Agra and the end of a big loop
Although we started our trip in Delhi, we could not visit the Taj Mahal back then because we needed to catch our friend Victor in Lucknow. The itinerary then took shape and we promised ourselves we’d leave Agra for last, finishing our big loop around most of the country.
So here we are, with a mix of joy, sadness and accomplishment to finish 3 months in this vast nation whose surface we have barely scratched. If in our recent visits around Rajasthan we had noticed more touristy hassle than usual, in Agra this is like a national sport; we haven’t even set foot on the last step of the station’s stairs when a troop of some 15 rickshaw drivers go with the now familiar “Hello, Sir, where are you going?; Rickshaw, Madam, this way; Hello! Cheap taxi, Sir, come with me“.
Tickets and unexpected burocracy
The whole area surrounding the Taj Mahal is closed to traffic for security purposes and our hotel happens to be just inside that area, near the South entrance of the monument, so we need to walk a bit. What a lucky moment for this, just when it starts to rain cats and dogs. Since we want to see sunrise at the Taj, this isn’t the most ideal situation. Indeed, when we wake up to check the sky at 4 am, it is overcast, so we postpone the visit to our last day wishing for more luck and going back to bed.
A bit less tired, our troop goes to buy the tickets for the Taj Mahal. Turns out the tickets are only sold in an office far away from the entrance. They don’t open early, so it was a good choice to stay sleeping that morning.
This also gives us time for the new improvised mission, code name is “Perfect picture”. Thing is, in the majority of Indian monuments it is forbidden to use a camera tripod. Every time we asked why, nobody was able to give a satisfactory reason. Carlos is not happy with this and after some research and a few calls, we are invited to visit the building of the Archaeological Survey of India. The official in charge—who is in a meeting in his office—meets with a surprised Carlos, makes a few questions and once satisfied dispatches us to another room with his approval. There, a civil servant asks Carlos more questions and finally prints an official permit that allows him to use a tripod from days X to Z in the monuments written down. Hooray!
We put the tripod permit to test in Agra’s fort. As expected, at the security control the tripod finds its first blockage, followed by proof of permission that generates confusion among the guards and a subsequent invitation to enter the manager’s office. As we are thinking we might not be able to use it, we find ourselves talking to a very kind person who quickly checks the letter, does some small talk and refunds part of the entrance fee to the fort, wishing us a very pleasant visit. Not bad!
This excellent complex of richly decorated halls, rooms, gardens, baths and even mosques has an unhappy side to it, because Emperor Shah Jahan (who ordered the construction of the Taj Mahal) was imprisoned here by his son, Aurangzeb. From the fort, Shah Jahan could see the white marble mausoleum where the body of his deceased and loved wife rested.
As in the Mirror Hall in Jaipur, Carlos remembered being able to enter certain areas now restricted to the public twelve years ago. Still, there is a lot of lovely rooms to see, and the view of the Taj is beautiful.
View of the Taj from Mehtab Bagh
Outside of the Agra Fort, an old rickshaw driver tries to convince us for a ride to see the sunset and the Taj Mahal from the other side of the river, at the Mehtab Bagh park. He is really an experienced professional since somehow manages to convince us without much room for negotiation. At the park, of course tripod is not allowed, but once again our tripod permit does its magic, confusing the guards for some minutes until they let us pass. The sunset is nowhere to be seen because of the clouds, but we manage to take some nice pictures and see the Taj Mahal from close for the first time.
Finally, The Taj Mahal
The Taj Mahal needs no presentation. The biggest artistic proof of love in human history would mark the end of our Indian travels. At least for now.
By 4:30 am some people are already at the South gate, tickets in hand, to see the Taj at sunrise. Women in one queue, men in another, there are digital signs listing the rules and forbidden items within the monument, which of course include tripods. As Carlos’ turn arrives, he has to show the permit and explain the story in front of everyone. He is taken on a side while different guards, confused, talk and circulate the paper among them, call someone on the walkie and finally someone says it is ok. We can finally proceed. We realize no one has brought a tripod; no one but Carlos, that is. Not a minute has gone by as he is setting it up, that another guard comes screaming it’s not allowed. After unfolding the letter again, the guard approves and leaves.
The Taj is right there, this is the familiar image of the Taj… That everyone wants to take a snap of.
There are so many people that we need some time until we can finally have our pic taken. Filip and Carlos don’t feel especially eager to have it, but Irene wants one. However, we agree on putting the most stupid face.
We approach a little more when again a different watchman comes running. This time he is not convinced with the permit, so Carlos has to accompany him back to the entrance. This is crazy. When everything’s clear again, we continue our visit. Wouldn’t it have been easier to just carry a special tag or something?
At first Irene feels a bit disappointed at the Taj. She has been dreaming to see it for so long, after Carlos’ descriptions from his visit 12 years ago, and the numerous annoying interruptions because of the tripod start to get on our nerves. After all, who could have sneaked a tripod through the metal detector security check? However, from up close, she starts to change her mind. Not only the mausoleum, but also the other buildings around it are a harmonious group of magnificent small details, crafted with such a good taste and patience, it is hard to not agree that Shah Jahan knew how to honor his wife.
It was hard to concentrate on the romance, though, because after a while we realize one guard is actually following us. We confirm with him he needs to oversee our actions, in case we want to use the tripod against something I guess… The poor guy sticks with us for the 3 or 4 hours we spend in the huge complex until we are finally under the exit door. Then he demands Carlos goes with him back into another building. Why do they want to recheck again if we are leaving? Not without some grumbling, Carlos finds himself sitting in front of the director of the Taj. Surprisingly, big boss asks if his visit was satisfactory and if he was able to perform the work he needed before letting him leave.
It wasn’t easy, but mission code named “Perfect picture” is accomplished!
Fun fact: So exceptional is to see someone using a tripod at the Taj, that another tourist in the train station that night remembered Carlos and congratulated him for it. So know, friends, it is possible to bring a tripod in the Taj Mahal if you request a permit at Agra’s Archaeological Survey of India’s office. It is free, but not from constant hassle 😉