“The world believes it was built by love but
reading Shah Jahan’s own words on the Taj,
one could say it was grief that built the Taj Mahal
and it was sorrow that saw it through
sixteen years till completion.”
― Aysha Taryam
My first ever trip abroad, back in July 2016, was a solo adventure to India, where I joined the International Volunteer Headquarters crew for their Slum Teaching program in Delhi; as well as the week of volunteering, I participated in their 1-week language and cultural orientation program and Taj Mahal Tour, which was an optional add-on. The other volunteers and I roused very early in the morning, gathered our water bottles and day packs, and set out on the four hour ride south of Delhi to Agra for an experience I will never forget. There are many things in life that can leave you breathless: people, places, long runs in the park… but there was nothing quite like seeing the Taj Mahal for the first time.
History of the Taj Mahal and Mumtaz Mahal
The Crown of the Palaces was commissioned in 1632, and completed in 1653, by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan to hold the tomb of his favourite wife, Mumtaz Mahal, who died in childbirth. In 1607, fourteen year old Shah Jahan was strolling through the Meena Bazaar when he caught sight of the fifteen year old, Muslim Persian princess Arjumand Banu Begum hawking silk and glass beads; after their meeting, Shah Jahan told his father that he wished to marry her, and the match was solemnized after five years. Shah Jehan bestowed her with the title of Mumtaz Mahal, meaning the “Jewel of the Palace,” and, despite having other wives, she was his favorite. Mumtaz Mahal accompanied the emperor everywhere, but, while giving birth to her fourteenth child, Mumtaz Mahal died of complications; on her deathbed, Shah Jehan swore to never remarry and to build the richest mausoleum over her grave.
The Taj Mahal was inspired by Mughal and Persian architecture, and while earlier Mughal buildings were generally constructed of red sandstone, Shah Jahan used white marble inlaid with semi-precious stones. It is believed that over 1,000 elephants were used to transport building materials, and it took 22,000 labourer, painters, embroidery artists and stonecutters to create the Taj Mahal. The stunning white marble was brought from Makrana, Rajasthan; the jasper from Punjab; jade and crystal from China; the turquoise from Tibet; the Lapis lazuli from Afghanistan; the sapphire from Sri Lanka; and the carnelian from Arabia. Twenty-eight types of precious and semi-precious stones were inlaid into the white marble. Islam prohibited the use of anthropomorphic decorative elements, so calligraphy, abstract forms, passages from the Qur’an, and vegetative motifs were used to decorate the outside. Muslim tradition forbids elaborate decoration of graves, so the crypts that hold the bodies of Mumtaz and Shah Jahan are relatively plain and beneath the inner chamber.
Visiting the Taj Mahal
The grounds are open from 6:00 am to 6:00 pm on weekdays, except for Friday when the complex is open for prayers at the mosque between 12:00 and 2:00 pm, and the complex is open for night viewing on the day of the full moon, as well as two days before and after, excluding Fridays and the month of Ramadan. An entry ticket is 1,000 rupees per person, and it’s best to give exact change- some of the tellers may hassle you otherwise. The foreigner ticket comes with a bottle of water, shoe covers, and a tourist map of Agra. Arrive to the ticket booth as early as possible, because the queue is long; no matter what time you visit, the Taj Mahal will be extremely visit, but early morning is always lovely! There are three gates to enter the ground: East, West, and South; I advise choosing between the east and west gate based on where you’re staying/arriving and avoiding the south gate completely- it’s located near a pretty dodgy area and doesn’t open until 8 am.
The outside of the building is the main event: inside is mostly crowded, lots of pushing and shoving, and just the tombs. Take your time exploring the grounds to capture all angles of this beauty and the gardens and don’t forget that there are two other buildings on premises: a mosque and the jawab. The square Mughal garden, or charbagh, divides each of the four quarters of the garden into 16 sunken parterres or flowerbeds. Halfway between the tomb and entrance is a raised marble water tank with a reflecting pool, called al Hawd al-Kawthar in reference to the “Tank of Abundance” promised to Muhammad. The charbagh garden, inspired by Persian gardens, symbolizes the four flowing rivers of Jannah. Behind the Taj, you can get lovely views of the Yamuna river.
Have you visited the Taj Mahal? What was your favorite angle to photograph the mausoleum? I’d love to hear your opinions, so pop a comment below!