A Tale of Two Taj Mahal Experiences
The Taj Mahal’s beauty, and the romantic nature of its origins, draws millions of tourists a year to a grim little city called Agra. Some say it’s the most beautiful building in the world, and while I wouldn’t quite go that far, it is something you should see on your first trip to India. Not all Taj Mahal experiences are created equal though, as I recently found out.
Taj Mahal Experience #1: Sunset at Mehtab Bagh
After a disappointing trip to Fatehpur Sikri, we hoped to redeem our day by going to Mehtab Bagh to see the Taj Mahal bathed in late afternoon light. These historic Mughal gardens sit just across the river from the Taj Mahal and the views are amazing. The sun had broken through the monsoon clouds a couple of hours earlier, leaving the Taj floating in a sea of blue sky.
We spent a couple of hours walking back and forth along the front edge of the gardens, taking countless photos and basking in the brilliance of the marble giant. We could see the heaving mass of people crammed into the grounds of the Taj Mahal, but our side of the river remained surprisingly quiet.
This incredibly peaceful experience was capped off by a moment of quiet reflection. We were among the last to leave, and as we were making our way to the front gate we saw a couple of photographers crouching next to a puddle. The Taj Mahal was reflecting perfectly in the shallow water. We got heaps of photos and eventually left completely satisfied with our first Taj Mahal experience. We probably should have left it at that…
Taj Mahal Experience #2: Getting a closer look at the wonder of the world
We organised for a cycle rickshaw driver to pick us up at 5.30 am so we could see the sun rise over the Taj Mahal. It was pouring with rain and the driver didn’t show up, so we went back to bed and waited for the weather to clear. We eventually arrived at the south gate at around 11 am and there were people everywhere. We walked through the main gate and came face to face with the Taj, as well as the thousands of other people who had come to see it. I can usually tolerate crowds at tourist sights but this was at another level.
The sky was grey, we kept getting asked to pose for photos (which we usually don’t mind, but we were tired and not in the mood) and the view of the Taj isn’t even any better than it is from Mehtab Bagh. Sure, you can get closer, but the details aren’t particularly impressive and it’s the kind of building that looks better from a distance anyway. The weather eventually cleared and we took a few decent photos, but the experience was nowhere near as special as the night before. Entry to the Taj Mahal costs 1000 INR (for foreigners), while Mehtab Bagh is only 200 INR.
Taj Mahal / Agra Travel Tips
- Skip Fatehpur Sikri: I can’t understand why people recommend this place. The old buildings lack the fine details that you’ll see in other historical sights in India and they just aren’t that amazing to look at. If you’re searching for a more interesting day trip you should go to Gwalior instead. There you’ll find a hilltop fort featuring a colossal palace decorated with colorful tiles and dozens of huge Jain sculptures. I’ll be writing a post about Gwalior soon. Or, if you don’t fancy heading out on a day trip, you could stay in Agra and visit Agra Fort and Tomb of I’timād-ud-Daulah (Baby Taj). We had planned to visit them but the rain delay meant we ran out of time.
- Where to stay in Agra: Agra is infamous for being a fairly unappealing city, so choosing where to stay is important. You can stay at Taj Ganj, which is home to lots of budget hotels, some of which have views of the Taj. It’s a grim area though and we were glad we didn’t end up booking a hotel there. We stayed at Hotel The Idea Inn, a solid mid-range option just off Fatehabad Road. It’s a tidy part of town where you’ll find chains such as Pizza Hut and Costa Coffee as well as scores of mid-range hotels. Hotel The Idea Inn was excellent for that price range and the restaurant served up delicious, well-priced food. It was nice coming back to a cool and comfortable room after a long, hot day of sightseeing. A rickshaw to Taj Ganj / the Taj Mahal costs less than 50 INR from Fatehabad Road. Check out Gia’s review of Hotel the Idea Inn over at Mismatched Passports.
- Decide for yourself which Taj Mahal experience you want to have: Basically, don’t listen to me! My experiences were influenced by a lot of things, including the weather and the fact that I was coming to the end of a 3 month trip in India. I’m sure if you get to the Taj early enough for sunrise it’d be a great experience, and, if you’re in the mood to meet dozens of locals you’ll love visiting when the crowds are heavy. The late afternoon hours at Mehtab Bagh are special though, and that one side of the Taj is all you really need to see (all four sides are the same!).
Have you been to the Taj Mahal? Did you enjoy it? Let me know in the comments below!
Disclaimer: I was hosted by Hotel the Idea Inn. All thoughts and opinions are my own.