“The Sun and the Moon Shed Tears from Their Eyes”

Poet Rabindranath Tagore described the Taj Mahal as ‘a teardrop on the cheek of eternity’; Rudyard Kipling as ‘the embodiment of all things pure’; while its creator, Emperor Shah Jahan, said it made ‘the sun and the moon shed tears from their eyes’. I’m sure all of us have seen countless photos of it but it is still an amazing place to visit and the opportunity to see it brought us to Agra. As well as the Taj, the Mughal empire left behind a very impressive fort and several other mausoleums and tombs.

To reach here we caught an overnight train from Varanasi.. It was due to leave at 5.20pm and arrive in Agra at 6.20am so we were concerned we would be arriving far to early to check into our hotel so we investigated the nearest place we could get a good coffee and fill in some time. India Rail made sure that wasn’t a problem though, the train was about three hours late leaving and then took an extra couple of hours on the journey so by the time we arrived and got a tuk tuk to our hotel it was time to check in and immediately head out for lunch … and coffee!

We had a distant and partly obstructed view of the Taj from the train and because we stayed in the Taj Ganj area right next to the Taj we caught glimpses of the top of the Taj from the streets around the area but our first good view of it was from a rooftop restaurant just before sunset. Fantastic outlook, pleasant sitting area with potted plants all around, interesting and friendly people at the surrounding tables to chat with, the sound of the call to prayers as the sun set, tasty food – pretty perfect overall so we lashed out and had our first beers since we arrived in India to mark the occasion. Even the monkey who came to see if there was any food he could steal kept his distance and didn’t bother us.

The next morning we left the hotel just after 5.00am so we could have a coffee and still be inside in time to catch the early light. Once through the ticket gate we walked through the forecourt to a very ornate 30m high red sandstone gateway. 

 After passing through the gate we entered the ornamental garden with the Taj on a raised marble platform at the other end of watercourse and we stayed there taking the classic photos until after the sun had risen above the layer of smog.

We made our way through the gardens toward the Taj, stopping for more photos looking back toward the gateway.

The central Taj structure is made of semi-translucent white marble, carved with flowers and inlaid with thousands of semi-precious stones in beautiful patterns. 40m-high white minarets grace each corner of the platform. 

The four identical faces of the Taj feature impressive vaulted arches embellished with pietra dura scroll-work and quotations from the Quran in a style of calligraphy using inlaid jasper. The whole structure is topped off by four small domes surrounding the famous bulbous central dome. 

Inside the Mausoleum are two elaborate false tombs surrounded by an exquisite perforated marble screen inlaid with dozens of different types of semiprecious stones. The real tombs are in a locked basement room below the main chamber and cannot be viewed.  The marble screen was carved from a single piece of marble and more finely cut marble screens admit light into the chamber. No photography is allowed inside the mausoleum.

The red-sand-stone mosque to the west is an important gathering place for Agra’s Muslims. The building, and the interiors, are intricately decorated.

It was also a great place for photos and a couple of photographers posed models in the archway with the Taj providing a magnificent backdrop. 

After several hours being wowed by our visit to this amazing place we were weary, hot and hungry so found a place to eat and retreated to the air-conditioning to recover. 

Later we took a walk through the side streets and lanes. We only had to walk a very short distance and we changed worlds. Instead of restaurants and travel agents the streets were lined with stalls selling homewares or hardware or bolts of beautiful materials. Fruit and vegetable vendors pushed the carts to convenient locations and kept a wary eye out for monkeys waiting to grab a mango from their display. A goat peered out from an upstairs window and a cow rested by the side of the road. Street food was hot and enticing and although we had recently eaten we had to sample a snack along the way, delicious.

We had another early start next morning and left the hotel at 5.30 am and took a tuk tuk to the Agra Fort. The fort was primarily built as a military structure beginning in 1565 but it was later transformed into a palace. Now a large part of the huge structure is used by the military but there was still plenty of palatial marble and red sandstone buildings to wander through with well laid out courtyards and reception areas between them. The walls are twenty metres high and 2.5km in circumference. One side ran by the river and the others were protected by a crocodile infested moat.

As soon as we arrived we hurried to the eastern side of the fort so we could watch the sun rise behind the Taj Mahal. Even though it was after the actual time of sunrise, the smog hid the sun and while we were waiting for the sun to make its appearance we watched a nesting Black Kite and its chick and some lovely tree parrots. 

 The sun stayed hidden behind the low layer of clouds and smog so we enjoyed the view across the fields and the river before beginning our exploration of the buildings. 

Khas Mahal is the most beautiful building in the fort and was built by Shah Jahan during 1631-1640 AD. There are open terraces and a hall, flanked by a pavilion on either side. The structure is erected on an elevated platform paved with marble. The palace included curtain walls, elegant tanks, fountains and a waterfall surrounded by living apartments with courts and verandahs.

The interiors of the palace are adorned with gold work, mural paintings, ornamental designs and floral designs. 

The projecting tower to the east of the Khas Mahal is known as the Octagonal Tower (Musamman Burj). The tower is open at five sides and makes an excellent balcony for a view of the riverside and the Taj Mahal. It was originally made of red sandstone and used by emperors Akbar and Jahangir. Shah Jahan got it changed to white marble. 

Next to Khas Mahal is Jehangir’s Palace, this is made of red sand-stone. Although some of the interiors are not maintained the exteriors have delicate carvings and inlaid white stones.

Two courtyards are surrounded by terraces in front of numerous smaller rooms.

Diwan-i-Am, (Hall of Public Audiences) was used for domestic government business. Beyond it, in an area not open to the public, is Moti Masjid, the Pearl Mosque. 

It may not be as famous but Agra Fort is also a great monument and we easily spent several hours wandering around and would have been happy to spend longer except for the heat.

Now it Is onward to Bengaluru, not to see any of India’s amazing temples or forts, but to experience a different side of India, an Indian wedding.