The Taj Mahal has always been regarded as one of the great wonders of the world and hence its inclusion in the official list of “New Seven Wonders of the World” in 2007 was only a formality despite the fact that the selection was by popular voting. I was one of the more than one hundred million voters and had placed this at the top of my list. The official list includes the Great Wall of China which I had the good fortune to visit last year (see my ealier blog titled “China Diary Part 1”) and the Coliseum in Rome which I had visited in 1967. The other four in the list are: Chichen Itza in Mexico, Christ the Redeemer in Brazil, Machu Picchu in Peru and Petra in Jordan.
When I first saw the Taj Mahal way back in 1963, I was dumbstruck by the sheer grandeur and beauty of the famed monument. It made an impact on me far exceding the expectations aroused from my gleanings of the architecture and history of the Mughal period in India. What struck me most was the perfect proportion and symmetry between different parts of the monument, especially in relation to the huge central dome, as well as its surroundings. Because of this, one doesn’t really perceive how gigantic it really is, something that shows up very conspicuously in two of my close-up pictures presented later. I had read great descriptions and seen some breathtaking pictures of it, but these faded away in comparision with the sight of the real thing, a magnificient marble mausoleum built as a symbol of eternal love by an opulent and indulgent monarch. Unfortunately at that time, I was yet to get hooked on to photography as a hobby and have nothing to show for my experience. The next time I went to see it many years later with a cemera, the monument was enveloped at several places by some rather ugly scaffolding for major repairs and was not worth photographing. At the third time I went to see it, my photographic interests had gone into hibernation. My real opportunity for some serious photography came only relatively recently, in February 2005, when I visited Agra on a ‘guided’ tour from Delhi. This time I was well armed with a recently acquired Nikon Coolpix 8800 digital camera offering 8 MP pixel resolution and 10x optical zoom.
Although the tourist bus had left Delhi as early as 7 AM, it was lunch time when it reached Agra and the driver took us straight to a third rate restaurant charging top rate prices for lunch. It was well into the afternoon when the bus reached Agra Fort where I detatched myself from the rest of the tourists and began my own exploration with my camera in full readiness. The weather was bright and sunny and I realized I could get some very good pictures during the rest of the evening.
The huge red brick fort is a formidable structure enclosing several palatial marble buildings and even more impressive than the Red Fort in Delhi; both are UNESCO designated world heritage sites. Here is the entrance to it through the main gate over a small bridge across a moat:
[All pictures in this post can be blown up to their full size by just clicking on them and viewing them in separate windows]
Inside the Fort
One has to pass through another huge gate before reaching the vast interior. Here is an angular view of one of the buildings, called Jahangiri Mahal, with a large lush green lawn in front:
The Diwan I Am (Hall of Public Audience) seen in the following picture is very similar in appearance and purpose to its equally impressive counterpart in the Delhi Red Fort.
Here is an angular view of the Khas Mahal with a vast ornate garden in front. The garden has a symmetrical counterpart in front of the building.
The structure seen in the following picture and just noticeable in the previous one has a poignant association with Emperor Shah Jahan who built the Taj Mahal. He had been overthrown and imprisoned in the Agra Fort by his despotic son Aurangzeb. Shah Jahan is said to have spent his last days fondly viewing the great edifice visible from here on the banks of river Yamuna. The picture captures it right at the centre though not very clearly. It can be seen much clearer if the picture is blown up to full size.
Oh! The Taj
In the next picture I have captured the whole of Taj Mahal from the balcony of the above building with the camera on full zoom (89 mm focal length). This picture reveals a lot more than it shows. While it captures the entire building from a distance of about 2km, it also captures the incredible filth and the squalor lying around the river bed between the Fort and the Taj which happen to be two of the most impressive sights in the world. What a contrast! What an irony! What an invitation to a grand stand view of one of the greatest wonders of the world! You will have to blow up the picture to its full size to understand what I mean (just click on it and wait a little while for everything to show up). Mercifully, this is not the view Shah Jahan would have seen; he certainly deserved not to.
Interestingly, the early part of one of Conan Doyle’s great mystery novels, The Sign of Four featuring Sherlock Holmes, is set in the Agra Fort. Having read the novel, I tried to relate the pertinent part of the story to the Fort, but found no sign that Doyle had any first hand knowledge of it. After all, it was only fiction.
To improve the quality of air around the Taj complex, the authorities do not allow any motorised vehicles to approach it within a certain distance. This concern does not seem to extend to the area just behind the monument on the banks of the river. Nobody seems to mind all that filth and squalor. On the way to the Taj, tourists have to get down at a designated point and either walk up to the complex or take an expensive electric vehicle. While this is certainly laudable, what follows is just the opposite. Once the tourists reach the entrance to the complex they are subjected to some of the stiffest and most irksome security checks anywhere in the world. This is quite an ordeal and dampens their enthusiasm in no small measure. The one saving grace is that cameras are allowed unlike many other tourist attractions in the country.
Foreign toursits, who are identified only by their appearance, have to cough up a hefty entry fee which is about fifty times what their Indian counterparts have to pay! Such discrimination, not to speak of the sheer scale of it, is a monumental insult to the injury already inflicted on tourism in the country by way of poor facilities. Nowhere in the world have I come across such discrimination against foreign tourists. This is quite shameful for a country like India which is among the least popular tourist destinations in the world. During my sight seeing visits in China last year, I did feel that the entry fees in most places were unreasonably high, but they were no more than what the locals had to pay. Also, there were no restrictions of any kind on photography.
One enters the Taj through its main gate in a massive red brick building (see picture below) which is in itself a great sight.
Standing at the entrance gate, the sight of the great marble monument at the far end of two long pathways on either side of a waterway is a breathtaking experience. As one steps inside, the whole of the complex with its rich greenery and gardens comes alive. I wanted a photograph of myself highlighting the monument in the background and was lucky enough to find a foreign visitor who understood exactly what I wanted and shot this picture for me with my won camera. Of course he couldn’t avoid the conspicuous people nearby and the not so conspicuous ones farther away. I have cropped the picture to make it more presentable, shifting the attention to the monument as much as possible. It is one of my prized possessions.
The following two photos from a close range indicate how gigantic and impressive the monument really is:
At one place on the periphery of the quadrangle I saw the huge dome of the monument behind the beautifully bare branches of a tree and captured the combination, a creation of nature blending with one of man. Here it is – one of my best photographs of the day. It can be better appreciated when seen in full size.
My last picture here was aimed from the elevated platform in front of the monument towards the entrace gate and captures the wonderful central waterway, the long pathways and gardens on either side of it and parts of the greenery elsewhere. The entrance gate also stands out in all its glory.
Au RevoirAfter the short but memorable visit to Agra the tourist bus took us on a night time visit to Mathura and returned to Delhi well past midnight. I wish I had spent a much longer time at the Taj. I could have done so only if I had stayed in Agra for a day or two. This is what I intend to do during my next visit wehenever it be. Till then I will continue to cherish the memory of my last visit.