Agra and the Taj Mahal

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The Taj Mahal. One of the world’s grandest, most romantic gestures and one of the new seven wonders of the world. I set off for Agra, the site of the Taj Mahal, on an early morning express train from Delhi. Normally I am more of a headphones and daydream out the window kind of girl but I was fortunate enough to seated next to a retired creative writing professor from California! We chatted during the whole two-hour trip and she gave me heaps of great advice on writing and that it’s never too late to travel. I am sometimes frightened by the possibility of getting too old or too invested in a career to have an adventure and I am always snapped back to reality by the people I meet when I travel. At 65 she was about to go trekking through the jungles of southern India and she goes on one of these trips to some far flung destination every year! When we arrived in Agra she said “good luck!” and we went our separate ways. It’s crazy that you meet someone and even if you only know them for a couple hours you can have an unforgettable conversation and never see them again.

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Taj Mahal Gate

I stayed at Zostel Agra which had an amazing restaurant and courtyard. I took a break from the dorms and splurged on a single room ($20!) and dropped my things off. There are not many things in Agra to see beyond the Taj Mahal, which I had planned to go to at sunrise the next day. So, I again hired a tour guide for the day, hoping for some off the beaten path suggestions. Khan the tuk tuk driver was a small man, shorter than me, with a long gold necklace, a potbelly and a big friendly smile.

First he took me to the “Baby Taj”, or Itimad ud Daulah Tomb. Nicknamed the “Baby Taj” it is often considered a draft for the famous landmark. Built in 1622, the structure is built out of the same materials and the same stone carved mosaics that one can see at the Taj. Accompanying the tomb are sprawling gardens and a beautiful view of the Yamuna River. I was stopped by many Indian families so that they could get a picture with me and I reluctantly agreed each time, still unused to the idea that I was viewed as someone so foreign a picture is needed.

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Details at the “Baby Taj”.

After the Itimad ud Daulah Tomb, I went on to Agra Fort. Khan, for some reason, tried to talk me out of this part of the trip even though it was he that suggested it. Ignoring the advice, I made my way to the gate and bought my ticket, frustrated again at the 15% markup on tickets for foreign tourists. The Fort was beautiful and was built in 1622, very close in time and style to the Red Fort of Delhi. The best part of this stop on the itinerary was the birds eye view of the Taj Mahal. Though pollution made it a little hazy, my first glimpse of the extraordinary structure was breathtaking. A kind Russian tourist saw me struggling to take a selfie with it in the background and offered to take my picture. I gratefully accepted, though on later inspection of the photos I was amused to see that he had somehow not realized I wanted the Taj Mahal behind me.

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Standing in front of the Taj Mahal.
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A stage in Agra Fort.

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The last stops on the Agra tour were two shops from which Khan would get commission should I buy anything. Again breaking my promise to myself not to buy any more souvenirs, I relented and bought a small white marble turtle inlaid with stones just like the Taj Mahal. I try to get a turtle in each city, a silly collection of souvenirs I began when I was 14.

The next morning, I awoke before the sun to stand in line for my tickets for the Taj Mahal. I walked down the street from my hostel (picked for its strategic location) and got in line for the tickets. I was told the office opened at 6 am, though no tickets were sold until 6:45. But this wasn’t even the most fun part of my morning.

Reaching into my bag to deposit the free bottle of water and shoe covers I got with my ticket, my stomach dropped as I realized I had not put my Nikon D3200 back into my camera bag from the night before. I grabbed a tuk tuk and raced back to my hotel, grabbing my camera and hurriedly returned to the gate of the Taj Mahal. Oh, but the camera fiasco was not over. As I walked toward the entrance I placed my bag on the ground to retrieve the previously forgotten camera…only to realize the battery was still charging on the wall of my hostel room. A once in a lifetime experience and I had failed two attempts to bring along something to capture it! Luckily iPhone cameras are amazing and I am super happy with my photos. Not exactly the most peaceful start to my sunrise, bur certainly memorable.

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Construction on the Taj Mahal began in 1632 but was not completed until 1653. It was built in memory of Shah Jahan’s favorite wife, Mumtaz Mahal, who died giving birth to their 14th child. As she lay dying he promised Mumtaz that he would never remarry and would build her the richest mausoleum in the world. When Shah Jahan died his body was placed next to hers in the Taj Mahal and remains there to this day.

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The Taj Mahal lights up at sunrise.

The Taj Mahal is just as breathtaking as everyone says, especially at sunrise. Upon catching a glimpse of the tomb up close I was overcome with an emotion that had become familiar to me in India, and felt myself tear up at the sight of such a beautiful place. The Taj Mahal is something that you see everywhere, on TV, in movies and in history books. You think you know it so well that it can’t surprise you but seeing it up close is another story. When I first arrived it was surrounded in a light mist of fog which gradually lifted as I walked closer, the reflection of the structure mirrored perfectly in the crystalline blue waters of the garden pools. As the sun continued to rise the color of the Taj Mahal changed, the white semi-translucent marble soaking up the sun’s rays and made it a fiery golden color. Though it was so cold I could see my breath I felt warmed by the sight of this. I could go on and on about how beautiful it was but you will never really understand unless you see it for yourself.

And thus concluded my short time in Agra. I had a four-hour slow train ride to look forward to, a confusing disaster of a decision that may have been okay had it not been delayed for two hours and not listed anywhere on the train departure boards. When I finally got back to Delhi I had an hour until my flight to Jaipur, and through some miracle I made it with two minutes to spare, the officials at the gate laughing at my bumbling backpack run through the airport. I shrugged and smiled brightly at them, moving on to my next adventure.

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