I had read so many tips about the Taj Mahal before going to India. Be at the gates at 5.30am, go in through the East Gate as its much quieter than the west, you can only take one camera….. On the phone the previous night our guide, Ranjeet, had told us differently. Cameras were fine, the road layout had been changed meaning that the West Gate was now the quiet one and the Taj didn’t actually open until 6.45am so there was no point queueing at 5.30am. All very confusing, particularly when we hadn’t always been told the truth on our travels around India, but we decided to trust him and go with his advice to meet at 6.30am.
It wasn’t ideal that the room was so hot, and my bed so uncomfortable, that we all woke up puffy eyed from lack of sleep in the morning. Still, we dressed in our chosen outfits – in my case specially made! – and headed outside to meet Ranjeet. He was right, queues at the west gate were pretty minimal and when the gates opened at 6.45am it didn’t take more than 10 minutes to pass through security.
And suddenly we were there at the Taj Mahal. One of the minarets was scaffolded but even so, the Taj was a breathtaking sight, even more so as the sun rose and the jewels on the marble started to glitter. Ranjeet had arranged for a professional photographer – no doubt the equivalent of a government shop – to take shots of us and the next twenty minutes saw us being whisked around the gardens being pushed forward to get our turn at sitting on Diana’s bench, arms up, scarves on, scarves off, hand in water, stand like a teapot. It all felt a little bit like we were just on a photo shoot but left to our own devices we would probably still be queuing for the bench shot so it was worth it.
Photoshoot over, we could actually begin our tour and learn more about the Taj Mahal. Most people are well aware that the Taj was built as a monument of love to the Emperor Shah Jehan for his favourite wife, Mumtaz Mahal after she died in childbirth delivering his 17th child. The Emperor had three wives; the first wife was 42 to his 16 when they married and his second was 21 to his 22. He was unable to have children with either of these wives. Mumtaz was Persian and very beautiful however this didn’t stop him keeping hundreds of concubines. They were kept away from the Emperor when they could conceive to avoid him having illegitimate children. Any illegitimate children would be sent to the slums or, if they resembled the Emperor, they would be killed. The Taj Mahal took 22 years to build and cost enormous sums of money. His eldest son tried to stop him spending so much money but did not have sufficient power at the time. In later years he had his father put under house arrest at Agra Fort.
We took the fast track entrance and up close you could see all the intricate detail on the marble and the jewels dazzled as the sun hit them. Inside, it took a minute or two for the eyes to adjust to the lack of light. The real tombs are 9m under the ground however there are replica tombs at ground level, built at the same time, to stop people walking on where they are lying. The Queen lies in the centre of the building, with the larger tomb of the Emperor to her left hand side. This is the only non symmetrical thing about the Taj Mahal – apparently he was not expected to be buried there however this is where his daughter -with whom it is documented that he had a sexual relationship – had him laid him to rest. It is much smaller inside than it looks from the outside and it is dark and cool.
We left the Taj, which by now was seriously crowded, and headed back to the homestay for breakfast. Ranjeet and Chotu would meet us in an hour to take us to Agra Fort.