Our India expert Satyan explains why the beautiful and enigmatic Taj Mahal has been such an irresistible draw for visitors to India for centuries, and continues to capture hearts well into the 21st century.
Having grown up in India surrounded by an abundance of deserted, uncared-for heritage buildings, for obvious reasons I don’t get excited about architecture - but I must admit my first visit to the Taj Mahal as a schoolkid was love at first sight. At that age (shamefully) I couldn’t appreciate the intricate marble work, but just the dwarfing experience of standing below that enormous dome with its four minaret towers simply below me away.
My appreciation has only deepened with more visits – and it is such an expansive space that it doesn’t ever feel overcrowded in spite of thousands of visitors flocking to this iconic monument at all times of day. I guess the ten-minute walk from the gate through Persian-inspired gardens lined with trees and fountains, with a reflecting pool running down the centre, gives visitors more time to take in the gorgeous building from a slowly-changing perspective.
From one of the Seven Wonders of the World to a UNESCO World Heritage Site, there is no doubt that this magnificent monument is one of the world’s most recognisable buildings. The Taj Mahal (whose name translates as ‘Crown Palace’) was commissioned in 1631 by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan when Mumtaz Mahal, his third and favourite wife, died while giving birth to their 14th child. Shah Jahan was so heartbroken after her death that he ordered the court into mourning for two years and decided to build the monument in her honour.
The palace took over 20 years and 20,000 people to construct - as well as 1,000 elephants, who were used to carry the marble to the site - which came from Rajasthan, China, Tibet and Afghanistan. In today's money, it cost over $1 billion to build. It is a monumental, magnificent architectural achievement. The structure, combining Indian, Persian and Islamic influences, is wonderfully symmetrical in every way, including the landscaped gardens. The four surrounding minarets were built at a slight outwards angle, so that in the event of an earthquake they will fall away from the tomb rather than into it.
My top tips
When to visit
Visits to the Taj Mahal peak in high season between October and mid-March, when the weather cools. However, due to its perennial popularity, visitor numbers never really drop off, and around 60,000 people visit every day - except on Fridays when it’s closed to all except worshippers at its mosque.
How to avoid the crowds
The best way to avoid the crowds is to start early – and the dawn rouge on the Taj Mahal’s white marble is beautiful. I recommend you enter through the east gate – it’s less busy. Having achieved the goal of an early entry, get in through the regal doors, and let this first sight of the Taj Mahal dazzle you. Once its beauty sinks in, take some time to walk around.
Where to get the best views
For a good viewing spot, walk to the mosque – the rising sun can be spotted between the last two minarets – or head to the Yamuna River. For a second viewing, escape the crowds entirely across the Yamuna River at Mehtab Bagh. This complex is the best spot to watch the sun rising over the Taj in peace (this is rumoured to be the exact spot that Shah Jahan intended to build a black replica of the Taj in which he wished to be buried).
For another perspective of the monument, you can also see it by night on the 'Taj Mahal by Moonlight” experience. This occurs five nights a month on full moon nights, and two nights before and after the full moon. The best time is between October and mid-November and from February to May.
How to photograph the Taj Mahal
The Taj Mahal can seem like a photograph overload, and you just can’t stop snapping away, as every aspect of the monument is so beautiful. Here’s how you can make sure you don’t miss out on anything - but in between, don't forget to put the camera down, take a step back, and have a proper look at the palace to really take it all in.
While some of the most stunning images are often shot of the whole monument from afar, eventually your favourite photos of your visit are likely to be of the building from different closer perspectives. So don’t just restrict yourself to taking in the whole building – try to also get great perspectives for your images – for instance, lie on the ground for a different angle. Many other visitors might look at you strangely - but they will not get a photo like this!
Don’t be afraid to include people in your photos - they lend a sense of scale to your frame. Wear the brightest clothes you can find. The mausoleum is so white, the bright colours stand out even more, and colour also adds a new focal point and dimension to the picture.
Don’t stop your photography experiments at the Taj Mahal. After your visit, walk through Agra’s narrow winding streets, lined with unique and picturesque shops that look like they’ve come right out of a William Dalrymple novel. The old town is so charming that you'll feel as if you've stepped back in time, to an age of colourful architecture and a labyrinth of small stores and hawkers selling everything from antiques to kitsch souvenirs.
I'm sure there are lots of travellers who are not drawn to the Taj Mahal and many of India’s classic sights, especially when the internet has endless spectacular photos - but for the few who would be willing to skip the Taj on their trip to India, I strongly recommend you reconsider. There is such a beautiful and magical atmosphere to the place, and photos, however accomplished, really can’t do this incredible building justice, and really don’t compare to seeing it for yourself.
After visiting it many times I am still taken aback - how can a structure - something so tangible - possibly have feelings? For me, it is more than a monument - it’s a living celebration.
We can tailor-make your perfect holiday to India, taking in the Taj Mahal and many more iconic sights, as well as exceptional experiences. Take a look at or suggested itineraries here, call us on 020 7337 9010 or make an enquiry.