See Agra’s magnum opus with fresh eyes with five new ways to enjoy the Taj Mahal.
The Great Mughal was given to grand gestures. But when his passion for architecture melded with grief-stricken love for his dead wife, the emotional mix spawned that most photogenic monument – the Taj Mahal in Agra. This monument is so perfect that every angle throws up an enchanting facet.
Our melodramatic guide told us, as he took us around the site, about Emperor Shah Jahan’s deep love, verging on obsession, for his queen Mumtaz Mahal. Over the 17 years that the two were married, she bore him 14 children. However, it was during the birth of their last child in 1630 that she died. But before doing so, she extracted a promise from the emperor: ‘Build a tomb in memory of our love such as the world has never seen.’
And so Shah Jahan set out to build his magnificent marble teardrop on the banks of the Yamuna. It took 20,000 labourers 17 years between 1632 and 1648 to complete his dream project. Bidding our guide farewell, we set off on the ‘there’s-more-to-the-Taj trail’ that he had suggested.
Our first stop was Taj Nature Walk, a 75-acre forested park located between the parking zone near The Oberoi Amarvilas hotel and the East Gate of the Taj Mahal. Few walking and jogging trails around the world can match the view this park offers: the Taj rises like a white prayer over thick green woodlands alive with the song of birds. It even has a number of observation platforms at strategic points that afford great views of the monument. Better still, there is no entrance fee to the park, which is open through the week, including Fridays, when the main complex is closed.
Closer to the East Gate is the open-air restaurant of UP Tourism’s Hotel Taj Khema. The property sits on the mound of rubble that the builders of the Taj piled up outside the complex and as a result, it commands an excellent view of the monument. Visitors, other than hotel guests, must pay a fee to enter and the charge is a little higher on Fridays when the Taj complex is closed to public.
Then there is Agra Fort, which offers vistas of the mausoleum across the river – similar to the one that Emperor Shah Jahan had during the final humiliating days of his life, gazing at his ethereal creation from one of the turrets in which he was imprisoned by his son Aurangzeb.
Down by the river
Crossing over to the far banks of the Yamuna that flows past the rear of the Taj was a totally different experience. Here we stumbled upon a languid rural India that seemed to be totally indifferent to the fact it shares the waterfront with one of the world’s most celebrated monuments. Farmers tilled their fields while cattle loitered about the dry riverbed that had been converted into a pumpkin patch; kids splashed on the water’s edge; country craft punted locals across the river that fielded the reflection of the mausoleum. And the ruins of Emperor Shah Jahan’s mausoleum – a replica of the Taj Mahal in black marble – which was aborted by a son impatient to usurp the throne.
Layered in luxury
Back in the city, we grab lunch at The Mughal Room, the rooftop restaurant of Hotel Clarks Shiraz offered us a bird’s-eye view of the Taj, which rose like a marble phoenix over an ancient city that is frayed at the edges. We recalled an earlier visit when we had breakfast at the Taj. We’d ordered room service at The Oberoi Amarvilas – where every room looks out at the monument. The hotel was built, they say, to showcase the memorial and not compete with it. Indeed, as soon as you step into the lobby, attention is drawn to the arches that frame the vision in white marble.
True, there is more to Agra than just the Taj Mahal. But the ultimate shrine to undying love is the city’s muse and fugitive glimpses of it through a cusped arch or over a grove of trees in the moonlight glimmering like some otherworldly Xanadu.
Need to know
Agra is best reached by road or rail from Delhi. The fastest train (two-hour) is the Shatabdi Express. Buses run from Delhi, Jaipur, Mathura and Khajuraho to Agra’s Idgah station. Air India flies direct to Delhi from Dhs1,340 return.