Monday, August 29, 2011

Chasing the Taj Mahal Dream 3 - Up Close With a World Wonder

Reflecting pool

In this post, we try to graze the surface in re-examining the Taj Mahal the way we saw it. Though didactic details are a bit tedious, this post will focus more on a layman’s perspective in as much as pictographic display doesn’t really give justice to the precise architectural form of the Taj. What was it really like? In bits and pieces, we delve into the amazing artistry of the mausoleum. “Maganda ba talaga?” (Was it really beautiful?) was how a friend would egg us on its real merits. If there were 50 things in life that should not be missed, in my book, this would be among my top 5.

At several times of the day, the white Makrana marbles take a yellowish hue as the bright Indian sun gleams its light over the structure, thus many of the photos has the Taj Mahal in several shades of light yellow. Others have attributed this to environmental pollution, i.e. acid rain. In the past, they’ve singled out the Mathura Oil Refinery. As a result of this, the government has set up an anti-pollution zone (called Taj Trapezium Zone) covering a 10,400 kilometer radius surrounding the monument where strict emissions standards are in place. This is why autorickshaws are kept at bay and have to keep their distance from the Taj Mahal. These CNG’s can only drive from a certain distance.

Most mughal architecture employs the use of red sandstones, thus its probably one of the most common feature when one mentions “Mughal architecture”. Emperor Shah Jahan wanted something unique, something that to him denoted “purity” and what could better represent this than white marbles? These marbles, octagonal in form, stand on a square base (plinth). An “iwan” – the arched doorway – welcomes visitors. Just at the top of this is the onion-shaped dome with a lotus design. At each side of this main doorway, we find two smaller arches that function as balconies stacked under and above each other.

In this photo (above) we see the base of the Taj Mahal in its octagonal form. This particular corner slab has balconies, one on each floor. These corner slabs are found at each side of the architectural form, giving the structure its octagonal, i.e. "8-sided", form.

Spandrel detail.

The calligraphy found at the great gate, adorning the archway (see previous post for photo) has been inlaid with black marbles or jaspers (crypto-crystalline quarts usually colored red). Throughout the complex, passages from the Koran are used as decorative elements since anthropometric figures are frowned upon in mosques and Muslim mausoleums. These tasteful calligraphies were created by Abdul Haq in 1609. Shah Jahan was so impressed with Haq's work that he eventually conferred him the title of "Amanat Khan" as a reward for his "dazzling virtuosity".


Great men from this time and place used to rename subordinates as they see fit when they perform laudable feats. In fact, Shah Jahan himself was renamed as such by his father Jahangir. His name rightfully meant "King of the World". Move over, Leonardo di Caprio. For the most part, he deserved every accolade as he ruled the Mughal empire at its peak. And really now, check out Shah Jahan's historical ancestry: he is a descendant of Genghis Khan, emperor of the Mongol Empire; and of Tamerlane; of Emperor Charlemagne, et. al. Even Shah Jahan himself was prone to re-christenings.

Though earlier married, Shah Jahan took his 3rd wedding vow at age 15 to a 14 year old beauty who so dazzled him. She was the grand daughter of a Persian noble. Her name was Arjumand Banu Begum. He found her "appearance and character elect among all women of that time" and gave her the title "Mumtaz Mahal" which meant "Jewel of the Palace". All through Shah Jahan's reign, Mumtaz was so devoted to her husband, she never had political ambitions. She traveled with him whenever he was to lead some conquests and political campaigns. In fact, it was in one of such campaigns that, despite heavy with a child, she joined her husband and eventually died of child birth. The emperor was gutted.

A Jali screen (above) surrounds the cenotaphs - 2 of them stand beside each other, representing the tombs of Mumtaz and her beloved emperor Shah Jahan.

The marble dome that surmounts the tomb rises to a height of 115 ft (35 meters). It sits on a cylindrical drum that accentuates this bullous structure. The top has a lotus design, while 4 smaller domed chattris (kiosks) are found framing this onion-shaped center piece. These kiosks open through the roof of the tomb illuminating the interiors of the mausoleum.

There are thinner spires called guldastas shown above. At the top of each dome are gilded finials, i.e. small, ornamental, terminal features at the top of the domes. They were originally made of gold, but has since been replaced with gilded bronze in the early 19th century.

The photo above shows one of the 4 minarets that adorn each corner of the base plinth of the Taj Mahal. This minaret is found at the back of the mausoleum, facing the Yamuna River. Four minarets are found at each corner of the plinth (base). They rise 130 feet tall (40 meters). They were designed as working towers where muezzins used to call the faithful for prayers. Each minaret has 3 balconies encircling the towers, the topmost seems like a lookout post, topped by a chattri.

Idyllic scenery at the back of the Taj Mahal across the holy river. Its foggy appearance remains most of the day which underlines the lingering pollution that besets Agra. However, this also provides a dreamy backdrop to its scenery like this photo below which looks like a water color dream.

The Taj Mahal is cloistered by red sandstone gates with princely guard houses (see above) typical of Mughal structures and their indo-saracenic form.

Floral designs adorn the arches of the gates.

Ustad Ahmad Lahouri was appointed the chief architect in the construction of the Taj Mahal, although he had a couple more associates. Typically Persian, he constantly consulted the emperor in every structural detail. Jahan even held daily meetings to see through the construction. For 21 long years, they persevered. Court chronicles point to Jahan's "appropriate alterations to whatever the skillful architects designed after many thoughts, and asked competent questions." He knew exactly what he wanted and how he wanted it done.

Love indeed inspires masterpieces.

This is the Eye in the Sky!

Balconies found at the red sandstone gates.

These hallways, mostly empty, connect to the gates from each side.

A cycle rickshaw driver waits outside the gates of the Taj Mahal.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Chasing A Taj Mahal Dream 2 - Loving Like No Other

It would be an early day fraught with anticipation. I took my LP to my hotel’s rooftop restaurant to read up over omelet, chicken strips and fried rice. While waiting for food, I gazed at the Taj Ganji skyline: there was a man deep in his early morning reverie; a school of macaque monkeys; the uneven rises of buildings swathed in vivid colors, and the majestic Taj Mahal and Agra Fort from a distance. The scenery had perked me up like a potent coffee brew. Minutes later, I took decisive steps as I made my way to the ultimate symbol of devotion, the Taj Mahal. I had been daydreaming of a leisurely walk towards this world wonder, and this experience culminates exactly like walking into a dream.

At half past 7, I found the mausoleum walls from the East Gate. The Taj Mahal is open daily except Fridays from 6 AM to 7 PM. Not long after, I was queuing for my entrance ticket which was a hefty 750 rupees ($16.50). I had to proceed to the cloak room after securing my ticket as they had to check out my backpack. Several items were removed from inside including a chocolate bar, an iPod, a phone charger (which I forgot to leave inside my room). They were quite thorough with their inspection. Once cleared, I was ready to move away when they insisted on a “donation”. Somehow they forgot the sign that read “free of charge” beside the cloak room counter. Didn't 750 rupees suffice? I handed, once again, 5 rupees, but they shook their head. After parting with 10 rupees, I finally stepped into the East Gate of the Taj Mahal.

Early morning reverie.

Taj Ganj from my rooftop restaurant.

Lonely Planet preparation over breakfast.

Walk to the Taj Mahal.

Furry friends are seen at several rooftops. They are an endemic presence in Agra.

Ticket booth - 750 rupees for foreigners (broken down to: 250 entrance, 500 toll tax). Video cameras will require an additional 25 rupees. Locals pay 20 rupees. However, use of toilet inside the Taj complex is free of charge for foreigners while locals pay 2 rupees. Yipee! LOL

East Gate entrance

The walk towards the courtyard.

One of the gates, these sandstone buildings are gateways to portions of the complex.

In and out of the gate; this one leads to and faces the Taj Mahal.

I was conscious of the beating of my heart. Despite another thorough security check at the gate (that looked like those Mughal gates from Jama Masjid Mosque in Old Delhi), I almost couldn’t contain my excitement. Once inside, you're ushered into a 4-cornered courtyard - not quite the Taj just yet. At 7:30 AM, there was already a steady stream of crowd going through another gate directly leading to the famous structure; a gateway to the main complex. I stepped into the arched doorway and gasped as I saw what should rightfully be one of man’s most distinctive architectural achievements.

The Taj Mahal glistens in its white glory; its onion-shaped dome is framed by huge pishtaqs (vaulted archways); 4 chattris beside the dome; 4 minarets (used during its heyday by muezzins to call the Islamic faithful to prayer); and a pedestal plinth providing the base of the mausoleum. I was in awe of its grandeur and for a while, it felt like a dream. Despite a steady stream of tourists around me, I oddly realized that this singular moment belonged to me. Though the charbagh (garden) has been modified into an English lawn instead of the precise design of mughal gardens, this hasn't diminished the structure’s magical spell. I sat on a tiled elevation facing the Taj oblivious to the merriment and congestion around me and for a full 10 minutes savored this fleeting moment.

I was transported into an epochal period of valiant nawabs and ambitious explorers. Did they love as deeply and as fearlessly? How do I love thee. Let me count the ways. In India, it isn’t implied in vocal posturings but manifested by offering the most precious objects they could get their hands on - in slabs of white marbles from Makrana, Rajasthan; Punjabi jaspers (an opaque crystalline quartz), Tibetan turquoise, Afghanistan lapis lazuli (a semi-precious stone with an intense blue color), Sri Lankan sapphires, Saudi Arabian carnelians, a labor force of 20,000, and 21 years of construction that roughly cost 32 million rupees ($701,000) between 1632 to 1653.

Shah Jahan, the 5th Mughal Emperor (after Babur, Humayun, Akbar, and Jahangir) took his bereavement to artistic heights by commissioning a lavish mausoleum for his dearly departed Mumtaz Mahal, the emperor’s third wife who died while giving birth to their 14th child (Gahaura Begum).

The mausoleum wasn't just a structural homage to a wife he loved a thousand times more than his other wives. It was a symbol of love, a source of solace, and place of redemption for the broken hearted and the down trodden. Shah Jahan described the Taj in his own words:

“Should guilty seek asylum here, like one pardoned, he becomes free from sin.

Should a sinner make his way to this mansion, all his past sins are to be washed away.

The sight of this mansion creates sorrowing sighs;

The sun and moon shed tears from their eyes.

In this world, this edifice has been made; To display thereby the creator’s glory.”

Nothing epitomizes the universal concept of second chances better than how emperor Shah Jahan perceived the Taj Mahal to be. With its ethereal beauty, it’s easy to fathom why he thought so.

The main iwan (arched entrance).

Shoe rack beside the raised platform.

Cover up.

Colorful saris on display as Indian women make their way up the platform. This platform leads to the main iwan of the mausoleum (entrance shown below). I was told that these garments aren't actually saris, but a "shalwarkameez" - a three-piece ensemble made up of "shalwar" (pajama), "kameez" (blouse) and "urna" (shawl). Don't you just love details like these. I've been traveling around India (and one of my good friends is Indian) but I've never learned this. Thanks, Peachy! Follow her link from the comment box down below.

I was in a daze walking through the reflecting pool towards the base of the mausoleum. I thought such magnificence is borne out of hyperbole and the romanticized demeanor of sentimental adventurers. I was wrong. Its legendary beauty is all it’s touted to be. I felt privileged to be in its presence.

Upon arrival at the base of the Taj, I saw rows of shoe racks. To climb up the stairs, you have to either remove your shoes or flip-flops or wear these foot gloves over your shoes. The queue to get inside the mausoleum is long (think Eiffel Tower) and requires patience. The funny thing is, the exuberantly decorated tombs of Mumtaz and her king Shah Jahan aren’t even the real thing. The real tombs are located in unadorned crypts down beneath the visible symbolic tombs. Muslim tradition disallows elaborate decoration of graves. If you think you’d have a solemn moment at the artificial crypts, that would be wishful thinking.

Calligraphic art adorns the Taj. These were mostly verses from the Koran since anthropomorphic images (i.e. human forms) are not allowed in mosques and Muslim mausoleums.


My favorite moments were those outside the mausoleum. Nothing beats people-watching; people in several stages of delight. Some 3 million tourists visit the Taj Mahal every year; 200,000 of whom are non-Indians. The immediate and elevated marble base surrounding the mausoleum glistens thus people walk around the complex as they do in the most pristine parks; some of them lie down gazing at the sky.

I went to the back of the Taj (pronounced “Tadz”, not “Tah” the way Ms. Venus Raj does her surname, which is a mystery). I’ve always wondered how it looked from the back. I wasn't disappointed. Yamuna River, the country’s 2nd holiest river after the Ganges, snaked lazily at the back of the Taj Mahal creating a postcard-pretty scenery. Nothing inspires poetry more than natural beauty that’s spilling over.

At exactly 8:45 AM, I received a call from Junaid, my Kashmiri friend. He was checking out if I somehow survived his beloved India. He had been so worried that he made me purchase an Indian sim so he could conveniently verify my whereabouts. I was flattered. Once you've succeeded in bridging an Indian friendship, you shall be regarded as his "brother" for the duration of your charmed lifetime. This is a reflection of the gravity of devotion Indians are capable of, an enviable trait.

I take my hats off to the likes of Shah Jahan, to my friend Junaid, and to the adorable children of India who never fail to offer their sincerest smiles every time I step on their native land.

This is the Eye in the Sky!

Yamuna River (above and below) flows ever so placidly at the back of the Taj Mahal.

Up next: More images from Taj Mahal

Previous post: Chasing A Taj Mahal Dream 1 - From Delhi to Taj Ganj -

Start this 1st Indian Journey with a Harrowing Border Crossing from Bangladesh -

Train Ride from Kolkata to Delhi -

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Chasing A Taj Mahal Dream 1 - From Delhi to Taj Ganj (Agra)

Taj Mahal was a pipe dream. I didn't think it would happen. When it did, it took a lot of planning, and reading. But getting there was a different matter altogether.

Getting an Indian visa from Manila was a tedious process (though the requirements are relatively few): it involves several flight connections (which isn’t cheap) and applying for a visa in Manila is a pain (you have to process your visa in Dasmarinas Village which is time-consuming and painstakingly controlled). From the EDSA gate, a required shuttle ride that takes you to the Embassy will cost P150 ($3.50) - when, in reality, the embassy is just 2 blocks away. You can't take your car either since it's a residential complex of the well heeled. Why the embassy chose to make a posh village as their base is beyond me. The place is relatively inaccessible. Travel companies refuse to accept Indian Visa processing. The ones that did (for a horrendous fee) have stopped accepting.

There are no flights that directly fly to Agra. The main and most popular entry point by air is Delhi, although I chose the cantankerous land border crossing from Bangladesh to Kolkata. The essence of Delhi initially intimidated me, and reading other people’s experiences in Agra only stoked my fear. This makes planning a little tingly - and exciting. It's like jumping into the lion's den to capture a chest full of treasures.

The Taj Mahal stands in the heart of a polluted and industrial city called Agra in the state of Uttar Pradesh (UP). To put this entry in proper perspective, I have to underline some salient facts about the place.

India is a federal conglomeration of states – 28 states and 7 union territories (the capital Delhi belongs to the National Capital Territory), to be exact. Uttar Pradesh lies at the Ganges Plains which is an agricultural haven in northern India, populated by about 200 million people; majority of whom are Hindus. In fact, UP is not just the Cow Belt of the nation, but the Hindu Belt as well. It is India’s most populous state. Another claim to fame is that it has produced more than 50% of the country’s Prime Ministers. Unfortunately, UP hasn’t made leaps and bounds in terms of progress. Power outage (which I’ve experienced twice) is frequent. Most places in UP still struggle with squalor. This includes the city of Agra whereYamuna River (the nation’s second most sacred river), flows through.

More importantly, for tourists, Agra hosts 3 World Heritage Sites: Taj Mahal, Agra Fort and Fatehpur Sikri.


Agra is just 203 kilometers from Delhi, making day trips more than possible. I wanted to soak in the atmosphere of a dream. Despite my earlier reservations, I ventured on spending a few days in Agra. There were several options to get there. The easiest was the trains. But after having endured a protracted train ride from Kolkata to Delhi, I was ready to try their buses. My friend, Junaid advised me against it because taking the train was convenient and faster. Moreover, a lot of things could happen on a bus. I was, of course, pretty sad to say goodbye to my friend whom I met in Dhaka, but I had to move on.

The 2 most common train rides were the Shatabdi Express (which leaves Delhi at 6:15 AM, 2 hours) and the cheaper Taj Express (departs at 6:55 AM, 3 hours). Since it was already past 8, taking the train was out of the question. Junaid saw me off my CNG (an auto-rickshaw that runs on bio-friendly gas). This took me to the Inter State Bus Terminal (ISBT) which turned out to be the wrong terminal. I had to walk out of the complex bearing my heavy backpack, unsure where to go. Where the heck was I anyway?

Thirty minutes and a gallonful of sweat later, I found a taxi that would take me to another terminal that services buses bound for Agra. I had doubts. What I saw was a dirt parcel of land near Nizamuddin Train Station. It didn’t look like a terminal at all. But as I retrieved my backpack from the trunk of my taxi, I saw a craggy, non-AC bus that was about to leave. I ran and asked: “Agra? Agra?” Using complete English sentences tend to complicate matters, from my experience. Every one inside nodded. I was the odd man out. I hopped inside and the “sea parted”. They cleared the way for the bus’ only vacant seat.

I looked at my watch – 2:30 PM! I had wasted a lot of time just to get this ride! I purchased my ticket and handed 200 rupees to the bus assistant. The old man beside me signaled that I still have a change. My fare was 117 rupees ($2.55 or PhP109), which is a far cry from the 400 or 800 rupee fare had I taken a Shatabdi Express train. We would travel for 5 long hours (instead of the train’s 2 hours). But I didn’t mind. It was exciting!


We left there after. I was, once again, in a sea of locals, many of them giving perplexed gazes. But I knew I was in good hands. My seatmate – the old guy – was chummy. He kept offering me stuff, like peanuts (remember never to take food from strangers?). I accepted then pretended to consume them (they were lodged conveniently at the side pocket of my backpack). It’s bad manners to refuse when they are earnestly offered. He said he was an employee at the Radisson Hotel, this was relayed in hand signs. Later, he called the bus assistant and demanded for my change – 83 rupees. I was in good hands, didn’t I say?

The ride was a vibrant movement of people coming and going, people mostly standing along the aisle. At 4:15, we passed by Palwal; 4:40 – Haryana; 5:48 – Mathura which looked like a bustling city. Mathura (Matra) is a destination in itself. By then the sun had gradually ebbed into the horizon, creating a dramatic gleam over a dust bowl of shrubs. As darkness slowly enveloped this corner of India, I was gripped with a dash of anxiety.

Sun setting on northern Indian plain of dust bowl.

Mathura. This photo only courtesy of's vibhu rashmi.


It’s never an easy thing arriving in a strange distant land in the throes of darkness. It conjures the sinister ministrations of the less appealing side of humanity. By 7:30 PM, we passed by Idgah Bus Station (Agra’s major bus terminal). My seatmate and everyone else told me to stay put. "Pay only 20 rupees ($0.50) to your CNG", everyone reminded as though they knew something would transpire. They all knew I was on my way to Taj Ganj, a community that sprouted directly at the southern end of the Taj Mahal. This was a community that initially consisted of artisans, builders and workers making house at the gate of this bulbous mausoleum. It has since become a sinewy, albeit lively and dusty district cramped with guesthouses and narrow alleyways – Agra’s main backpacker joint! If you wanted to stay close to the Taj Mahal, this was the place to be in. The other backpacker’s area is Sadar Bazaar.

Ten minutes from Idgah, I was the lone bus occupant. I kept anxiously looking at the bus assistant and the driver for further instructions, but they kept telling me to stay put. We turned right from Ajmer Road to a narrow street that lead to what I knew later was the Agra Cantonment. I was instructed to get off and wait for a CNG (their yellow-and green tuktuk). I was starting to worry. The Cantonment was almost deserted and I was the sole living being in a dark and deserted intersection. Ten minutes later, a CNG (compressed natural gas) transporting 3 other guys stopped for me. I asked how much. “Twenty rupees,” he said. So far, so good. My LP mentioned that it should cost me15 rupees for short rides within the town. I was supposed to be in Taj Ganj already – or was I?

Destination: Shanti Lodge, a guesthouse recommended by both Lonely Planet and Rough Guides. The driver knew the place. He suddenly blurted, “Fifty rupees.” Did I have a choice? I was in the middle of nowhere. I nodded, knowing fully well I could get mugged by my driver and his friends. In less than 10 minutes, I was deposited in front of Shanti. I retrieved my backpack, then the driver demanded, “100 rupees! ($2.19)” From the agreed 20 to 50 to 100! Had I stayed a minute longer, it would have exponentially multiplied. I was too tired to disagree. Somehow I expected this to happen.

View of Taj Ganj from Shanti Lodge's roof deck.

Night scene in Agra's Taj Ganj: brimming with local color.

This photo only courtesy of travelpod's nax.

This beautifully composed photo only courtesy of QT Luong. Please visit for more of the artist's splendid work.

Vegetable Fried Rice (40 rupees), Sweet and Sour Chicken (80 rupees) and a bottle of coke (15 rupees).

Shanti Lodge

My comfortable bed at Shanti Lodge.

It was already 8 PM when I checked in for a room. I was tired after a 5 hour journey and a bit frustrated from my CNG ride. I saw grime under my nails, coating nastily like a scourge. Shanti Lodge has been recommended for several things: it’s cheap (“you can’t beat the price,” says LP), it’s close to the south gate, and it has a serviceable restaurant at the roof deck with a great view overlooking the Taj Mahal and the Agra Fort. In fact, LP mentioned it twice for the accommodation and the restaurant. The foyer was small but inviting. Since it was November, and Delhi had been chilly, I opted for a non-AC. Why pay for something I won’t use, right? At 400 rupees, it was indeed hard to beat!

My room was located at the third floor. My bed could accommodate two. It looked comfortable and clean. Even the duvet was beckoning me to rest. The tiled floor was spotless. However, when I checked out the bathroom, I had the nastiest case of chill, like a synapse suddenly running current through my spine. (see photos below) I wasn't pleased with the bathroom. It didn't have toilet paper or a garbage bin, but then what do I expect from a room worth 400 rupees ($8.80 or PhP373), right? I contented myself with the fact that I won’t be spending most of my time in the bathroom, heaven forbid.


Later that night, since I saw the other beds supplied with towel (I peeped), I asked the minder for one. But instead of waiting for him, he took me with him and we navigated through the guest house’s intricate hallways I was almost breathless. The guy escorted me to the laundry room and handed me my precious towel. This was either a lesson of some sort (never to ask for a towel) or he was just being hospitable by touring me around the hotel at 9 PM. Three days later, the guy would joyously greet me with a “my friend” every time he’d see me. It was a frustrating time, to be honest about it. But mostly, I was also hungry.

Mirror, mirror on the wall, where do I throw my trash?

This is what 400 rupees ($8.80 or PhP373) will get you: mildewy shower head (left) and stained sink (right) and I don't even have the heart to describe the toilet bowl and walls down below.

After a quick visit at the internet shop (40 rupees or $0.88 an hour), I went up the roof deck where the restaurant was located. True enough, it boasted of a magnificent view of Taj Ganj and from a distance, the majestic slumbering Taj Mahal. Every morsel of regret evaporated. This was worth all the trouble and anxiety.

I ordered sweet and sour chicken (“not spicy please”), vegetable fried rice and a bottle of coke. Both were beautifully served on big silver cups. While waiting for food, I gazed at the dimly-lit moon. And suddenly felt a presence beside me! “Ohmygod!” I shouted! A macaque monkey, hairy and ravenous, was standing on my table - inches from my face, ready to secure the early arrival of my chicken meal! Agra has hundreds of stray monkeys. A waiter shooed it away while I gathered my wits back to propriety. Late dinner was jittery.

I had been welcomed in Agra in the most peculiar ways than I would have expected. I’ll get my vengeance tomorrow, I vowed.

This is the Eye in the Sky!

The view from Shanti's roof deck restaurant.

Delhi to Agra

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