Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Taj Mahal - Love it or Hate it?

I AM AN INDIAN !!" I said in an impatient tone.

"Do you have any proof" asked the man behind the counter.

I fished out my driver's license and showed it to him. He stared at the license and back at me for a good 30 seconds before conceding that it was indeed me and that I was Indian. To avoid any such confusions, I had worn a salwar that day and spoke in Hindi, but almost everywhere people questioned my nationality. I understand that the ticket collectors are trying to fish out Indian looking foreigners, but there were 5 other instances that week when people asked me where I was from. It is ironic that people always recognized me as an Indian in the US, but I am having to prove it in my own country!

Shaking my head, I paid the Rs.20 fee to enter the Taj Mahal. My American colleague, Ken had to pay Rs 750, almost 40 times more than me!! "Aaah, the advantages of being a citizen" he said to me.

"We will take the eastern entrance which is for foreigners" said our guide. I almost jumped to declare that I was not a foreigner, before he added "It has the least amount of crowd".

The entrance to the Taj Mahal is quite stunning. I love this red sandstone structure with marble decorations.

It is always a little tricky when you go to places that are famous. Expectations are enormous and you feel compelled to like it just because millions of others have liked it before you. I had read conflicting reports on the Taj Mahal. One set extols the beauty while the other laments the poor maintenance and degradation of the monument. I decided to keep expectations very low. In fact, I was quite convinced that I won't be impressed. I almost skipped Agra because of that, but my friend Jayanti said "It is the Taj. You HAVE to see it at least once".

The drive from Delhi to Agra took more than 4 hours with the customary stop at McDonald's for a coffee break where we had an interesting encounter with the waiter.

"Coffee Please"

"You want black coffee?" asked the waiter.

"No, I want coffee with milk " said Ken

"OK, You want a cappuccino?" asked the waiter

"No, I want regular coffee with milk" said Ken

"So, you want a cappuccino?" asked the waiter.

I just love the circular arguments that go nowhere. Ken burst out laughing and took the cappuccino.

After a lunch break at the hotel, we reached the Taj Mahal in the afternoon. Personal vehicles are not allowed within a 2 km radius of the entrance. People are transported in battery operated buses, which I thought was a nice way to get rid of parking and pollution problems. Also, in the last few years, the government had a number of polluting industries move outside a 21 km radius of the monument. These measures seem to have worked. There was no visible pollution in the area.

I walked in and took in the full view of the Taj Mahal. My jaw dropped and I heard myself saying "WOW....Is this for real"? Standing there, in the middle of green gardens and surrounded by red sandstone structures, the pure white structure looked surreal. For somebody who was not expecting to be impressed, I was clearly in awe of this unique structure. It did not feel real! We walked all around the compound looking at side structures, but my eyes kept going back to the Taj to make sure it was still there.

Friends had told me that in spite of the hype, the first time you see the Taj, it takes your breath away. They were not exaggerating!

"That's a LOT of marble", said Ken. Indeed it was. Thousands of tons of marble was brought all the way from Makrana in Rajasthan. In those days, it is said to have cost 5 million.

I walked around, taking the customary pictures with the reflection in the pool. Our guide explained that cypress trees signify immortality according to Persian philosophy. The elaborately laid out tombs and gardens are supposed to be their interpretations of paradise.

There were thousands of visitors, but I never felt crowded. Walking around the gardens, I felt like there was enough space for everybody to enjoy the monument. A security guard walked past me and I said hello.

"You from which country?" he asked. Here we go again!! I spoke to him in Hindi and he was surprised "आप India से हो? वैसे तो लगते नहीं हो!" and then he added "आप बहुत लम्बे हो"!!

I asked him about the bullet proof jacket he was wearing. He said "Mumbai (26/11) के बाद, compulsory बना दिया! 40 kgs है और पुरा दिन पेहेन्ना है " When I joked about his old fashioned gun, he got a little upset " नहीं madam, yeh AK-47 hai. एक दम powerful gun है ". He posed for a photo and went his way. I walked to the mosque on the side of the Taj. Another beautiful structure.

Behind the Taj, the Yamuna river had very little water. India is in the business of building dams all over the place, so dry river beds are a very common sight these days.

The entire time I was in the compound, I was in awe of the monument. Even when we were heading out, I would turn back every other minute to have yet another look at it.

As much as I loved the Taj Mahal, I was shocked at how poor Agra was. The few streets that we drove on were narrow, dirty and crowded. It looked like there was not much to see, other than Agra Fort and Akbar's tomb. Agra fort was nice, but I was more impressed with Akbar's tomb. I will post pictures in upcoming blog posts. Dinner at Peshawari (ITC Hotel) was great. Chicken Kasturi Kabab and Fish Kabab were great, but their slow-cooked, creamy Dal Bukhara was the best I ever had. The Rasmalai was so good that I could have licked off the bowl clean!!

In the last few years of traveling, I have realized that there are no absolutes in traveling. You might find a place stunning, but others might not and vice-versa. Experiences vary depending on the weather, crowd, company, expectations and attitude. What was your impression of the Taj? Leave a comment and let me know.

This post is part of the Show your World meme. For more stories from the rest of the world, click the image.


  1. Muah! Brilliant pictures Vamsee!

    Your experience reminds me of my visit to Taj earlier this March. Even, I had to dish out my identity cards to prove my Indian identity. I guess, the ticket counter folks think we are foreigners when we wear sunglasses and carry a large set of lens...LOL!!

    I have heard that the Taj is truly stunning during full moon nights. I have been to the Taj twice, but never landed on a full moon night...Guess, that will lend an additional dimension to our thinking of the TAJ!! Wah Taj!

  2. Lovely lovely pictures. Ever tried spending the sunset there?

  3. nice pictures..i was also so depressed with the scene in agra and fatehpur sikri..

  4. Other places might not live upto the hype but Taj always does! I've been there four times now and all the four times i was amazed totally.
    And they say, if you turn back and look at Taj Mahal while leaving, you'll be back again. Hope you did! :)

  5. I visited the Taj only once, but ended up spending 5 hours there. Five! I didn't want to leave. It wasn't crowded, so I sat in different locations and watched the grandoise structure and the tourists. It was great.

    Foreigners really get ripped off at touristic locations, and although is not too much if converted to a dollar value, its still unfair! They did this in Russia too, but I managed to sneak in as a Russian since I could speak the language with some accent. :)

    Pictures get a 'A' as usual!

    Whenever we meet, I bet I'll call you "लंबू" LOL!

  6. That last picture is my favourite - A quiet look at the Taj. The only time I have seen the Taj is when I was in the 10th std, when we were reading the freedom struggle part of Indian history, and I was so angry at the scratched-out gold from the etchings on the marble. It's great if you tune everyone out and try to imagine musicians playing there at sunset ... and the grandeur of everyday life it must have seen.

  7. The Taj... Its magnificient indeed... But to be frank I was not THAT very much impressed coz India has lots more monuments older and more intricate. But Taj is magnificant, no doubt!!!

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  8. Vamsee,

    As always I like your captive narration and crystal clear pictures!!
    It was 13 years ago that I visited Taj, the carvings on the windows are my favorite .
    Your "Cappuccino" reminded me of an incidence last time I visited India. This was 6 in the morning, Ravi and I were waiting in the B'Lore airport, waiting to be picked. We were craving for a nice hand pulled coffee. We get to a small shop on the platform and ask for one. The guy goes "cappucino or Latte?". I said regular coffee, and the guy showed me drip coffee...:)

  9. magnificent!!!

    Speaking about Taj - when it comes to tourism in India, don't know why people think beyond Taj.. I saw these 'Incredible India' ads on black cabs in London & other ads -- all of them have same image - of Taj!! duh...

  10. Great blog vamsee. Totally enjoyed reading it as usual.
    We lived in kanpur when I was 3 years old. All my relatives came and we we went to Agra and took pictures. So I have 3 pictures of myself in front of the Taj not remembering a thing :-) waiting for the kids to get slightly older to visit it again.

  11. Never been there ! So can't really hate it or love it , can I ? But like someone said , India doesn't think beyong Taj and there are other monumnents too which deserve some attention! Whatever you said abt liking/disliking a place is so true!

    Great pics as usual


  12. I think the Indian gov needs to tell everyone the truth of Taj Mahal - that it was originally a Hindu Shiva temple, which the muslims demolished and made it into a tomb and a mosque. It's the same story with Qutubh Minar.

    It's disgusting that the Taj Mahal is known as a "monument of love".

  13. Sunning pictures!!! The skies are so clear...its unreal. In a hurry will read the travelogue later..but the pics are awesome!!!

  14. "Friends had told me that in spite of the hype, the first time you see the Taj, it takes your breath away" - I felt the same way too ... no matter how many pictures u have seen and how many stories u have heard! There may be many talking abt mis-management or pollution or poverty in the streets around it ... but I've not heard anybody saying 'Taj Mahal' didnt rise up to their expectations!

    Thnx for sharing the narrative and pictures ... and happy new year

  15. Oh Taj has always been as mesmerizing as ever, even after visiting it N number of times. It takes more than once to really get to the soul of this place - the art, the asthetics. Liked the post. Renewed my memories.

  16. Oh yes, I felt the same way all through, great post and good photograps.

  17. I have yet to see the Taj, but your write-up and pics took me closer to it than any other account or photo has done! I look forward to having my breath taken away by the marble beauty!

  18. I had a similar experience like you. But since I was in Agra and had to go look at it - and wow, what an experience! I stayed much longer than I planned to and missed my transport;-)

    I wish you and Saru a wonderful 2010 and look forward to many more delightful posts from you (selfish, eh;-)

  19. I cannot believe they refused to acknowledge u as an Indian...thats priceless! Stunning pictures Vam...Whatever bad stuff Indians may say abt it being dirty and still can hands down beat any firangi structure anytime...I'm proud that India can boast of the Taj...oh and 'aap bahut lambe ho'...Really? Somebody actually said that...Oh the naivette and subtlety of desi junta:S Hilarious! NIce one again Vam

  20. Sankara,
    Thanks. Next time I go there (yes, there will be a next time for sure), I will make it during a full moon nite.

    I really wanted to go back there for sunset, but we were tired after the drive from Delhi. Next time...

    Yes....Agra was very very depressing. It was like backlanes of Charminar...just that the entire city was like that.

    4 times!! That is pretty cool. I definitely want to go back with Saru and take my parents too. Yes...I turned back and looked:)

  21. Priyank,
    I know exactly what you mean...
    As for the entrance fees...I am not so outraged at the high fees for foreigners as I am with the low fees for Indians. Most monuments charge 5-10 Rs. Miscreants who are not really interested come it and create a lot of ruckus. Higher fees can be used for renovation and better monitoring of tourists. You can't even get a samosa for 5RS, but you can see Ajanta Ellora and Red fort and other cool places. can call me 'lambu'. I have been called a lot more things...the most hilarious one being "H.W.Long Fellow":)

    Yeah...too bad about the precious stones and gold being scrapped. There was maybe one place where the guide shows actual precious stones and they were glittering in the afternoon sun.

  22. Mitr,
    I appreciate your honesty in admitting that you were not that impressed. There are many monuments in India that get no attention for a variety of reasons.

    Oh yes, good old filter coffee is near extinction in all cities now. Another thing that is fast disappearing is Indian corn!! Everywhere you go, they have these sweet American corn with perfect teeth. I just want the good old chewy corn !!!

    I am sensing that was sarcastic:) It happens in most places...some attractions get over hyped and the other get overlooked:)

    Must have been great to live in all those areas in India. You should go back!

  23. Great post... loved reading it. Lovely pics too! Thanks for sharing...

  24. some lovely images of the Taj you got there Vamsee.

    Happy new year to you and Saru...Thomas

  25. Neeraj,
    If I had seen your comment a few weeks ago, I would have taken you for a weirdo, but last week I came across somebody's P.H.D thesis that talked about the very same thing. This is the first time I heard that Shah Jahan might have built the Taj on an existing monument. He bought the property from Raja Man singh, but there was no clear indication if he built Taj from start or over an existing structure. They also wonder if Shah Jahan loved building or built it out of love.


    I have actually had a couple of people tell me that they didn't like the Taj Mahal. Good for us that we enjoyed it.

    I agree...will go there again!

  26. Was Taj Mahal a Vedic Temple? Read this:

    The above link also contains photographic evidence. WARNING: You will never look at the Taj the same way again!

    Given thousands of examples (this is not an exaggeration) of Muslim invaders destroying Hindu temples to build mosques over it, is it really surprising that the same happened with the Taj?

  27. Hi Vamsee! Happy New Year!! This is an awesome post!! As for my impressions on the Taj, you may see it <a href=">here</a>!

    Blogtrotter has reached 500 posts on all blogs with some views of «La Petite France, Strasbourg», truly missing your comments! Enjoy and have a first great week in 2010!!!

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  29. I'm still waiting for my day when I'll visit Agra and get a similar shot of these places....

    Beautifully done..

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  30. Wonderful snaps of Taj Mahal and the entrance tp the place. Very beautiful.

  31. You know what happens when Bhaskar and I come to India. No one doubts me as being an Indian, but Bhaskar has to prove over and over again that he is an Indian. And then in certain temples, he is asked to prove he is a Hindu to be let inside! This time when we visited Chennai, it was so difficult to find "Madras kaapi". Its lattes and cappucinos everywhere. I could not get myself to pay Rs.100+ for a cup of coffee!

    I have seen Taj about 3 times now and have been impressed every single time. The pollution has certainly made some of the marble yellow, and I am glad they are taking the necessary precautions to preserve the monument. Next time you should visit on a full moon night. It is really breathtaking.

  32. I had read this thru my reader but couldn't come earlier to comment. Taj will always remain fascinating, any time of the day.
    The photos are excellent. I liked the last one most.

    Vamsee, wish you & your family a very Happy new year. May you travel more.

  33. I remember Taj in my lit classes. Your photos are impressive and beautiful of this famous landmark. Great post.

  34. lovely post and great photo's... thanks for sharing


  35. another great post, Vamsee.. just loved your narration!!!

    i visited the taj as a kid, but still the image stays fresh in my mind.....of course, at that time, india hadnt woken up to promoting tourism, and the river was even more dirty. looked more like a drain than a river... but it was still impressive to see the monument!

  36. Vam, you must make it to the tanjore big temple - and maybe you can do a post comparing the impact !!

  37. Nice post and stunning pics. I just love Taj Mahal, its truly a love symbol.

  38. I think it is beautiful, it is a place I will never see so I am grateful for your photos!

  39. This is a lovely monument in India. You could feel the love around this human creature. I can not express myself in words what i felt at that time when I saw this architectural marvel.

  40. My impression of the Taj Mahal, during both visits, was similar to yours. I wish and hope to go there again and view it on a moonlit night. What do you think about that?

  41. Agra is the great place for forts and history. Taj mahal is the world famous wonder. i visited there 2 months ago. it's really breathe taking movement when we seeing that first time in our life.

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