The Taj Mahal, Agra
One of the wonders of the world: the Taj Mahal. If you have only one day to spend in India (a crazy thought, but anyhow), it is the Taj you have to visit. The Taj Mahal is a masterpiece, never equaled in history.
The Taj Mahal is a product of the Mughal civilization. The Mughals have produced countless architectural wonders all over India, but the Taj is their finest moment.
The architecture is a mix of Persian, Indian, and Islamic styles. And obviously, it became UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1983. It is "the jewel of Muslim art in India".
There's a lot to tell about the Taj. So, where do we start?
Shah Jahan was emperor of the Mughal empire in the 17th century. When his 3rd wife died during the birth of their 14th child, he was so full of grief he decided to build a monument for her. The building resulted in the Taj Mahal complex.
The complex is more then "just the mausoleum", there are several other buildings in the compound.
Architectural inspiration came from all over the Mughal empire. This included the Gur-e Amir (the tomb of Timur in Samarkand), Humayun's Tomb, Itmad-Ud-Daulah's Tomb (sometimes called the Baby Taj), and Shah Jahan's own Jama Masjid in Delhi. The entrance gate leads to a garden of 300 square meters. After finishing the tomb, several buildings including the gate were build in a period of 5 years.
Once you pass the gate you have the famous view of the Taj mirrored in a water tank. Whether you are interested in architecture, India's history or simply want to have a good day, you will be impressed by this sight.
The story goes that there were plans for a black marble Taj on the other side of the river. The work would never started as Shah Jahan was imprisoned by his son Aurangzeb. Instead of having his own black marble tomb, Aurangzeb placed the body of his father next to the 3rd wife of Shah Jahan, in a smaller tomb.
The legend however has never been confirmed. At the other side of the river black marble has been found seemingly confirming the legend but as it turned out, it was just white marble that had turned black.
The Taj attracts millions of visitors from India and abroad. In the spirit of the original love story, it became a monument to bring people together, an eternal monument for love.
The grounds are open from 6 am to 7 pm weekdays, except for Friday when the complex is open for prayers at the mosque between 12 pm and 2 pm. The complex is open for night viewing on the day of the full moon and two days before and after, excluding Fridays and during the Ramadan. For security reasons only five items—water in transparent bottles, small video cameras, still cameras, mobile phones and small ladies' purses—are allowed inside the Taj Mahal.
Getting there and away
Agra is a busy city with modern facilities for all travelers, from high end to low budget. Some of the cheaper guesthouses have spectacular views over the Taj:
(at least it's not crazy busy except for getting out of Delhi) leads to Aligarh. You may consider cycling through Mathura before going to Agra.
Alternative you can take either bus or train from Delhi.
Agra is 205 km south of Delhi but you probably do not want to cycle that in a day. The two main roads from Delhi are the NH2 (National Highway) and the Taj Express Way. Both are big and busy. It might be a better idea to follow directions to Bulandshahr and Aligarth. Truth is that none of these roads are truly relaxed cycling anyway.
Agra is notorious for it's scams by rickshaw drivers and taxi drivers. Like everywhere in India, using a rickshaw or taxi, always bargain the price. In Agra you also have to state very clearly you do NOT want to visit ANY shop. But regardless, they will try anyway. "Just one shop, so I can get commission for bringing you here". If you give in, a 2nd and 3rd shop usually follow.
The way I handled it, was simply getting out of the rickshaw, without paying (I wasn't brought where I wanted) and get another rickshaw. Or at least that was the idea. Usually the original rickshaw driver came after me demanding money and I usually told him, "bring me where I want and I pay what we agreed". That usually worked well during my both visits. You have to play hard because these guys are very insisting, sometimes intimidating.
Stay in Agra
Agra has hotels and guesthouses in all price ranges. Check your favorite hotel in Agra:
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Many travelers skip it, but I think it's more then worth the visit, despite the numerous historical sites you can visit in India.
Fatehpur Sikri was build in 15 years, and abandoned 14 years after completion. It's effectively a ghost town, a magnificent ghost town!
The temples of Khajuraho
The temples of Khajuraho belong not only to UNESCO's World Heritage, they are also some of the most beautiful and vivid ancient examples of sandstone carving.
Gwalior's main attraction is the massive Gwalior Fort. And do not say... another... this one is one of the very best you can visit.