The Taj Mahal is on many people's bucket list to see, but is it the highlight of a trip to India? It depends on what kind of traveler you are. Here's my opinion.
After spending two and a half weeks in India experiencing everything from practicing yoga in a cool and dusty ashram to seeing children learn English in a tiny schoolhouse to wandering through mazes of small, fragrant spice shops in the Delhi markets, I knew that there was only one way, or rather place, to end the trip - the Taj Mahal.
The Taj Mahal is one of those iconic places I've heard about my whole life. I've seen pictures of the architecture marvel for decades. There's the romantic story of the Mughal Emperor building the Taj to show his love for his favorite wife who died delivering their 14th child at the age of 39 (ouch). There's the stats of 22,000 people and 1,000 elephants involved with the construction of the Taj Mahal, taking over 22 years to build. And then there's the amazing feat of architecture in creating the perfectly symmetrical four sides, all by free hand. Yes, I read all of this, fell in love, and placed it as the grand finale to my India trip. This would have to be the highlight of the whole adventure, right?
The Taj Mahal doesn't sit in the middle of a tourist zone or place you might already find yourself in India. It takes some getting to. You can deal with an early morning train and tuk tuks to and from, or you can hire a car like I did and spend anywhere from 3 to 7 hours making the 130 mile drive from Delhi to Agra. You may spend another hour just driving through Agra to get to your hotel. There's not much to see in Agra outside of the Taj Mahal so there's no reason to stop, and you'll have seen it all at slow speeds on your way in. No problem, I've traveled great distances to just eat at a restaurant, so the distance did not deter me.
The Taj Mahal is closed on Friday's, so if you arrive on Friday like I did, you're only option is to visit the Agra Fort, which is open, and worth a visit. It's a nice tease for the main attraction that you can see across the way. Sadly, the Mughal who built the Taj was later imprisoned by his son at the Fort. The father requested a view of the Taj from the fort and this is where he lived his final years, viewing the ode to his love.
You and every other tourist will read that it's best to see the Taj Mahal first thing in the morning. Sunrise is supposed to be great, but the day I woke up, it was grey and raining. Rain would not keep me away, so with a local guide in tow, we set out at 7am to see one of the Wonders of the World. Men and women need to line up in different sections and go through security before entering. As much as I enjoyed meeting the local ladies earlier on my trip, I saw a whole other side of them trying to get into the Taj Mahal. There were elbows out, human chains formed with 20 family members linked and a raw determination to push through anyone ahead, beside or near them. Allow some time for that. A lot of time. And perhaps wear protective padding.
Grey skies, rain, elbow marks and all, I eventually found myself standing opposite the Taj Mahal. The mirrored reflection, the perfect symmetry, it was all right there, along with thousands of others pushing for pictures. My guide pulled me to all of the hot picture spots and had me queue up with the others for the quintessential Taj Mahal shot.
The light colored marble could be made out faintly in the overcast distance. What could be seen clearly was the large scaffolding covering the 3 pillars - spring cleaning to try and keep the marble white. If only they could have done something about bringing some blue skies.
The next step is to go inside the Mausoleum where the Mughal and his beloved wife are buried. You'll need to slip on some protected foot covers here, get in line and hold your belongings close. The Mausoleum doesn't have a light on, so you'll pad through, squinting, clutching, elbowing trying to hear your guide in the tiny space. I was happy to rejoin the crowds outside in the rain again after.
I wandered a while on my own after getting my requisite pictures and visiting the Mausoleum. I traveled all of this way and was finally seeing the Taj Mahal. I wanted to make sure I wasn't missing something, but the whole time I couldn't help but feel that there was indeed something missing. Sure the weather could have been better, yes it would have been more enjoyable with less tourists, and dang, it would have been prettier without scaffolding, but the whole time, I just kept reverting back to the Taj Mahal image I had growing up seeing, which was much better than what I was actually viewing.
It's kind of like someone hyping a must-see, fabulous movie as the best ever and then you get there and say, this is it? Or perhaps it's better compared to the Eiffel Tower, one of the most visited attractions in the world. When I lived in Paris, I never went there. To me, there was so much more beauty in the random cobblestone streets and undiscovered sights that lay off the well traveled path, and out of the guidebooks. This is also how I felt about India and the Taj Mahal.
Am I glad I went? Yes, but maybe just because the first question most people ask when you say you went to India is, did you go to the Taj Mahal. The Taj Mahal is a piece in my overall trip to India. Was it my favorite memory in India? No, but that might also tell you what kind of traveler I am. Being able to talk to bright eyed school children in a schoolhouse in a tiny town in Northern India is something I will always remember. Sampling peppers, cumin and ginger in a spice market in Delhi, that will stick with me. Cooking in local peoples' homes with mother and grandmother, that's etched in my brain and belly. So for now, I'm going to keep my childhood pictures of the Taj Mahal happily ingrained in my memory.
What about you? Have you been to the Taj Mahal? Did it meet your expectations?
Have you ever been to an attraction and been disappointed?
If you want to read about the rest of my India trip, see the posts below.