We left Delhi early, taking an auto-rickshaw to the New Delhi Train Station. Just before entering security at the station entrance, we were approached by a well-dressed man who asked to see our ticket, and who then told our train had been cancelled and that we should go to the booth to our left to purchase a ticket for another train. This sounded vaguely familiar, and I asked who he was and if he could show me his ID. He had none, but being so close to security I thought I had better check this out, so we went to the booth he indicated…except there was no one at the booth! We went back to the entrance, and we walked past the smug looking man who had first approached us. This was our first scam attempt. They were probably unprepared, perhaps due to our early arrival, and I had enough suspicion that this one would have failed anyway. We continued through ‘security’ and with the help of a couple of helpful youth, we found our platform and caught the train just as we had booked.
The thing about Indian trains is that they are very long, and there are several classes of cars, only one of which is yours. Our first anxiety was being sure we were in the right position to reach our car before the train left. Larger stations will have signs indicating where your carriage should stop. so as you can see in the video, we had no problem in that regard here in Delhi Station. Once on board, we found that we had almost the whole carriage to ourselves! We had our first glimpses of suburban and rural India, our first train chai, our first views of open defecation (railways seem to be a popular location for this)…and an otherwise not unpleasant trip to Agra.
After leaving the train station we were greeted by a horde of taxi and autorickshaw and taxi drivers, all vying for our business. We eventually found a taxi with reasonable terms (it’s best to find out ahead of time, usually from your hotel, how much the fare should be) and we set out for Hotel Sheela near the eastern gate of the Taj Mahal. The hotel is in a gated zone, so we felt quite privileged that we were away from the usual cacophony that is Indian traffic. We ventured out to explore the area once we had settled in.
*Click to enlarge images.*
We went south out of the gated area to look for an ATM, and we (mostly I!) came under immediate and constant attention by touts serving the various restaurants in the area, as well as by almost every cycle-rickshaw, auto-rickshaw and empty taxi. It was frustrating beyond belief, and I was glad to eventually get back into our protected zone near the hotel.
We did not pre-purchase tickets, so the next morning we had to go to the ticket office first, which happens to be 3/4km east of the gate at Shilpgram, which opens at sunrise. We made our way there to find we were quite near the front of the line, with a security guard nearby to keep things orderly. After a brief waiting period, the booth opened. Immediately, tour guide leaders jumped ahead of the line, slipped the cashiers money and walked away with handfuls of tickets. By now the security guard had disappeared, so it left the people in line justifiably frustrated. Because of the constant stream of tour guides, our spot in the line took a while to finally reach the booth. When we finally got our tickets (1000 rupees for tourists, 40 for locals.) we moved to the crowd around a nearby table that was dispensing bottles of water and shoe protectors to wear when entering the Taj. There was little decorum here: once again the guides were pushing-in and flashing out money to get served first, and I had to force my attention on one server before he would actually hand me the items that are included in the ticket price. Finally, we made our way back to the east gate, where a substantial line up was waiting — despite the fact that both the gate and the ticket office were supposed to open at the same time. Eventually, the line moved forward, men and women in separate lines. We went through metal detectors and bag searches, and soon we were standing in the forecourt by the Royal Gate.
The forecourt is in front of the Royal Gate, and it is where the east, west and south entry gates all converge. The Royal gate funnels all visitors into the Taj Mahal garden and the first great view of the Taj Mahal itself.
Finding a clear view, without people in the image is near impossible.
You can get an impression of how large the Taj is by looking at the people at the distant building entrance. No photographs (especially mine) can truly prepare you for this amazing monument. I was originally tempted to skip it as an overhyped tourist trap, but I’m glad we went ahead to visit it.
The whole building and minarets are clad in white marble, so they glow with the colour of the light of the moment. Agra suffers from similar smog effects as Delhi, creating some interesting light, sometimes beyond the usual ‘golden hour’.
The Taj Mahal does not stand in isolation. To the west is a red sandstone mosque, the Kau Ban, and mirroring it on the east is the Mihman Khana, an assembly hall. The mosque is not visited with the same crowds as the Taj, so it is a good area for a photographer to spend some time.
The wall around the Taj Mahal complex provides some interesting views and some interesting characters!
There is much to explore at the Taj Mahal complex, and we spent about half a day there before leaving, and the crowds kept coming…