Travel Story An insider's approach to visiting the Taj Mahal

Taj Mahal, Agra.
Photo of Stephen Scourfield

Agra's marble-clad mausoleum is one of the world's iconic buildings, drawing an average of 10,000 visitors a day. So how can you ensure your experience doesn't get lost in the crowd?

People approach paradise from many directions but the secret is to line it up perfectly and head unerringly towards it.

That might be a religious or philosophical text — something from the Islamic Koran, the Hindu Ramayana or Mahabharata, or the Christian Bible — but it’s just the secret to approaching the Great Gate which leads to the Taj Mahal and its gardens, built to symbolise the four flowing rivers of jannah, or paradise.

There is an almost worn-away dab of yellow paint. Stand on this, then walk straight forward along the dark line in the ancient pavers, and through the gateway to paradise, an elaborate Islamic arch that leads an average of 10,000 visitors a day to stand before the Taj Mahal.

Tourists pour under the arch from all sides, somewhat oblivious to it, eager to get through and stand before the Taj Mahal. Keen to get a good position in the scrum and photograph the Taj as unencumbered by others as possible. This 6am crowd has the best chance. There are relatively few people and the light is soft and low — a good time to photograph the white marble mausoleum with its inlay and carvings.

No one else is this — walking this line one foot in front of the other, drunk with anticipation.

“Unveiling the bride,” whispers an Indian friend, with me on this visit.

All will be gradually, sensuously revealed. A bleached perfection laid bare.

And to bolt through the Gateway to Paradise at a slant is to rush the moment prematurely.

Architecturally, the Taj Mahal is about symmetry, balance and plays on perspective

And as I walk towards the Gate to Paradise, there is an unexpected tingle as I see it way off in the distance. Its dome is perfectly framed by this Islamic arch. It is precisely the right shape and proportion.

Then more of it comes into the frame, and more and more.

By veering even the length of a finger either side of this centre line, the view is lost. A minaret disappears and the view is completely unbalanced in just a slight sway of the head.

There is the possibility that the Taj Mahal, one of the world’s most famous buildings, might disappoint in the flesh. But this is not the case.

It is mesmerising and there is a real sense of being somewhere sanctified.

The balance, the three- dimensional frame of the four minarets, the long view, the space around and behind it, the sense of it floating. Extraordinary.

From the other side of the Gateway to Paradise, it looks quite small, and is clearly based on the symmetry of two equilateral triangles — one pointing upwards, with its base along the base of the Taj, and its point at the top of the dome, the other from the top of the minarets down to a point in the centre on the ground. The six-pointed star.

But once you step down just a metre into the gardens, the Taj Mahal instantly looks much bigger.

As you stand on a granite plinth halfway down the gardens, its true enormity is revealed. And then, once inside, it seems very small.

It has the ebb and flow of a poem.

The Taj Mahal was built from around 1632 to 1653 by the Mughal king Shah Jahan to commemorate the death of his third wife, Mumtaz Mahal, during the birth of their 14th child. More specifically, it was built by 20,000 of the Islamic world’s best craftsmen from Turkey, Persia and India.

It is often described as a “poem to love” and Shah Jahan’s grief is recorded in court chronicles.

But he was absent for her last breath, and the building of the Taj Mahal maybe as much about guilt as love.

Shah Jahan used these words to describe the Taj:

Should guilty seek asylum here, Like one pardoned, he becomes free from sin. Should a sinner make his way to this mansion, All his past sins are to be washed away. The sight of this mansion creates sorrowing sighs; And the sun and the moon shed tears from their eyes. In this world this edifice has been made; To display thereby the creator’s glory.

So it may even be fitting that one of the most memorable photographs of Britain’s Princess Diana was taken here. Much comment was made about her sitting alone on a marble bench, looking sad, loveless, jilted by Prince Charles, before what is usually seen as an edifice to love, but actually also an appeasement of guilt.

That first complete view, once you have passed through the Gateway to Paradise, is across a 300m square charbagh, or Mughal garden. Islamic writings of the Mughal period describe Paradise as a perfect, abundant garden with four rivers flowing through, separating the points of the compass.

The Taj Mahal faces due south — being in the northern hemisphere, this means its face is lit all day through.

It is a brick building clad with a very hard local marble — a million tonnes of it, carried by 3000 elephants, and cut with a steel wire. Because of the weight of the marble and the 74m height of the building, the usual bamboo scaffolding was considered inadequate and a 15km rammed-earth ramp built.

Once inside, the mausoleum’s main chamber seems small, and this is because it has separate walls and a separate dome. And here are the sarcophagi of Mumtaz Mahal and Shah Jahan, though their actual graves are far below.

The marble inlay work is recognised as the world’s finest — I am told that even Italians, who are renowned for their stonework, admit this. The stones, cut precisely to shape by hand, are yellow marble, jasper and jade, polished and levelled.

Part of the Taj Mahal’s presence comes from having nothing built around it. The architects knew space would make the building.

It backs on to the Tamuna River which was the highest it had been for 27 years.

One of India’s more revered sons, novelist, poet and songwriter Rabindranath Tagore, described the Taj Mahal as “one teardrop ... upon the cheek of time”.

And my time here has passed. I must go.

Back through the Gateway to Paradise, I turn for one last look at the Taj Mahal, perfectly framed. I feel sated by the architecture, the vision and the human story.

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