We extended our vacation to include a trip to Delhi and then Agra to see the Taj. The trip from Delhi took 6 hours by car. Other ways to reach the Taj include the Shatabdi Express train, which takes off an hour or so off the car trip, or Kingfisher Airlines which has daily flights and shave a huge chunk off that road trip away. I would recommend the latter or even the train, as the road trip was  an experience in sucking in the polluted clime of Delhi – all the way.

The car trip though was another experience, because you get to see a lot of the countryside and we were able to stop at a Dhaba – which is a road side open roof restaurant serving local fare which is mostly vegetarian. Now most of these places are famed to give you the Delhi Belly – if you are weak in the stomach, but the food was hot and just right. We also had the rare opportunity of seeing a contingent of army trucks at least a 100 of them with artillery guns mounted and covered, going somewhere….it was kind of difficult figuring out whether they were coming or going…but it was a treat for both the kids and the adults.

Once you reach the Taj Complex, is where the you need to start being careful. We stopped at the West Gate which implies there are more gates around the complex.  The taxis will park at the designated spot and you will be surrounded by offers for rides in Camel, Horse and environmental friendly battery powered vehicles. These carts have a fixed route which takes you to the government run ‘Meena Bazar’, where they have marble models of the Taj, Banana Fiber Saris and other artifacts. Skipping this would depend on whether you actually want to be heckled and if you want to haggle over stuff you’d never use. I would recommend skipping it if you reach the Taj complex after 1400 hrs. The cart drivers would love to get you in there because they probably get aP1010120 commission for doing that or on every purchase you make.  In any case, on your way in and on your way out you are most likely to be swarmed by sellers of key chains for the tourists, books for the armchair tourists’ coffee table, marble taj models for the exhibitionists and whips for the more sado-masochistically inclined.

Feeling hungry after a long drive – There is a Taj restaurant right at the entrance of the Taj, which we would have missed as the cart drivers informed us that the nearest eatery was 6 kms away, which is the distance displayed on ads of various 5 star hotels. The Taj restaurant which is government run serves vegetarian food and chilled beer all around the year and the toilets are free for the guests.

Getting into the Taj requires a 20 Rupee ticket for adults, with children below a certain age getting in free. The two 4 year olds with us got in free which is an indication of the age limit which I don’t remember. The long queues in front of the gate are for the security check where you will be frisked and your bags checked. Knives, lighters and other things generally not allowed on an aircraft and can be used for defacing and destroying the monument are not allowed. So don’t be fooled by the lines – get the tickets first and then wait in line.

As I said earlier – don’t be fooled by the lines. If you look like an out-of-towner you are most likely to be  approached by a tout who can get you in faster, skipping the queues – all for a charge. Around 250 Rs should take off 15 minutes of ‘standing in queue time” – waiting to be groped by a metal detector in the hands of a security guard, who will confiscate anything he fancies and can scalp at a second hand market – all in the interest of national security.

Once inside you have a counter where you have to store your video camera as you are not allowed to carry it in any further. They charge you 250 Rs for that or you can simply keep it in your bag and hope someone doesn’t catch you when you take it out. The gate beyond which is the Taj provides a great place where you can shoot the best views of the Taj with all four minarets. Professional photographers will take pictures for you for a charge and have them ready at a designated spot by the time your visit is over.

P1010119The lawns are well manicured and kept although the pools were empty due to maintenance, which are usually seen full when there is a VVIP visiting the monument. The latest visitor was Sarkozy minus Carla….but a very good looking female minister who was accompanying him.  There are benches from where you can have your photographs taken. These benches having borne the bottoms of those like Aiswaraya Rai nee Bachchan, Diana – the late princess of Wales, the list is endless. The crowds around it will of course prevent the perfect picture from being taken, and one would have to finally depend on the professional photographers who hang around, looking for that photo op.

The Taj at dusk may sound very romantic, but that actually leaves you very little light for photography if your P1010097digital camera is not too advanced. Less light also means poor visibility inside the Taj where the tombs of the one time owners are situated and you could end up bumping your toe on one of the many marble thresholds.

For all its romantic history and its position as the worlds greatest aphrodisiac – a trip taken via Agra can do wonders for your sex life, the Taj ends up as an ordinary structure clad in marble pieces. It makes you wonder if there is some architectural secret that hasn’t been discovered.

A tribute to the dead, built on prime real estate across from the Yamuna river, housing the tombs of a queen and her consort (?!) , the result of the labor of hundreds of workers, the genius of a few craftsmen, rumored to have resulted in the arms and tongues of the workers being cut to ensure that the design was not copied, on the brink of a religious controversy for the less than secular, a major tourism revenue earner for the country, a display of past opulence, a treasure ripped of all its gold and precious stones – that’s how I would remember the Taj