We all get our heart broken from time to time and there is never really a good place or a good time for it. I guess it comes with the territory of traveling for a living that I sometimes get my heart broken in the most magnificent places. After all, I need to get it broken somewhere, right?
Usually, that doesn't deter me. Not from seeing these places and still loving them nor from putting my heart on the line in the first place.
However, it seems to be a cruel irony that I was on my way to the Taj Mahal when I received the most crushing email from a guy I have probably ever received, making me feel truly and utterly heartbroken. I will spare you the details but let's just say it wasn't pretty.
But this is not a post about my broken heart or the irony of it happening en route for a Taj Mahal visit to see the building that is probably the grandest gesture of eternal love (and heartbreak) ever built (we will overlook the fact that the Mughal emperor, Shah Jahan who built the Taj Mahal had three wives and just be content with the fact that he only build one Taj Mahal for Mumtaz Mahal, his favorite). No, this is in fact just a very practical post with information about the Taj Mahal.
When I planned my trip to India I never questioned for a second that a Taj Mahal visit would be part of it. It is without a doubt one of the most famous sights in the world and while those tend to be overrated once you see them in person, I didn't want to go to India and not see it. At least so I could say been there, done that. As I have mentioned before I was ridiculously nervous to travel through India on my own. So instead of throwing myself into the deep end and sharing a bunk bed on a night train with strangers I decided to do the whole thing my way.
Are you a woman (or guy for that matter) traveling solo in India and worried about the logistics and comfort? Here are some tips for your Taj Mahal Visit.
Where is the Taj Mahal, India?
The Taj Mahal is in the not so little city of Agra (unless you think a 10 million people city little), about 200km south of New Delhi in the state of Uttar Pradesh.
I had found an inexpensive flight from Kochi to Delhi with Air India. They even allow 25kg luggage included in the ticket price which was perfect for me as I am still lugging my dive equipment with me.
You can even fly into Agra directly or you can book complete Taj Mahal tours from Delhi that will take you there and back in a day.
Mind you, I wanted to be somewhat independent. On my Delhi food tour with Intrepid in April I had met my friend Joe who was my tour guide and now works for himself. He had arranged a driver for me to take me from Delhi airport to Agra and from Agra to Jaipur.
I paid INR 10,000 (ca. EUR 130) for my driver for three days including fuel, tolls, and parking. To be honest, I didn't shop around because it was important for me to have someone trusted who also had a good car.
For those a little braver with less luggage, there are trains from Delhi to Agra and you can book various ticket categories with Cleartrip. I found this post to be quite excellent to wade through the jungle of different train compartments and ticketing options.
I was incredibly happy with my choice of having a private driver. I felt safe, I was comfortable and I didn't have to use a squat toilet once (a big plus in my books!).
You can book all sorts of adventure with "Travel with Joe" - please tell him I sent you. You can email him at email@example.com or via mobile on +91.8860298309
Where to stay in Agra?
Joe had recommended the Bedweiser Backpackers to me and while I usually don't stay much in hostels it turned out to be a good choice. They do have some private rooms and while they ain't pretty they are good value for money and provided an excellent backdrop for me to ball my eyes out.
To be honest, the hostel isn't in the greatest shape (I guess I never realized that there is a difference between a hostel and a design hostel) but you cannot beat the location as it is only a five-minute walk to the ticket office of the Taj Mahal.
They also have a little rooftop cafe and cold beer, something I appreciated even more given the circumstances and the fact that much of India is dry. In fact, I didn't even mind that 14-year old Shioab who works there was judging me whenever I ordered more than one.
After staying at the Moustache Hostel in Jaipur (post coming soon) and absolutely loving it, I found out that they also have a branch in Agra which in hindsight would have been my first choice.
The actual Taj Mahal Visit
There are two ways to visit the Taj Mahal and I recommend you take enough time to do both.
One is seeing it from behind, from the Mehtab Bagh, also called the Moonlight Gardens. Here you can see the Taj Mahal from across the Yamuna River and I think it is well worth the detour.
You can either ask a tuk-tuk to take you (and there are enough waiting around to take you back) or in my case, my driver suggested to take me there before I checked into the hostel.
You will need to pay IND 200 as a foreigner to get into the gardens and they close at 6 pm.
The beauty of seeing the Taj Mahal from behind (and it looks the same from all four sides so you are really not missing out or getting less of a view) is some beautiful greenery added to your photos and fewer crowds.
In fact, no crowds but just a few people and enough space to get a single shot of you and the Taj. The only thing that may disturb the view are the crowds walking around it in the distance.
But I decided to become one with the crowd the next morning. If you want to visit the Taj Mahal, get there early. Ticket office opens at 6 am, be there at 6 am. Mind you, I was running late and luckily there was no queue either though I missed the sunrise.
To see it the regular way you will need to get a ticket first. From the main road leading to the Taj Mahal, the ticket office is on the left and you cannot miss it. If you do miss it there are many people to show you and of course, offer their services as guides. I didn't want a guide and was happy that nobody was too pushy.
Tickets for foreigners are INR 1000 and that includes a bottle of water and shoe covers. Big bags need to be checked and you are not allowed any other food or drinks, no cigarettes or gum. They will check your bag!
From the ticket office, you can catch a ride with the official shuttle that is included in the ticket price, walk or take a rickshaw to the entrance.
Even early in the morning, there will be some people here but it honestly wasn't as bad as I expected it to be. Maybe it was wise to not have the ultimate, solitaire Taj Mahal shot in my mind but I really didn't mind the other people.
Reading about the Taj Mahal history is one thing but seeing it up close and even touching it another. While I am usually a bit skeptical about how big tourist attractions hold up in reality to all the hype, the Taj Mahal didn't disappoint. It is magnificent.
The complex is also big enough that you can find a quiet spot if you just want to sit and contemplate life for a bit (or in my case shed a few tears) and you will see quite a few people on pilgrimage as well.
The inside of the tomb is stuffy, to say the least. You walk around in a tight circle, cannot take pictures and are constantly asked to move on, and while signs ask for quietness there is always someone testing the acoustics. I was more than happy to get out and also think it is much prettier from the outside.
If you want to know more about the Taj Mahal history and the architecture you can read up about it here. I was more into soaking up the atmosphere than learning about the 20,000 people who build the Taj Mahal and their thumbs which allegedly had to come off afterward so they would never build something like it again (mind you, that is a gruesome but awesome piece of trivia!). About the love story behind it, I didn't want to think too much either. It's hard to see such an eternal tribute to love when you just had your heart broken though in all fairness Shah Jahan was probably heartbroken too when he built it.
Mind you, he wasn't content with just touching the wall but high-fived it, gave it a kiss and ran off.
Maybe he wasn't the most devout but I like to think that his cheek and happiness made up for it.
What else is there to do and see in Agra?
Don't shoot the messenger but as my driver said - Agra is not nice; the only nice thing about Agra is the Taj Mahal.
From what I have seen, I would have to agree. Two nights there was plenty of time to see the Taj Mahal for sunrise and sunset and squeeze in just a couple of other sights.
One of those is Akbar's Tomb, another masterpiece of Mughal architecture, which I skipped, and the Agra Fort. The latter was the main residence of the Mughal emperors until 1638 and is well worth a visit. In case you expect a sort of castle you will be surprised - the fort is a proper, walled city and quite big.
The ticket price for foreigners is INR 500. There will be guides here as well and if you want one I recommend negotiating a price beforehand to avoid unpleasant surprises.
For a non-UNESCO activity, I recommend lunch at Sheroes' Hangout. The cafe is an entrepreneurial project of the Stop Acid Attacks team for acid attack survivors (there are 3 women who are becoming victims of acid attacks per week in India!!). Here these women can work and make a living for themselves, becoming once again a part of society.
Check out more about this wonderful enterprise here, there are different ways you can get involved and you don't even need to be in India in order to do so.
If you want to go for a meal, they have hangouts in Agra and Lucknow. You order whatever you like and pay whatever you like - a concept that I love!
Should you visit the Taj Mahal with a broken heart?
I was on my way back from the Taj Mahal when I saw a father with his little 2-year old girl who had stopped to play with a calf on the sidewalk (as one does in India...). The little girl was petting the calf and I stopped to watch her for a moment. All of a sudden she leaned over to the calf and kissed it on its forehead. Needless to say, I almost cried seeing that.
And then I realized that yes, the Taj Mahal is always worth a visit and as long as there are little girls kissing little calves the world is not such a bad place either, broken heart or not.
Need some more tips on visiting the Taj Mahal? Check out my friend Jayne's post here, she went twice in a week so I consider her an expert now!
Have you seen the Taj Mahal?