Taj Mahal: What's the big deal?

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August 13th 2015
Published: October 28th 2015
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Before we'd even decided to go to India we could never really figure out what the big deal was when it came to the Taj Mahal. Yes it looked grand and the story behind it (from what we knew at that time) was a heart-warming romantic gesture but what was so great about it?. We'd heard how some people even shed a tear when they'd seen it because of its sheer beauty, some saying it’s the most beautiful thing they'd ever laid eyes on. We were dubious, it can’t be THAT amazing of a building can it?? Of course, you cannot go to India and not visit one of the great wonders of the world. Is it as impressive as everyone says it is? Was it really beautiful? Did we shed a tear?

At Delhi train station, we avoided the irritating "Have you got a ticket?" scammers outside of the station and entered the main hall and looked at the train information board. We couldn't see our train number anywhere and our train was due to leave in 10minutes. Why was it not up there? After asking around and being pointed to the wrong platform (by an official) we managed to find our train and designated sleeper seats in time. The 3 hour journey wasn't bad at all, although we did wish we booked the side berth seats instead of the 3rd upper berth. The side berths looked so comfy. None of the horror stories of thieves and mice were to be found however, we actually found it quite pleasant and likened it to our train rides in China. P even enjoyed some chai tea and biscuits on board. There were a few instances where severely disabled or visibly homeless people came round the train as it set off, crawling due to their disabilities and begging for money from passengers. As we'd read and heard before coming to India, the poverty here is heart wrenching. Chris mentioned how not too long ago India spent $74 million on a space mission. Whilst an outstanding achievement for India, we thought about how that money could've been better spent on the people here in India who need it the most. During the journey we also witnessed a eunuch (a castrated male dressed as a woman in a sari) clapping her hands and demanding money from certain passengers. We just kept our heads down as she started clapping in the face of one man sat next to Chris, and watched the poor guy dig into his pocket to pay for her to leave and not curse him. Luckily she left us alone.

The following day in Agra, we woke up at 5am. Moving around our stuffy hostel room in a haze we hurriedly got ready, we'd heard the best time to view the Taj Mahal is at sunrise. It was still so dark outside. The best spot to view the palace at sunrise is actually from Agra fort, some 2km away. Unable to secure a reasonable price with a rickshaw to see all the sites we made our way straight to the Taj Mahal. Luckily for us our hostel was well situated, only a 5 minute walk from South gate of the palace, which you could also see from our roof terrace. On the way there Chris accidentally stepped on some roadkill and felt a soft bloat underfoot. It let out a weak squeal as Chris looked down and leapt in the air as he saw the poor flattened rat.

Due to it being low season and early morning the crowds weren't too big and the air was cool. Stood in a large courtyard we could see through the opening of an archway, there it was in the distance -

the Taj Mahal.

Just as we were about to enter we bumped into a French guy we had met from all the way back in Indonesia (Mt Ijen to be precise). For the life of us we couldn't remember his name or where it was exactly we knew him from. He remembered our names and everything! We spoke briefly about travels since our last encounter but it wasn't until after we'd departed that we remembered where we'd known him from - shame on us! Apologies if your reading this.

We passed through the red brick archway, with its white writing in Arabic climbing up it we entered the gardens of the Taj Mahal. The view was amazing. The symmetry of it all was outstanding, the reflective lake and the rows of trees alongside it all brought your focus directly to the white marble structure before us. Even the 2 red buildings on either side of it enhanced the imagery - one a mosque, the other built just to complete the symmetry. Sadly we didn't shed a tear but it did take our breath away. It was true what people said about the Taj, it is stunning and it really is hard to take your eyes off it.

Further in we posed at the famous bench where Princess Diana was supposed to have had her picture taken. Many camera toting touts spent their time convincing and arranging visitors in positions mirroring Lady Di's pose amongst many others.

Before entering the palace we strolled around the outside area taking in the angles and visiting the mosque. Regretting not getting a guide, we took a seat facing the taj and pulled out our trusty guide book for some facts and info on just what exactly we were looking at. The Taj Mahal, a mausoleum, was built by sultan Shah Jahan in 1632 in memory of 3rd wife who died giving birth to his 14th child. The romance in it, is kind of lost when you hear it was her 14th child, you couldn't help but think "that poor woman" surely they would have stopped earlier given the increased risks. The grand gesture though almost overshadows the unfortunate event as you can see the workmanship that has gone into creating such a masterpiece. Just like the entrance gate, the whole of the palace is covered in intricate carvings and large writing. Apparently the writing gets bigger the higher it goes to create the effect of it all being the same size when looking from the ground up. Inside there are 2 tombs - one for the sultans wife and one for him. These are both fake, the real ones are buried deep underneath. Not available for public viewing.

After spending a couple hours at the palace we took a rickshaw to Agra fort. The huge fort, built in 1565 with huge red bricks stuck together with an interesting mix of natural adhesives by the grandfather of shah Jahan’s deceased wife. It was originally a military fort, but grand palaces were also added inside later on. Outside we teamed up with a group of 4 young lads from the UK to share the cost of a guide.

Our guide was very informative albeit a bit fast as he talked and walked us through areas of the complex. He pointed out the old dry moat which used to be filled with lions and tigers, and this moat used to be surrounded by a water moat filled with crocodiles. Nobody was entering here unannounced.

Saying that, part of the fort was actually destroyed by angry Hindu villagers (with the help of the newly arrived British), as the sultan at the time was trying to convert everyone to Islam. There's even a hole where one cannon ball hit a marble structure and allegedly bounced backwards cracking an onyx stone platform, where the sultan usually sat. We passed through many courtyards, areas where public audiences were held and white grand marble palaces. One courtyard with black and white squares was actually used by the king to play chess...with real people!

An interesting part of the tour was when the guide pointed out where Shah Jahan (who built the Taj Mahal) and one of his daughters were imprisoned (house arrest) by his son for making the town nearly bankrupt from building the Taj mahal. This son was later killed by a brother who wanted to ascend to the throne, quicker. Oh the irony of it all. The Taj Mahal seemingly built on romance but shrowded in lots of deep dark family issues.

Both rooms were not dingy by any means and also had amazing views of the taj mahal. Great in our opinion but no so great for the sultan who could only admire his work and memory of his wife from a distance.

Two amazing sites down and it was only 10:30am, the sun was beaming down too. We stopped by a small street food stall for some shade and a drink. P also ordered a veg thali whilst Chris gave it a miss due to stomach trouble the day before.

Negotiating a price with a rickshaw driver, we mistakenly asked him to take us to Mehtab Bagh which we thought was the 'Baby Taj'. Mehtab Bagh is actually a park along the river Yamuna, directly behind the Taj. It still felt amazing seeing the Taj a second time from a completely different angle and without many other tourists. We had just had enough off paying entrance fees by that point. It was starting to be an expensive day. I thought everyone said India was a cheap place. Not Agra if you visit most sights.

The gardens are said to be perfectly aligned with the Taj gardens, something we guess is only really visible via an Ariel view. There wasn't much else to the park other than the gardens, although there were a lot of old brick ruins which made us question the black marble Taj rumour.

It’s said that Shah Jahan wanted to build mirror image of the Taj (for himself) in black marble directly opposite the white Taj but ran out of money. The theory's even backed by the fact he bought the land shortly before being imprisoned.

With the same rickshaw driver, we again negotiated another price to take us to 'Baby Taj' only. We wanted a total sum for him to take us there and then back to our hostel but his asking price was too high.

Baby Taj's real name is Itimad-ud-Daulah. The nickname 'Baby Taj' stems from the fact that it’s another white marble mausoleum and is a lot smaller than the grand Taj Mahal. What we didn't know was that this one was built before the Taj, for the same sultan who built Agra fort by his daughter. Where it lacked the jaw dropping scale of the Taj it made up in intricacy. The coloured patterns and writing on the outside was the work of some very talented masons.

It was lovely to walk around and admire this beauty but in the sun the marble floors were very hot. It was excruciating to run across the marble tiles to collect our flip flops when stepping back outside. Stupid tender western feet.

At this point of the day we were slightly tired from the early wake and the constant exploring so we took a breather at one of the four gates surrounding Baby Taj (the one overlooking the river). On the platform below us, there were some local lads jumping in and out of the river, performing tricks and pushing each other in. We watched in amusement.

As soon as they noticed our peering eyes they performed their tricks with even more enthusiasm shouting up to us and a Chinese traveller "I love you" , asking us to come down to swim with them. The river was not exactly inviting, it was a dirty looking murky colour and on the other side of it we saw some water buffalo washing in it. No not for us.

Soon after, these guys started shouting up asking for water but as they joked around we wasn't exactly sure whether they were being serious or not. As the chinese guy next to us had a bottle he threw it to them and the 4 guys shared it and gulped at it like they were desperately thirsty. The fun and laughter stopped for us as our eyes drifted to their belongings under the bridge. It suddenly dawned on us that these guys really needed the water and were living underneath the Baby Taj complex.

Before we just saw a group of young lads having fun, now we saw a group of young lads living in poverty with limited access to water. These guys somehow appeared to get by and they certainly didn’t need our pity but we couldn't help but ask ourselves 'what had these guys like many others done to be in such a rut?'. Nothing. They were just born into poverty with limited opportunities to make a good wage for themselves. They carried on happily entertaining themselves and each other as we silently left them to it.

Hot, tired and silenced by our reflectiveness we hopped into our waiting rickshaw to take us back to our hostel. For the whole day we only spent 300 rupees in terms of transportation. We were quoted 700 that same morning by a few different drivers, so it definitely worked out a lot better for us to do it all separately.

In the evening we got lost in the many busy cow filled alleys, watching young and old street sellers alike with their wooden carriages filled with fruit and vegetables. Women sometimes sitting behind windows with their sewing machines. Afterwards we rested a little to prepare ourselves mentally for our first overnight train in India...sleeping in sleeper class. The lowest form of sleeping class.

There is however a class lower without beds or chairs where people scramble to get the best floors spots (if such a thing exits) but we decided we would settle on the slightly dirty, sheet less fan cooled- albeit sleeper berth.

Entering the train station in Agra took us by surprise. We understood the streets were chaotic but the train stations too!! We couldn’t believe our eyes..

It felt almost like a zoo, monkeys running up and down the stairs chasing each other across the bridge, up onto the train station's interior. They were everywhere and also frightening in appearance, scarred from all the fighting. You could certainly see that it was every monkey for themselves as they scrapped over rubbish and food thrown onto the tracks.

Then there were the dogs who were extremely territorial becoming vicious towards one another if one so happened to enter their patch. If this wasn’t enough there was hundreds of rats running up and down the rails. They were huge.

Whilst we were waiting for our train, we watched as many trains came and went. As they stopped many released their toilet waste onto the tracks. Fluid gushed out then trickled and trickled before our eyes. Not to worry the rats cleaned some of it up.

After these trains left, instead of climbing the stairs and walking the bridge, people casually stepped down onto the tracks to cross it and climb onto the opposite platform. It wasn’t necessary with the bridge but so many people did it. We couldn't quite get our heads around this.

All that traffic on the tracks: trains, dogs, monkeys, rats and humans you would think it would be fatal. Nope, everything survived the trains by an inch. We watched in shock and somewhat horror as we waited.

A slightly entertaining thing to watch was how clever the monkeys were at getting their own entertainment. They would climb down from higher platforms creep up on a dog, pull it's tail and be chased away them. After the dog got bored of trying to catch the monkeys the had climbed out of reach, get this. They did it again. We were stunned. Poor dogs who could never catch these cheeky monkeys.

Slowly as we waited, every inch of the platform we sat on was being filled up, masses of people sat waiting for a train. With so many trains coming and going we questioned whether they were waiting for the same train.

We were getting slightly nervous as there was no indication of whether we were at he right place or not. Our train was initially on our platform screen but then disappeared. No warning like others that it would be late. We asked around but no-one understood us so we waited where we thought we oughta be.

The departure time for the train came and went. Great. We needed to see whether it was late or whether we had missed it.

We asked some local people who smiled at us, sometimes repeating the destination of Bundi but not having a clue on what we had just said. We spotted some sort of train officials and ran to them to ask whether we had missed our train. They asked us what train it was. We took out our tickets they replied 'yes'. Yes we had missed it?. We attempted to clarify this by asking whether it was it still coming?. The guy once again replied 'yes'.

Did he understand us?? We hope so. We asked what time the train was due. He said the arrival time. We again showed him our tickets. He replied 6:30pm.

It was nearly 7pm.

We stressed that this time had gone. He was baffled (confused). We gave up and found someone else who reassured us that the train was due at the time listed on the tickets and the internet. AHHH.

Had we missed our train or not?. We decided to wait it out, slightly stressed by it all. We couldn't comprehend whether each train arriving was ours or not.

We believed we may have heard the word ‘Bundi’ in the announcement of one train that arrived over an hr later than the scheduled time of our train. We couldn't be sure if it was ours. We hopped on but then doubted ourselves. Chris ran off the train looking for another official P ran through the carriages. No one could help. As the train started moving Chris hopped back on and we found our seats. We decided we would chance it as we sweated profusely under the stress. Shortly after a ticket conductor checked our tickets and said nothing. Phew, that must have meant we were on the right train.

What a kerfuffle. Every traveller we had met on the road in South East Asia all who had travelled to India told us 'everyone' speaks English so we didn't need to worry about learning another language. Well not here. Were we missing something?

Were we tired and wanted to settle down in preparation of what was to be a very sweaty and disruptive night's sleep. We couldn't complain, we only paid pennies even if we did leave a little smellier than we started out.

Transportation: Overnight train from Agra to Bundi. Sleeper Class 329 rupees each (booked through clear trip) taking just over 12 hours.
Accommodation: Hotel Sidharta (hostel).

Additional photos below
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3rd November 2015

A big deal
We found this place so striking and it had an unknown aura about it that made you want to spend time there. We went for both sunrise and sunset....very different feels. As you've said the symmetry is something. Love to hear more train stories.
3rd November 2015

A big deal
I can understand why you went twice. It really was something you have to really soak in and admire. The stories keep coming. Glad its bringing back memories of your time there too. ☺

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