Just the name Taj Mahal evokes images of marble grandeur, perfect symmetry, pristine beauty, and eternal love. The actual place is all that – and so much more.
The Taj Mahal is one of the Seven Wonders of the World, and also a UNESCO World Heritage site. Many visitors combine the Taj with other destinations in India. One of the safest and loveliest ways to go is on a cruise; ships call at ports such as Mumbai, Mangalore and Goa, with inland shore excursions to Agra. Our Silversea Cruise on the Silver Wind offered a 3-day land adventure to the Taj Mahal. We left the Silversea ship in Mumbai, flew to Agra, stopped in New Delhi, then returned to Cochin (Kochi) to re-board.
Approaching the Taj Mahal is an awe-inducing experience by itself. The symmetry of the four minarets surrounding the domed mausoleum, the long central reflecting pool and the two sandstone outbuildings is uncanny. Our Silversea tour guide had been to the Taj previously and he was very knowledgeable, courteous, and patient, as everyone was a first time visitor.
The complex consists of five parts: the main gateway, the gardens, the mosque, the rest house and the mausoleum. Any website will tell you about the glorious carved stone and marble walls, jeweled mosaics and gorgeous flowing calligraphy throughout. But here are some interesting facts you may not know.
As you pass through the arch in the main gateway, look up to see a clever optical illusion: the letters appear to be the same size over the entire arch. In fact, they vary in actual size; the measurements of the carved letters were carefully calculated so that they appear uniform to the eye from below.
The arrangement of the gardens is also no accident. This is no untamed confusion of wildflowers. The garden is based on the concept of ‘paradise garden’ (i.e., the Garden of Eden) which, according to Islamic texts, is overflowing with trees, flowers and plants. But notice the interesting incorporation of the number four, considered the holiest number in Islam. The entire garden is divided into four parts, with two marble pools bisected by fountains, and each of these sections is further divided into fours. In each of the four quarters of the gardens, there are 16 flowerbeds. Legend has it that each flowerbed contains 400 plants!
On the western side of the mausoleum stands a Mosque made of red sandstone. According to Muslim law, a mausoleum was required to have a place of worship nearby. The mosque faces east, toward Mecca. On the eastern side stands the Mosque’s mirror image, the Rest House. Some say the rest house was built solely to provide symmetry, but it must surely have had some purpose — perhaps accommodating important visitors or as a gathering hall for pilgrims. In any case, the two buildings add to the harmonious balance of the complex.
Inside the mausoleum, one can’t help noticing the magnificent carvings, furnishings and mosaics. Even the tombs of Shah Jahan and his beloved bride Mumtaz Mahal are richly decorated. But these are false graves! Muslim tradition forbids elaborate decorations on graves. The actual graves are in a chamber below the main floor, unavailable to visitors and fairly plain.
In 2004, the Indian government lifted a 20 year ban on viewing the Taj Mahal at night. It is now allowed, however visiting times are extremely limited. It’s open only 5 nights each month (on the full moon night plus two days before and two days after) except on Fridays or the month of Ramzan, only for 4 hours per night (8:30 pm – 12:30 am). The number of people admitted per night and the length of night tours is also severely restricted. But it is a stunning sight. While the changing position of the sun produces dazzling changing colors, the Taj absolutely sparkles white under the moonlight.
A few other hints for visiting the Taj Mahal:
Haggling with local souvenir vendors is expected.
Bring bottled water with you wherever you go in India. Wear a hat and sunglasses, especially if you are sun-sensitive.
India is a relatively conservative nation. Short skirts and shorts may be offensive in some places. Kissing and embracing in public may also offend locals.
Photography is allowed only in certain spots at the Taj Mahal complex, and there may be a fee to use your camera.
“A massive marble structure, without weight, as if formed of ether, perfectly rational and at the same time entirely decorative, it is perhaps the greatest art work which the forming spirit of mankind has ever brought forth.”
German philosopher, Count Hermann Keyserling
The Taj Mahal is arguably (or not!) the most beautiful and perfect building in the world. The fact that it was built as a memorial to love makes it that much more breathtaking. The excursion to the Taj Mahal from Silversea Cruises was more than worth the cost of the cruise.