What can I say? People love flaunting, and no different am I! I, fortunately, possess many things worth boasting about. Like my wife’s PhD, her research work. Like my blog. The latest addition to this list is this cheeky question: “Have you visited the Taj?” Shockingly, a lot Indians who otherwise have an easy access to this spectacular Wonder of the World are oblivious to its exquisiteness. If you have also been humiliated by this pinching question, here is your calling! It is never too late to say “वाह, ताज!”
Assuming you have taken the first clue to visit the Taj, you may start your planning with this article. Like any other vacation, this too requires planning. (Vacations, when planned, often yield more fun. Learnt by experience. Unplanned vacations can be more fun for that matter. Let’s just ignore this whole point.) When it comes to travelling in India, some amount of research and a significant amount of advanced planning can make your life exponentially easier. Point being, before you scoot off, do some homework! Based on my wife’s and my first-hand experiences, here is Chapter 1: “Where Do You Start From?”
1. Pick the right time! Even with the extreme inland climate of Agra, the Taj Mahal hosts more than three million visitors every year, throughout the year. Unless you enjoy the crushing crowd in the crouching heat, you must pick the right season to visit. Winter season in India (October to February) is the most pleasant time check on the weather though since the fog/smog can be a real spoiler.
Avoid weekends. Even the coldest Sunday of the year may fail to cool you down. I suggest, avoid Mondays and Fridays too, considering the long weekend type of visitors.
Even after picking the right day, a late start of the day may ruin your entire planning. If you can manage to reach right in the morning before the sunrise, nothing like it! We paid two visits in two days. First time, entering at 11 AM we realized how majestic the Taj appeared in the bright sun light, and also experienced how unnerving the exploded human population could get. The next morning we walked in at the sunrise (way before that, actually) to witness how a white marble building turned pink in the rising sunlight. We had all the time and space to sit back and soak the charismatic view!
2. Advance Booking for “Taj by Moonlight”: While closing on the travel dates and reservations, do include the Moonlight Viewing of the Taj in your itinerary. Five nights every month, they allow a half an hour visit of the luminous Taj in the soothing moonlight.
You need to book a day in advance (again, something you need to incorporate in your itinerary) from the local Archaeological Survey of India office. Many have different experiences around this much-talked-of-experience; for us, we happened to visit the Taj on a full moon night, but were too late to get the tickets. Go for it, I don’t think the Taj can ever disappoint you.
3. Kalakriti Event "Mohabbat the Taj": It’s said to be in the likes of ‘Moulin Rouge’ and a must checkpoint of your Agra visit, if your taste approves of theatrical detours. The one and a half hours show includes the dramatic portrayal of the King Shah Jahan and his beloved Mumtaz Mahal’s love story and also a light-and-sound show around a Taj Mahal replica. This may be followed by a dinner and I feel it’s a good package if you relish such performing arts.
There are many booking partners, including a few online ones, offering deals starting at USD 49/person, including the taxi transfer to Kalakriti Cultural and Convention Center, the 'Mohabbat the Taj' play, the light-and-sound show, dinner and dropping back. Worth accommodating in your itinerary.
4. Avoid “Misguiding” Tour Guides: Once you're on the ground, there are people to watch out for. I wonder there’s any way one can identify the genuine tour-guides from the goon-ones. They all wear that khaki jacket with the UP Tourism logo, an ID card, and all those classic 'identity spoofing' gears. For that matter, the real guides may have equally questionable motives and I wonder what you can do about that. Here are some symptoms you may observe though:
- Their 'Flexible Consultancy Charges’: They may throw an unbelievably big number to begin with and easily agree with an unreasonably smaller amount without much negotiation. This is your first hint. (Solution: Refer the guide rate card in advance, and ask for the receipt beforehand.
- The ‘Photographer’ Connection: While they may pretend being helpful and protecting, they would initially steer away a few hawkers and photographers coming your way, just to 'suggest' you to hire one to 'capture the moments' as a couple/group/family. (Be firm. Don't give in. If you're carrying a reasonably good resolution camera, you can simply do away with professional photographers. You have a plenty of time to take as many photos as you like, and there are tonnes of nice people around to help you as well.) (If you're too lazy to do anything yourself, here's the thumb rule for negotiating with the photographers - bargain for one fifth of whatever they ask for! They ask for 50, you say 10. Oh yes, that's how we roll in India! And if you don’t enjoy bargaining, politely decline.)
- Their Restaurant 'Recommendation': You know you're caught in the wrong hands when your guide insists on taking you to ‘Agra’s most famous’ restaurant. With your complete lack of any knowledge of what may be lesser famous, they will land you to one of those restaurants you’d never imagine could exist – not something you would have picked by choice. Such places charge a fortune (to incorporate the ‘cut’ for the guide and possibly the driver too) for the below average quality food and services. This one is simpler to handle – you don’t like the place, you walk away! No justification required. (You’re likely to compromise considering the tiring visit to the Taj. I would still recommend you to gather some energy and check a better option.)
- I can’t even get started with our tour guide’s lack of knowledge of the History of the Taj Mahal, let alone that of the Mughals or India in general. But his confidence to blabber the oddest logics about the design and structure of the Taj were uncanny. I say, let the reliable knowledge sources be your guide to the history, and healthily laugh off to the fictitious versions your tour guide may have for your on-board entertainment.
5. No Shopping at the “Only” Government Shop in Agra: Like most tourism destinations, Agra too can be a shopping paradise. At least, you will be made to believe so. If your tour guide (or the driver, or any other unknown well-wisher) tries to persuade you to go for shopping, especially to visit the ‘only Government-run Shop’ in Agra, you know you’re already in the wrong company!
Apparently there’s no such thing. Even if there was any ‘approved’ or ‘affiliated’ handicraft shop, I doubt the Government officials would care to entertain such thugs to trick customers into visiting the shops. Mind you, these shops give bills with Registration Number and Customer Care details (obviously, the ‘fake’ ones). They claim to be the cheapest, citing the ‘tax subsidy’ only they enjoy being a Government associate. So, how do you know you’re shopping at a not-so-Government-approved shop?
- Your tour guide may start building background before your arrival at this honoured shopping destination. Like, all the artwork and handicraft available at the shop are created by the “17th generation” (or similar random number) of the artists who actually carved marbles and shaped precious stones for the Taj Mahal, who worked ‘exclusively’ for Shah Jahan.
- There may be a dummy Taj Mahal right at the main entrance of the shop, allegedly built over a few years by the same great descendant. You may also be taken for a walk through the workshop, establishing the authenticity of the great pieces of art you witness in that building.
- In fact, the representative would claim to be the only shop in the city to use authentic marble for all the art and decorative pieces.
Wait, authentic marbles and Agra? What’s the connection? The white marbles used to build the Taj Mahal were brought from Rajasthan, while the other precious stones were brought in from all over India. Why in this world would we have cheaper or more authentic marble models here in Agra? My take, identify these muggers early and blatantly deny visiting any shopping places at all. There will be plenty of time to shop later.
6. Our Bonus ‘Expert’ Advice: This is strictly a personal opinion. Something my wife and I cherish the most – unwinding with the change from the routine. We like to spend more time at lesser places, than trying to ‘cover’ all the names in the sight-seeing brochure. And so do we suggest to you too! Make this a one-point journey.
- Visiting the forts in and around Agra, and visiting the Taj are not the same things. You may choose to visit a few gardens in the evening or in the other spare time, but we say why not spend that lazy evening as well at the Taj?
- Reaching the main gateway or even the forecourt of the Taj takes some time and causes considerable inconvenience. So why not make it word and spend significant time at the monument? Let the Taj visit be your only schedule-item for the day and spend some quality time there. (Don’t let your guide bully you into rushing into things, photos and take off. Remember, you don’t visit the Taj every day!)
- Take our word for this, reach the Taj early in the morning and sit back absorb the serene beauty. Lean back on the white marble and let it calm your mind and body. Whatever your reason to step out of that place, can definitely wait.
I know the list could be more exhaustive and accurate. Not everybody may have felt cheated by the locals. For all the great reasons, you may find forts worth visiting. But that was never the point, was it?
Do let us know what your experience had been like.
More importantly, “Have you visited the Taj?”