Everybody knows about the Taj Mahal.
It’s one of the wonders of the world, and therefore one of the world’s busiest tourist attractions. So, no matter what time of the year you visit, be prepared to stand in long lines in order to get in. There are, however, a few tricks that come in handy for those blinded by the light of this magnificent building. Flying half way around the world is a long way to travel and then find you must spend several hours standing in the blazing heat and be tormented by touts and beggars. You need the inside scoop.
The Taj Mahal is located in Agra, a grimy industrial town a few hours south of New Delhi by road. Secret number one: Never drive in a car anywhere in India if you can possibly avoid it. All drivers in India are suicidal maniacs and give full meaning to the old expression “don’t drive in countries where they believe in reincarnation.” If you take the bus, bring a book or avoid your eyes from the road.
Secret number two: Take the train. The only bureaucratic endeavour that functions properly in India are the trains. They are attached to tracks, and mostly they stay attached to the tracks, and they have air conditioning too. It gets rather warm in India from time to time, like most of the time. (Winter is the definitely coolest time to visit.) There are frequent trains to Agra, and you can make the trip and back from New Delhi in one day.
Secret number three: It might actually be a good idea to hire a guide. No, you don’t need a guide to walk around the Taj itself, but a guide to the city and region comes in quite handy.
There are many ancient tombs and other interesting attractions in and around Agra, including three world heritage sites, and you need a car to get to two of them. The Red Fort in Agra is well worth a visit, and 40 kilometres south of the city is hidden the fabulous deserted city of Fatehpur Sekri, well worth a half day by itself. Be prepared to have your guide suddenly drop you off at a carpet, jewel or marble factory for a quick tour; this is how they make extra money. When this happens, point directly towards the Taj and mention that you have not paid yet.
Secret number four: Although everyone heads for the front gate of the Taj, creating a line that often lasts for hours, there are actually several entrances. Pick up a detailed map to the entire complex and look carefully for the eastern entrance. Here, security guards check just as carefully as the main gate for bombs and weapons (India has a serious problem with its own brand of terrorism) but the lines are much smaller.
Is the architectural spendour of the gardens worth the trip? In a word, if you enjoy pure beauty, the answer is yes. The Taj Mahal has been described as the most beautiful building on the entire planet, and that may be true, but the Taj has a serious problem that authorities try hard to hide. Pollution from nearby manufacturing plants has been eroding the marble structure for several years. Local authorities quietly closed many recently and put thousands of local people out of work. The good news is that the Taj will now have a long future, enchanting millions more people with its ethereal beauty.
Final tip: If you stay overnight, a sunset or moonrise over the Taj is even more breathtaking than the daylight view, especially when enjoyed from behind, across the river. Any good guide will show you the magic spot. Don’t forget to bring a good camera. It’s a long way to go without bringing back memories.