A visit to northern India is somehow incomplete without a visit to the world-famous Taj Mahal. This iconic building regularly appears on lists of “must-see places” but it’s also frequently listed as one of the “most overrated travel destinations”, and in my opinion deservedly so. It’s not bad, don’t get me wrong, but there are so much better things to see in India.
On the way from Delhi to Agra, we made a stop in Vrindavan, a town famous for its over 3000 temples. I’m not sure if that day was a holiday or if it was just a regular day in Vrindavan, but the town’s narrow lanes were bursting with people. And not only people: monkeys, cows, dogs, and pigs too (never walk around with food in your hands, the monkeys are fast and greedy).
Navigating the cramped streets is an adventure in itself and if it gets too much and you want to go somewhere quieter, go to the banks of the Yamuna river. There you can walk along the old buildings that line the river, watch people put up flowers as decoration and the cows eating them and, to go back, take a boat and enjoy the beautiful and peaceful ride before once more venturing into the heart of the town. One of the many temples in Vrindavan is one of the biggest Hare Krishna temples, which is open to the public. Even if you’re not into the whole thing, go and check it out, it’s… interesting. And pretty relaxing, actually.
The UNESCO World Heritage Site stands in starch contrast to the city of Agra that surrounds it. Agra is an ugly, chaotic, sprawling city, whereas the majestic Taj Mahal seems to be in a different place, a different world, even. It’s a place of peace where you can breathe and relax, incredulous that, in fact, you’re still in Agra.
Recently, the entrance price has been raised (again) and in an attempt at limiting visitor numbers Indians now too must pay a fee to enter. The Taj Mahal too suffers under the strain of air pollution. The white marble façade, turned dark by the pollution, had to be cleaned and there’s now a motorized vehicle free zone around the monument. Which obviously doesn’t help even a little bit, given that the smog envelops the whole city. But maybe it does something to raise people’s awareness to the issue of air pollution.
What’s the best time to visit the Taj Mahal? Most people agree that it’s best to go early morning and be there by sunrise. Despite that sunrise craze, the big crowds arrive in the afternoon, so yes, (early) morning is better. Thanks to my protests we didn’t go that early but arrived at around 8. That was definitely early enough. It was freezing cold on that early January morning and the sun, barely visible behind the thick layer of smog aka fog, didn’t bring any warmth. Speaking of barely visible: The Taj Mahal, at the end of a long line of pools, slowly rose from the fog as the sun grew stronger but at sunrise, you wouldn’t have seen it.
After the Taj Mahal has appeared, people start taking pictures, posing in front of the monument, holding the monument by its roof, carrying it in their hand – everything you can think of, it just depends on finding the right angle.
The most beautiful part of the whole complex is the tomb, where intricate flowers made of colored stones adorn the white marble. Overall, the Taj Mahal is impressive, of course, as is the wonderful love story responsible for the creation of such a masterpiece. However, it’s by far not the only architectural masterpiece in India. And because you can only see a very limited part of the Taj Mahal and most of it just from the outside while trying to somehow see and imagine it as what it is; a mausoleum, a final resting place, a place of peace, but not really succeeding because of the crowds, you feel detached from the whole complex despite being right in the middle of it. It doesn’t talk to you, it doesn’t thrill you; it’s over-loved and over-photographed and over-hyped. It’s something that happens with many famous places, especially buildings. You’ve seen so many pictures, read so many accounts and descriptions that once you’re there, it’s not as grand and impressive as you’ve imagined and expected because it can’t, it’s impossible to live up to the fame and expectations created by the fame. That’s why I’m saying that there are other, better places to visit in northern India. Forts you can explore and get lost in, which is so much more exciting, right?
But yes, the beauty of the Taj Mahal is undeniable.
In Agra, we stayed at Zigzag Hostel, pretty new but basic accommodation, not easy to find but managed by amazing guys who have traveled extensively themselves. They offer arguably the best sunset tour in Agra, and completely free of charge: first, we walked to a bike hire shop, where each of us took a bike, then we rode to an abandoned tannery next to the river. The grounds are now inhabited by a family of wood collectors. High over the bank of the river is a small old stone gazebo with the best views of the Taj Mahal, the river, and the sunset. Most people head to the gardens opposite the Taj Mahal, to see the sun set just behind the monument but I’m sure our place was so much more beautiful – and it was just us, a small group of seven people. Don’t expect red skies or clouds or anything spectacular, the sky turns orange and the sun gets swallowed by the smog (sorry, the fog). It’s still beautiful, though, and the place was very peaceful and astonishingly quiet.