07 January 2017

When visiting the Taj Mahal...

There's a lot of hype about the Taj and the person who built it: Shah Jahan.

But even the brain of a child can find a logical flaw with that. While waiting in line at the Taj, a little girl in front of me was shown the Taj and the surrounding garden. Her father told her that this was built by Shah Jahan.
After a while of looking around, the girl looked up at her father and asked:
 "yeh Shah Jahan ne banaya hain yaan kisse aur se banwaya?".

Logical to the core. She asked if Shah Jahan built all of this or did he get someone to build it for him. That girl is destined to become a software programmer! :-)

Precautions and tips while visiting Agra:
Before visiting, I did a quick Google search and found many tips and precautions. During my trip however, a lot of these precautions were irrelevant. Here's my helping of tips for you (primarily geared to the Indian visitors):

  • You'd be better off booking your visit to Agra via Delhi tourism or any reliable tourist operator, as they'll save you a lot of time and hassle. Completely worth the money.
  • If you choose to go by yourself, you'd be better off leaving your luggage in a hotel in Delhi, taking an app based taxi (Uber was cheapest when I visited) or a metro to the railway station or a bus stand, visit Agra and return back on the same day.
  • If you choose to stay in Agra, book a hotel online and when you reach the railway station or bus stand, make sure you book an app based taxi (Ola was available in Agra) which takes you to your hotel.
  • The taxi operators and touts are extremely persistent in Agra. Once they sense you are not a local, they'll hound you like nowhere else in India. They just will not leave you alone. They'll follow you wherever you go and even if there's a policeman standing nearby, he won't intervene to give you some relief. Just stay within the waiting room of a bus stand or railway station until your taxi arrives. Try not to reach Agra before sunrise or after sunset just as a precautionary measure. Agra is afterall in Uttar Pradesh, which has a very poor reputation about everything.
  • Travel within Agra is also best done via an app based taxi. Saves you the hassle of getting cheated.

At the Taj:
  • Entry: You can enter via the East, West or South gates. The East and West gates are most crowded, and the official website recommends entering via the South, if there's a crowd. I chose East gate (and boy was it crowded!).
  • Tickets: There's a medium sized building where tickets are issued. Three queues. One for the Rs.500 ticket, one for the Rs.40 tickets for gents and one for ladies. I'd recommend taking the Rs.500 ticket during crowded days, as it helps skip extremely long queues at the Taj (trust me; the queues are really long. More about it below). Having cash with you is best.
  • Lockers: People recommend not bringing large bags to the Taj. While that's true, if you have no other option, you can still bring along your bag. There's a so-called "cloak room" near the ticketing counter that's around 5ft x 20ft in dimension. They have 50 or more lockers; cuboids, each of 1.5ft height, 1.5 ft depth and 1ft width (mind you, the opening would be 1ft minus 2 inches of metal). You have to purchase a ticket first to be allowed to use the locker. The actual use of the locker is free, but the scumbags managing the lockers expect a tip of Rs.10 or Rs.30 (without receipt). Once your bag is in the locker, you'll be given the key to it. Make sure you return before 5:30pm to reclaim your bag. If you have more than one bag, or it doesn't fit into the locker, you can give it to the staff. They'll attach a numbered tag to it and keep the bag on the floor. Although we were nervous about leaving the bag outside the locker, when we returned after 5pm, even though the initial staff had left and the ticket counter was closed, the backup staff gave us our bags after checking the number and asked for his tip. Nothing in the bag was stolen. There were many other bags placed on the floor, like my travel companions bags. Because of this I assume it's safe to leave your bag at the cloak room. Just make sure you don't have any valuables in it. The better alternative is to leave your bag in a hotel room.
  • Questions: Right next to the ticket counter building is a building where there are two gentlemen who are designated to provide help to tourists. Ask them any questions you have and they'll politely help you.
  • Going up to the entry gate: There are electric vehicles (a golf cart type of vehicle and a dilapidated tin can tempo) that'll take you 0.6km from the ticket counter area to the gates of the Taj's compound. The road at the East gate slopes downward, so you don't really have to take the electric vehicle (tickets cost Rs.5, but for the people holding the Rs.500 ticket, I think the ride is free). You can simply walk. There are horse drawn carts also available, but for Rs.200+, I feel they are just cheating you. Just walk. 
  • Safety along the path: I remember reading of a traveler who says that around ten kids would swarm you and insert their hands into all your pockets, pickpocket you in 30 seconds and scatter. Another book by a foreigner mentioned how pickpockets in Agra even remove your moneybelt. This made me take extreme precautions with my ID card and cash. But when I visited, I found nothing like that near the Taj. No swarm of pickpockets. No trouble. It was a well paved, wide road that led to the gates. There were of course louts standing at the side staring at people, possibly spotting potential targets, but basically, if you walk with a group, you won't encounter any trouble.

  • Queues: Now this was something completely unexpected. To enter into the compound, at 1pm, I stood in a 400m long queue for 35 minutes. To enter the marble platform on which the Taj stands, I stood in a queue that began from half the distance of the garden in front of the Taj, snaked its way to the marble platform, snaked away from the platform along corners away from the Taj, then came toward the Taj, went all around the Taj clockwise and after around an hour of standing in the queue, we got the chance to climb up the marble platform. There are two types of people you'll see. The decent kind who stand in the queue and the scumbags who skip the queue inspite of everyone protesting against it. Once on top, if you wish to enter the Taj, there's another queue that goes anticlockwise around the Taj. After another 45 minutes of standing in that queue, you get to enter the Taj, and are pushed by policemen into a small, dark place which is the center of the Taj. I was surprised that there was hardly any lighting there. We could barely see what was in front of us. Moreover, photography is prohibited inside. As you find your way to the exit, you'll also notice some clever people entering through the exit instead of standing in the queue.
  • Security check: They check you thoroughly before you enter the complex. They even check for things like toffee covers and tic tacs, probably so that you don't litter. I assume wearing a money belt would be ok, as long as you are able to show it to them if they question you.
  • What's allowed: Camera, a bottle of water, smartphone, small purses. In case of doubts, call up: http://www.tajmahal.gov.in/tourist_information.html
  • Shoe Covers: There are some flimsy shoe covers available for free at the Taj. If you don't want to get those, you could still walk around in socks. I'd recommend either getting those shoe covers or having a cloth bag with you into which you can put your shoes and carry it around with you instead of leaving it at an unreliable shoe rack.
  • Maintenance work: There are structures erected on one tower and at the backside of the Taj, for workmen to maintain the Taj. You won't get a perfect picture of the Taj, as these structures are an eyesore. It's probably best to postpone your visit until the maintenance is completed.

The Taj is indeed a beautiful structure. The inscriptions and designs on it are not painted on it. They are a separate piece of stone perfectly fitted into a groove to make it look seamless. Some find it awe inspiring. Some find it boring. Beauty lies in the eye of the beholder. It's a wonder of the world afterall...

For me, viewing the Taj was splendid. The experience of visiting and standing in the queue was horrible.

There are a few things the government could do to better the experience of people:
  • Create more entry points to lessen the serpentine queues.
  • Extend the visiting hours
  • Provide free WiFi guided tours which we can listen to via our smartphones
  • Improve the safety in Agra. Nobody likes pickpockets and touts in a world famous spot.
  • Get rid of the relentless people who refuse to take "No" for an answer. No I don't want to get into your taxi. No I don't want your hotel. No I don't want to buy that thing from you.
  • Provide better lighting inside the Taj.
  • Fridays are closed, so have hydraulic mechanisms that can be installed on Friday mornings and removed on Friday evenings, so that you don't have to erect eyesore structures for maintenance of the Taj for months at an end.

There are lakhs of people who visit the Taj everyday. There is certainly a lot the government can do with all that ticket money.

btw, this Wiki Travel Guide is quite accurate: http://wikitravel.org/en/Agra#Understand

The documentary by National Geographic is a good source of information about the construction of the Taj and the various symbolisms.

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