Wednesday morning we left the hotel at 7:30 to see the Taj Mahal. (Here's a super quick history of the Taj Mahal.) We wanted to beat both the crowds and the heat. We arrived at the south entrance and met up with Papu so he could talk to somebody he knew and get us in free. (Now, I don't want to say that Indians are cheap, but the admission was only $5 per person and kids under 15 were free. Indian nationals only pay 10 rupees which is like 25 cents.) The Taj Mahal is right in the middle of things. Maybe someplace else is a large entrance that accommodates tour buses and things like that, but I didn't see it. To get to this entrance we drove down a narrow, regular street and just stopped at the gate. Here's a pic of the way we came down. The red archway in the distance is the entrance.
There is a security line before you can enter. Men go through one line and there is a separate one for women where a female attendant searches your bag and pats you down. You can take very little in with you, both for security reasons and to cut down on littering. Once you proceed through the gate, you are in a an area of grounds that are intersected by walkways and bordered by red sandstone buildings which used to serve as guest houses for visiting dignitaties. At this point, the Taj Mahal is not yet in view. There is still one more gate through which to travel. Here is the view from the entrance looking towards the final gate.
As you approach the gate, suddenly, there through the archway, completely centered in the distance is the Taj Mahal. There air is hazy and the effect is that the Taj floats before you like a dream or a mirage. The contrast of the gleaming white marble and the red stone buildings is stunning. It's almost surreal to see it hovering in the distance. No matter how many pictures you've seen of it, they don't do it justice.
The Taj is surrounded by expansive grounds. Everything is symmetrical: a gate to the west and a matching one to the east. Lawns, fountains, and red sandstone walkways are laid out in perfect precision. To me, (not surprisingly) the effect of all the symmetry is a sense of extreme peacefulness.
On the building itself, the designs are made with inlaid stones and gems. Our guide showd us how, when the sun glints off the edge, the stones sparkle like glass. Apparently the sight under a full moon is something to behold. You can go inside the building and see the top of the tomb. The sun only filters in there, but the guide took a penlight and held it flush against the marble. He slowly slid it down across the wall and when the light hit the inlaid designs, they glowed like fire. I think I could've stood there all day watching that.
Here's a family portrait. (Yes, we're all wearing Michigan clothes. Wanna make something of it? We're hoping to submit the pic to the alumni magazine.)
The Taj Mahal is only a few blocks away from where my mother-in-law grew up and she told of walking through the grounds on her way to school. Often in the evenings, her family would come and picnic on the lawns. Now, her family home has been leased to the government and the military guards who staff the Taj use it as living quarters. We walked the few blocks to her house and were able to go inside. It's three stories, built around a courtyard. When it was first built, it was the tallest building in the area. Ritu said that when he was little and came to India, he knew that if he got lost, all he had to do was say his Grandfather's name and someone would bring him straight home. Although many building have been built in the area since then, you can still see the Taj in the distance from the rooftop.