So this blog post is purely dedicated to our 3 Taj Mahal experiences. These visits to the Taj Mahal form such a large experience from the trip as a whole I thought it was easier to cover them all in 1 blog post. Also it will keep all the relevant photos from those 3 visits in one place ( warning: there are a lot of photos of the Taj Mahal in this blog! )
You can read about the rest of our exploring on these three days here:
3 days in Agra blog post
So in planning our experiences of the Taj Mahal we decided early on that we wanted try to be in the complex at a sunset, at a sunrise and also to shoot the Taj Mahal from Mehtab Bagh which is located on the other side of the Yumuna River from the Taj Mahal. What is not immediately obviously from the usual photos that you see of the Taj Mahal is that when looking from the front ( as most of the photos are ) immediately behind the Taj Mahal itself is the Yamuna River, there are equally good photographic opportunities from the other side of the river as what you can get from within the Taj complex itself. The other factor in our planning was that the Taj Mahal is closed on Friday's for prayers in the mosque, which next to the main building, and as we had arrived on a Wednesday and would be in Agra for the Friday, the only way to shoot the Taj Mahal on the Friday was from the Mehtab Bagh across the river. Another factor was that the sun was currently rising and setting slightly to the north of the Taj Mahal so the first light to hit the Taj Mahal would be on the north face, or the one facing away from the main complex, and the south face wouldn't get any of the first rays of the sun.
So the plan was:
Day 1: go into the Taj Mahal mid afternoon and explore the complex as a tourist, see all the buildings, go into the mausoleum etc and then wait for the sunset.
Day 2: shoot the sunrise from Mertab Bagh on the north bank of the Yamuna River
Day 3: shoot the sunrise from within the Taj Mahal complex.
Day 13: August 16 - Hot, humid, thunderstorms, 33°C
We left the hotel at 3pm and walked the short distance to the ticket office. There was no queue in the Foreigner line so it didn't take long to get our 2 tickets ( 1100R each for foreigners, the locals pay 40R ). We handed our tickets to a man at a counter next to the ticket office and he gave us 2 sets of shoe covers ( for inside the mausoleum ) and 2 bottles of water. We had been told that large bottles of water were not permitted to be taken in so we only had these 2 bottles to use for the afternoon.
We had been told that there was a separate queue at the entry gate for Foreigners but with no signage it was hard to tell if there was, so we just joined the normal queues ( Liz in the Ladies queue and me in the Mens ), and after about 5 minutes queueing we had our tickets checked, went through the scanner and got a pat down, and had our bags searched ( there is a long list of prohibited items in the Taj Mahal complex so we had already stripped our bags of any offending items ) and headed in. Sadly some people hadn't done their homework on what they could bring in as we saw people having food, vaping machines, tobacco etc confiscated and thrown in the bin. Weirdly though even though tripods were banned, selfie sticks seemed to be ok.
Once through the Western Gate we entered the outer courtyard of the complex. On the other side of the complex to us was the Eastern Gate, and the was also another gate to the south of this courtyard, but this was exit only at the moment. The gateway ( in itself a massive sandstone building called "The Great Gate" ) which lead through to the main area where the Taj Mahal was located was off to our left. We walked to the centre of the entry courtyard and walked to the Great Gate and through.
Immediately as you enter the Great Gate you can see the Taj Mahal through the gateway and it struck me how bright and shiny it was compared to the dark and gritty looking red sandstone of the Great Gate and all other buildings and walls in the complex. It was clearly designed to make a statement, and this was enhanced by the recent cleaning programme that has been taking place on the Taj Mahal which is nearly finished.
We stopped on the way through the Gate to take some photos and then emerged onto the flat area which looked over the main Taj Mahal complex. And we just stood and looked and took photos for a while before we moved on.
The thing to note about the last 2 photos above is that the end of the water feature where there are people standing is the raised platform in the centre of the complex, and the Taj Mahal is the same distance again beyond that platform.
The 2 things that I thought as I stood there looking at the scene in front of me were: how massive the entire garden area around the Taj Mahal was, and given that the Taj Mahal building was still 300m away how big and dominant it was within the complex.
The main area of the Taj Mahal complex is 400m long by 300m wide, and apart from the raised platform at the northern end where the Taj Mahal, the Kau Ban Mosque and the Guesthouse building sit, it is all covered by immaculately kept lawns, trees and the central water features that formed a cross in the centre of the space.
It was also pleasing to see that because we are here in the rainy season the crowds of people were small compared to the numbers of people in some photos I had seen in the busy season. But as it was rainy season it was concerning to see a thunder storm approaching from the north, but thankfully it passed by with no rain.
We walked down the steps to the main level and walked next to the central water feature to the raised platform in the middle of the complex, located where the 2 water features cross over ( one north - south and one east - west ) and stood and took some photos.
Again we moved on down towards the raised platform at the northern end.
When we got to the base of the platform a helpful guard stopped us from heading into the local's route, and instead we went into the much shorter access route for foreigners. We donned our shoe covers and walked up onto the raised area. This raised area houses the main building and the buildings on the East ( Guesthouse ) and the West ( Kau Ban Mosque ), and between the Taj Mahal and these other 2 buildings are large paved areas with fountains.
To get to the entrance to the Taj Mahal, and into the mausoleum, we climbed another set of stairs up to another paved area and the corners of this area were defined by the 4 minarets. We then walked into the tomb itself after a short queue.
There were lots of signs saying that photography was not permitted inside the tomb, and to be quiet as a mark of respect. So it was quite wierd to see the foreigners all observing the rules, but the 'local' tourists taking selfies and yelling out to get the echo off the inside of the chamber.
The inside of the Taj Mahal consists of a main central chamber with 2 'tombs' in the middle, and a carved marble screen around these tombs. Between the main chamber and outer wall are a series of 8 smaller chambers which all have access to the main chamber but also between each other. So the route once inside the building is through one of the smaller chambers and then into the main chamber, there completing a full circle of the tombs and then back out into the 1st smaller chamber, and then proceeding around the smaller chambers and existing at the rear of the building.
The main chamber is a massive space and has a high domed ceiling ( although this is not the inside of the exterior dome ) but even so it was quiet hot inside the main chamber and it was nice to get back into the outer chambers where there was a breeze blowing.
It is also worth noting that the 2 tombs in the main chamber do not contain the remains of Shah Jahan and his wife Mumtaz Mahal, these are located at a lower level and are not accessible to the public. So like the whole Taj Mahal complex the pièce de résistance of the Taj Mahal ( i.e. the tombs ) are just for show.
From the time we got through the West Gate entry ( 3:30pm ) to getting through the mausoleum took us about 3/4 hour.
We sat and people watched for a while on the river side of the Taj Mahal and then moved to the shady east side. The Taj Mahal is symmetrical so there really is no front and back, just the garden side, the river side the mosque side and the guesthouse side.
We watched the shadows lengthen across the east paved area and then creep up the side of the Guesthouse. This building, which is called the Guesthouse but it is not really known what it was used for, is mainly there to aesthetically balance with the mosque on the west side of the Taj Mahal, but for some reason it is blocked from public access to the interior whereas the mosque building is completely open.
We had the occasion person wanting to be in a photo with us, and in one case we had the whole extended family wanting photos, but most people were busy buzzing around getting selfies and group shots. Apart from the heat it was nice to just sit and soak in the atmosphere of the place.
We walked over to the Guesthouse and took some photos then walked back along the inside of the east wall of the complex and back to the central raised platform at the meeting of the water features. We sat and watched the sun drop off to our left and provide a bit of light on the Taj Mahal, and then made our way back to the Great Gate.
Sunset was due at 7ish, and the complex was listed as being open until sunset, but the guards started telling people to leave at about 6:15pm, and we were happy enough to head back to our hotel at 6:30pm. As we left a troop of monkeys were making their way over the West Gate, off in search of dinner, much like we were.
Day 14: August 17 - Fine, 31°C
So after arriving at Mehtab Bagh early we had to wait for the ticket office to open. The sign said it would open at 1/2 hour before sunrise ( which was when we arrived ), and despite there being someone in the office, and a security guard on the gate, there was some kind of hold up. Our driver tried to get things moving but was told that they were waiting for someone. At 5:45am a motorbike roared up and the ticket machine operator arrived, and set himself up, took our money with a grunt and printed out our tickets. We then had to get the ticket checker to clip the ticket and have a security check. We had our tripods with us this morning ( I had been told that they were allowed ) but apparently we couldn't take them into the gardens so our driver put them in the car for us. With that we headed into Mehtab Bagh.
Mehtab Bagh is an area of garden directly on the opposite side of the Yamuna River to the Taj Mahal complex, and if you looked at them on a map you would think that Mertab Bagh had been planned as part of the Taj Mahal. I have read various versions of why the gardens are there, but it seems that no-one really knows for sure. They are in the process of rebuilding parts of the garden walls and water features, but even so it is a very pleasant area of orchards and trees which lead down to the river and an amazing view of the 'back' of the Taj Mahal. The closest spot we could get to the river within the gardens was closer to the Taj Mahal than we had been at the Great Gate last night. There were only about 6 other people there during the time we were taking photos so this is obviously still not a 'go to' spot to view the Taj Mahal, even with today being Friday and the Taj Mahal complex being shut to the public.
We stayed until it was clear the the sun wasn't going to break through the early morning cloud on the horizon and headed back to the entrance and our driver. At first he was nowhere to be seen but his car was there so we waited for him to come back from the stroll he was taking to pass the time. We headed back to the bridge over the river and back towards the hotel, with a lot more traffic on the road now. We stopped on the side of the road ( well, actually we stopped in the middle of the left hand lane of a 2 lane road and traffic just had to go around us ) as we passed Agra Fort for another view to the Taj Mahal.
Day 15: August 18 - Fine, Hot, 33°C
After another early start we grabbed our tickets from the ticket counter ( I had to wait for a man who thought he was a foreigner, but clearly wasn't ) with no queues, we then went to get out shoe covers and free water bottle but as I handed the tickets to the man giving these things out another man took my tickets and wouldn't give them back to me. We got the shoe covers and bottles but the ticket stealing man said he had to explain some things to me then he would give my tickets back. At 5am and after 2 weeks of people trying to get money out of us I was in no mood to talk so I kept demanding that he give me our tickets back. Eventually I said we have been here before and we don't need your help and he handed me our tickets, Of course he then asked if we wanted a guide ( which was why to wanted to talk to us ) and I grumpily said 'no' and walked off. He didn't push his luck any further.
We joined the short queue at the gate and waited for them to get the system sorted out and the gates opened at 5:30am.
We knew where we wanted to head this morning for our photography so after a brief stop just inside the Great Gate we walked to the east side of the Taj Mahal, near the Guesthouse, and started shooting and waiting for the sunrise. I had read articles from photographers saying that most people who go for sunrise will stay at the Great Gate to get the classic shot, and if you venture further into the complex it is a lot quieter. We got some nice shots there then headed over to the mosque on the other side of the Taj Mahal as the sky started to get brighter and then back to the Guesthouse as the sun poked above the clouds. We headed back up the middle of the complex, shot a few photos from the centre and then headed back to the hotel at 6:45am, feeling happy with our early morning efforts.
It is hard to explain to someone who has never been to India or the Taj Mahal just what it is like to walk into the Taj Mahal complex. The scale of the area is hard to grasp at first, and the size of the Taj Mahal within that complex is hard to appreciate until you walk the 300m to stand right next to it. And in contrast to the area just outside the walls it is quiet, peaceful and spotlessly clean inside the Taj Mahal complex, and it kind of made me wish that we could take that feeling with us on the rest of the trip.