I’m not really expecting to see much of the real India on this trip.
After all, we are treading the well-trodden tourist trail of the ‘Golden Triangle‘ — a rather natty marketing term used to describe the popular tourist route between India’s perennial capital city Delhi, Agra – home to the Taj Mahal, one of the world’s best known tourist attractions, and the pink city of Jaipur – the state of Rajasthan’s flamboyant capital. Many of India’s top attractions can be found within this trio of relatively close urban centres.
Now generally where there are lots of tourists there’s a somewhat sanitised form of reality — wealth for the region, better infrastructure, orderly queues, gift shops and plenty of loos. But I have a lot to learn about India as it turns out, including rule number one — always expect the unexpected! Here are some top tips for visiting the Taj Mahal that you may find useful for planning your own visit.
We set off early for the drive from Delhi to Agra. The drive is pleasant and moderately paced, which is just as well as there are plenty of obstacles to avoid on the road — including the odd cow ambling along the highway. The cow, of course, occupies pride of place in India. Collecting a cow with your tour bus bumper bar is not only problematic spiritually (earning you a sackful of bad karma), but also carries a potential seven year jail term – both good reasons for giving bovines a wide berth.
It’s common to see unattended cows wandering pretty much everywhere in India. It’s actually quite difficult to dispose of an ageing cow. You certainly can’t euthanise it for the reasons mentioned above. Therefore the usual practice in India is simply to let them go free, to live out their days pooing on the sidewalk and watching the world go by with big brown eyes.
Though it’s a relatively short 230 kilometres from Delhi to Agra, the whole journey usually takes about four hours. And as our bus arrives on the outskirts Agra it soon becomes clear I’m going to get way more than I bargained for. Prepare yourself.
Agra is relentless — a constant barrage of stimuli that will send your emotions soaring and plummeting like the Dreamworld Corkscrew, with just as many twists and turns.
The poverty is extreme; the rubbish inconceivable; the wonder and majesty of the Taj Mahal astonishing; the splendour of Agra’s other royal monuments nothing short of mind-blowing. It’s the ultimate contrast. India’s very own beauty and the beast.
Agra’s streets are lined with ramshackle shops, crumbling homes and decaying colonial villas. Children play on the busy roads, while cows, pigs and goats munch on piles of roadside refuse. Like Fagin’s band of pint-size pickpockets, macaque monkeys sit atop buildings, peering down into the maelstrom below with razor sharp eyes, waiting for just the right moment to strike. The street markets heave with rusting rickshaws and motorised tuk tuks, desperate hawkers and ancient horse-drawn carts.
As our coach driver gingerly navigates his way through the human tide, no-one on board can take their eyes off the unfolding scene for a second. It’s a different world to ours. Maybe a different universe. It’s compelling, disturbing and strangely thrilling all at the same time. Yet despite the seemingly overwhelming chaos, there are lots of shy smiles and plenty of waves.
Then all of a sudden, balance is restored to the universe. Behold the ultimate beauty.
The first sight of the Taj Mahal really is one of life’s most wondrous moments. Any trip to India will be worth it for this moment alone. The pristine white domes and delicate minarets seem to float on a perfect horizontal axis, holding the crowds spellbound.
The mausoleum was built by Mughal emperor Shah Jahan around 1632 to 1653, to honour his beloved third wife Mumtaz Mahal who died giving birth to their 14th child. While she was aware that a monument would be built for her in the event of her death, it strikes me as incredibly sad that Mumtaz never saw the timeless tribute that would immortalise her name and watch over her beloved India for millennia to come.
One of my top tips for visiting the Taj Mahal is to arrive early. The number of daily visitors can top 100,000, but despite the crowds the Taj remains a serene oasis of gentle perfection.
So, the beauty shines and Agra watches on — as it has done for hundreds of years. They are such a contrast, and yet, one could not exist without the other. Agra’s monuments will always be the ultimate tourist drawcard, but don’t expect this town to roll out the recently shampooed red carpet for visitors. It’s raw, real and in your face.
Have you travelled to India? We would love to hear your top tips for visiting the Taj Mahal. Please leave a comment below.
Additional images: Bigstock/Photodune
Adam Ford is editor of The Big Bus tour and travel guide and a travel TV presenter, writer, blogger and photographer. He has travelled extensively through Australia, Europe, Asia, North America, parts of South America, Africa and the Middle East. Adam worked as a travel consultant for a number of years with Flight Centre before taking up the opportunity to travel the world himself as host of the Tour the World travel TV series on Network Ten. He loves to experience everything a new destination has to offer and is equally at home in a five-star Palazzo in Pisa or a home-stay in Hanoi.