10 November 2009

Taj Mahal

The Taj Mahal on the western bank of the Yamuna River in Agra is one of the most well known and iconic buildings in the world.

It was built by Emperor Saha Jahan as a mausoleum for his second wife, Mumtaz Mahal, who died in 1631 whist giving birth to their 14th child. Some 20,000 people were involved in the construction, which was started in 1631 but took 22 years to complete.

The outside of the building is stunning and doesn't quite look real when seen for the first time. Thanks to some renovation work and a pollution exclusion zone it still looks brand new despite being nearly 400 years old and sat at the heart of a big industrial city. The white marble glows and is inlayed with flowers and verses from the Quran.

The inside doesn't quite live up to the splendor of the outside, mainly because it's so dark you can't see! Only a tiny amount of light comes in through the carved marble screen windows and this is supplemented by what appears to be a single 40 watt light bulb. After entering from the blinding light outside it's impossible to see anything and you spend most of your time stumbling about bumping into the hundreds of other similarly impaired visitors.

If you want to get up close and explore the building you have to take your shoes off or wear the natty shoe covers that are provided.

The Taj Mahal is probably the busiest tourist attraction we've been to on our trip, the crowds were huge and stopped it being the calm and relaxing experience that you might imagine it would be. It's a little bit of a shame really because it's one of those buildings that it's nice to just sit on a bench and look at.

Since we arrived in India we've been continually pestered by people to have our photos taken with them. We experienced it a little in other parts of Asia but in India it happens all the time. Every where we go people stop and ask us to pose in pictures with them as if we are some sort of celebrity. It's truly strange and at first slightly unnerving. At the Taj it was just ridiculous, barely a minute would pass without someone coming up to us and requesting one, some or all of us pose for a picture.

At one point Liz had a new born baby thrust onto her (which she appeared to thoroughly enjoy) so that the parents could get a snap.

In contrast to the beauty of the Taj Mahal, Agra is fairly ugly, chaotic and seems to be a little lacking in visitor facilities despite having India's biggest tourist draw. The Taj Ganj district that surrounds the Taj Mahal is a real higgledy piggledy mess crammed full of wonky buildings, animals, effluent, muck and rubbish.

Just to add to the fun are the incredibly persistent and annoying touts, vendors, guides, rickshaw drivers and chai-wallahs who don't give you a seconds peace.

Despite the crowds, hassle and muck of Agra it still makes a visit for the Taj Mahal well worth while.

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