We took a walk around the grounds, eventually moving towards the mammoth that is the Taj Mahal. You can go inside the Taj Mahal, and there was a line almost as long as the first one to enter. Thanks to our brave little tour guide we cut that line as well, and it wasn’t long before we found ourselves in the main chamber.
Some Taj Mahal Facts
The Taj Mahal is a mausoleum. Mughal emperor Shah Jahan ordered its construction to honor his wife favorite wife, Mumtaz Mahal, who died in 1631 during child birth. In addition to his relationship with his Mumtaz Mahal, Shah Jahan had a harem of something like 2,000 concubines, but this didn’t stop him from creating one of the 7 wonders of the world as a tribute to her.
When he died he too was laid to rest inside the Taj Mahal, so the centerpiece of the whole structure is a circular chamber with two caskets. The 2 caskets you see when you enter the Taj Mahal today are not the king and queen though. The real king and queen are on a lower level that is not open to the public; what the public sees is a replica of the chamber.
Here’s a mind-blowing fact. The entire Taj Mahal is made of marble. I want to draw particular emphasis to the word ‘entire’. It really is ALL marble. That will blow your mind a lot more once you see it in person, because it’s huge. The only parts of the Taj Mahal that aren’t made of marble are the colorful patterns on the wall. These stones were brought in from different places all around the world specifically to be carved into the walls of the Taj Mahal. There is more to these exotic stones in the walls though – they have a secret. The main chamber has lots of holes in the walls, designed specially to bring in as much moonlight as possible. When the moonlight hits these stones, they have been cut in ways that make them light up. Our tour guide whipped out a powerful little flashlight, turned it on, and pressed it against the one of the worn, burgundy stones in the walls. To our surprise, it lit up bright red. He moved it over to one of the faded navy blue stones on the wall. It lit up bright blue. Supposedly the moonlight is able to make them glow in the same way. The entire inside of the chamber is covered in these stones, arranged to form intricate designs. On a clear night when the moon is bright, this room must look like something out of a dream.
There were no pictures allowed inside the main chamber, so unfortunately I don’t have anything to show you on that front. We left the room and walked out back. One either side of the Taj Mahal are 2 big structures, which look like they are mosques. Only one of them actually is. The other one was actually a guesthouse, which was designed to look exactly the same as the mosque opposite it. Symmetry was a big deal for Mr. Jahan I guess.
Leaving The Taj Mahal
This was the end of our tour. We were under no obligation to tip our guide – the people at the ticket counter has made that very clear to us – but we thought that we probably should. I was in favor of giving him a small tip, but my German colleague argued in favor of a higher sum of money. We agreed on giving him 300 INR (4.54 USD). It was way more than I would have given had I been alone, but that’s okay. He did a pretty good job, so I can be generous just this once. That might not seem like much money by western standards, but in India that is a decent chunk of money.
“Ohh… very little. Some tourist give me 2,000 rupees…”
If you remember my rant in Mingun, Burma, where almost the exact same thing happened, you know that this is a pet peeve of mine. So while I angrily muttered obscenities in the background, my German friend did the efficient thing and politely told our little tour guide that he wasn’t getting anything more from us.
We took a last stroll around the grounds, and then said our goodbyes to the Taj Mahal. I picked up my backpack from the gift shop, and we headed over the Red Fortress. It was going to be a long walk, and we were pressed for time, so we got a tuk-tuk for 40 INR (0.61 USD).
From the back of our tuk-tuk I lazily watched the trees whizzing by us. There were places cut into the wall we were driving along every 2 or 3 meters for trees to grow. I watched the trees fly by every 3 or so seconds, until we got a space where there wasn’t a tree. In its place a woman stood looking very awkward. As our tuk-tuk moved past her I could see another woman, squatting behind her. A closer look revealed that she was spurting out poop like there was no tomorrow. Her friend who was standing up was just there for cover.
When we got to the Red Fortress, we had to cross a bridge over a moat to get inside. This moat had apparently been filled with crocodiles back in the days when it still had military applications.
Once we were inside, we showed our tickets from the Taj Mahal, and were let in for the reduced fee of 250 INR (3.81 USD). Inside the fortress monkeys climbed, swung, and relaxed on classical Islamic architecture. It was pretty cool. It wasn’t by any means on the level of the Taj Mahal, but it was cool.
Some Red Fortress Facts
So I already told you the Emperor Jahan built the Taj Mahal in remembrance of his favorite wife, who died during child birth. Well that little brat would grow up to one day through his old man in prison. The Red Fortress was this prison. It was also a fortress, but it was also the site of the (former) Emperor Jahan's imprisonment. That seems like an unfortunate way to end things, but after walking around the grounds, it didn’t seem like life was so bad for him in prison. He still had a huge, beautiful area to call his own, and plenty of food. He still lived a life of luxury. However, his harem was reduced from 2,000 women to 500. The poor guy.
Revenge Is Sweet
After a walk around the grounds of the Red Fortress, it was, again, time to say goodbye. We had a train to catch. So we walked out to the road to find a tuk-tuk. We had gotten to the Taj Mahal from the train station for 100 INR (1.52 USD), and we were slightly closer to the train station now, than we were at the Taj Mahal, so we decided to try to get back for 70 INR (1.07 USD). That sounds reasonable, right?
Back on the crowded streets we asked a tuk-tuk driver to bring us to the train station. He gave us a once-over, eye-ing our white skin, and then gave us a price of 400 INR (6.05 USD).
“HA! No. 70 Rupees.” We responded, insulted. 400 was an absurd price.
The man tried to play hardball with us. “No,” he said, crossing his arms nonchalantly, leaning against his tuk-tuk. It wasn’t an issue. This kind of B.S. is common in India. We’d just have to ask somebody else, and in that exact moment, another tuk-tuk came to a screeching halt next to us.
“Train station? 70 Rupees?” I said, quickly.
“70 rupees okay!” he responded promptly.
We hopped in the back of his tuk-tuk, and the first driver, who had tried to rip us off so self-righteously, started yelling at our new driver. The new driver argued with him a bit, but eventually pressed gas and started driving away. The first driver angrily ran along side the car screaming at us in Hindi but it was about 5 seconds before we had left him in the dust. Our new driver then turned around to us, and with a devilish grin said “no problem”. This has to have been my most satisfying moment of all of India - maybe even my life in general. I just sat back, reveling in my victory.
We went for a much cheaper train ticket back to Delhi. For a crowded bench with no air conditioning, we paid 100 INR (1.52 USD). Here’s a nice a few pictures I took on my way out of the Agra train station and some assorted festivities that were happening near the red fortress. No, it's not a swastika. It's a a symbol of peace in Hindu culture.
The Taj Mahal from New Delhi
Train ticket Delhi to Agra: 450 INR (6.81 USD)
Train ticket Agra to Delhi: 100 INR (1.52 USD)
Ticket into Taj Mahal: 750 INR (11.43 USD)
Ticket into Red Fortress: 250 INR (3.81 USD)
Tuktuk Rides: 100+40+70=210 INR (3.20 USD)
Tour Guide Tip (my share): 150 INR (2.29 USD)
GRAND TOTAL: 1,910 INR (29.12 USD)
If we had gotten the cheaper ticket both ways, we could have saved another 350 INR. We’re high rollers though.
So can I say I’ve seen this now?
Next it’s on to the deserts of Rajasthan. I’ve been looking forward these next few destinations for a long time.