100 Days in India Project

11/ 100 Taj Mahal

Ah, the Taj Mahal. Such an iconic building that it scarcely needs an introduction. For one reason or another we always seem to skirt around the leading tourist sights of wherever we are visiting. We’ve visited Argentina three times, but never been to the Iguazu falls. We’ve drunk ridiculously expensive hot chocolate in San Francisco twice, but have never seen the Golden Gate Bridge. I’ve been to London countless times but have never been to the Tower of London or, in fact, any of the big tourist attractions there. Could we possibly come here and not see that one building that everyone thinks of at the mere mention of India? This was the trip where we made an exception.

Was it worth the trip to the plastic debris-lined streets of Agra to see the Taj Mahal? Not really. It just confirmed to me why we generally avoid the biggest tourist traps. It was super busy, even just minutes after opening in the morning. We had been told that getting there early was the key, so we were there about 10 minutes after opening and it was already heaving, populated with enough people to fill a small town. You could barely relax and enjoy it.

It was also very expensive. When we visited in 2018 it cost 1100 Rupees, or about £11. It might not sound like an astronomical amount but you could buy about around 130 cups of chai tea for that amount of money. Several of our hotel rooms cost less than this. In India 1100 Rupees is a huge amount of money. Indians pay significantly less at only 50 Rupees. Now I am all for the idea of having a tiered pricing system for tourists and locals but paying 22 times more seemed a little excessive. 

To make matters worse there were very little signs that your tourist Rupees were being reinvested and it left us feeling decidedly underwhelmed. The gardens were empty and devoid of life, as were the fountains and glorious water features. The main component of the landscaping seemed to be millions or discarded maps. There really was litter everywhere and there were just far too many people in the compound to enjoy the visit. There was nowhere to buy water or snacks — a decidedly odd thing considering you can buy food and drinks absolutely everywhere you can possibly imagine in the towns of India.

I love an interesting fact and this one about the Taj Mahal is high on my list of favourites. The building is square, as is the wall surrounding it. At each corner is a tall white pillar made of the same blinding-white marble as everything else. Each of the four pillars was built intentionally to lean away from the building. Why? To protect the building, which was basically a mausoleum for emperor Shah Jahan’s wife Mumtaz Mahal. If a pillar were to fall it would do so away from the building. Unknowing photographers often falsely correct the pillars to make them vertical (us photographers are obsessed with perspective).

I had made a slight mistake when planning our trip and booked too much time in Agra – about 5 days in total. Unfortunately for us we had pretty much seen all the main sights in the first day and we weren’t finding it the most engaging city. Feeling a bit despondent at the end of the our first day, we were loitering around the gates of our fancy hotel when one of the many tuktuk drivers grabbed our attention. His name was Gaffar and, as he pointed out daily, he considered himself to be an Indian version of Johnny Vegas — mainly by appearance.

We agreed a daily rate and he was there, waiting outside our hotel every single morning ready to take us anywhere.  His local knowledge and friendliness really saved this part of our journey for us. He would take us anywhere we wanted to go and all we had to do was send him an SMS message and he would come and get us when we were finished looking at something. We urged him to go and get some more customers or grab some lunch when we were visiting a place but he never did. Preferring instead to slouch into his pimped-up tuktuk, in the common driver’s uniform of a leather jacket and sunglasses, messaging the world via his phone.

When we needed laundry done, he knew where to go and when to come back and collect us to pick it up again. When we became sick of eating bread for lunch he knew a place that did rice-based South Indian food. When we just needed to get out into the cool evening air he would take us for a refreshing ride through the streets of a town he told us he had never once left. Tucked under the passenger seat of his three-wheeled tuktuk, next to the large pop bottles full of fuel, was the most important part of his taxi — the sound system and its very limited playlist. Whenever I hear the song Tere Naam by Udit Narayan I am whisked back to happy balmy evenings spent flying along dark roads, dodging animals and wondering how he could see at night with his sunglasses on.

We even went to Gaffar’s house for lunch one day but that needs a whole story to itself.