In those rare situations where a monument becomes the identity of the country and of the city in which it stands, it surpasses the role of being a mere tourist destination. It grows beyond and defines the past and the present of that land. And that’s precisely what the Taj Mahal does for Agra.
In every alley and bylane of Agra, you run into a constant reminder of that magnificent structure shimmering in the glow of the passing day (or the night). In those Taj Ganj shops with their Taj Mahal miniatures and key chains; in the cameras of the photographers who will take just a little money to click a trick picture of you touching the peak of the monument; and even in the irate grunts of the auto-rickshaws taking people to and fro to see what will leave them awestruck.
An architecture student once told me that the interesting fact about the Taj Mahal is that it’s just in the right proportion and everything in the design is an absolute necessity. “You remove one element and the structure loses its charm.” Yes. There’s absolutely nothing about the Taj that any mortal soul would dare to change in their right mind.
The first time I saw the Taj Mahal (about eight years ago), I couldn’t click pictures. I had made all those great plans of photographing the monument from some different angle, something that would maybe give a new meaning to this mausoleum. But when I finally saw it before my eyes, all I could manage was to sit down and stare at it. Maybe it was the sheer magnitude. No, there are no words to define exactly what you feel when you see the Taj Mahal for the first time.
But to get to see the monument of love on a full-moon night! Well, that’s something else altogether. Shahjahan clearly meant the Taj Mahal to be gazed upon lovingly only after the sun has disappeared down the horizon. Thank the Archaeological Survey of India for understanding that and allowing for what they call the ‘Taj Mahal night viewing’. From 8.30pm to 12.30am each night for a few consecutive days every month, small batches of people are allowed inside the Taj Mahal for a miserly 30 minutes. And it’s heaven there on.
Even though the night viewing of the Taj is something you wouldn’t want to miss, let me tell you that this journey is sprinkled with its own share of inconveniences. Security has been beefed up to inhuman levels and it might get difficult for you to move about freely with all those check points and an ever-present scrutinising gaze.
The biggest letdown – and I’m amazed no one mentioned this before I finally reached the Taj Mahal – is that night viewing visitors have to stop almost as soon as they set foot inside the main entrance, Darwaza-i rauza. That’s the spot from where you must gaze and gaze for a whole half-an-hour, longing to get a little closer to the monument but not allowed to. Gone were my dreams of photographing milky white marble bathed in moonlight. From this position of several hundred metres away, all I could manage for my ‘Taj by the full moon’ album were some grainy shots. What the eyes could feast on, the camera lens could not. Maybe some things can’t be captured by technology. You have to make the journey in person.
When to go: The full list of night viewing dates from 2015 are at http://www.up-tourism.com/taj_mahal.htm
Entry: Tickets go on sale 24 hours before each viewing date and need to be purchased in person from the ASI office in Agra (Tel: 0562-2227261-64). No provision for online booking. The viewing takes place in eight batches (of 30 minutes each) from 8.30pm, with a maximum of 50 people in each batch. A total of 400 tickets are available for every night viewing date and one individual is allowed to go in only once. Ticket price: For Indians, Rs 510 (adult) and Rs 500 (3-15 years); for foreign nationals Rs 750.
Where to stay: Since Taj Mahal night viewing tickets are like gold dust, you need to have a plan B in case you don’t get a ticket. Some hotels in the vicinity offer good views of the Taj Mahal from their rooftops. Try hotelSidhartha (non-AC doubles from Rs 850; Taj Mahal Western Gate; Tel: 0562-2230901/2331238, 09719456998, 919808321973, 9760408828; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com; website: www.hotelsidhartha.com), hotelSaniya Palace (standard doubles from Rs 800; Taj Mahal South Gate; Tel: 9897220988, 0562-3270199), and hotelTaj Plaza (Taj Mahal East Gate, Shilp Gram, VIP Road; Tel: 0562-6941550/2231010/3294100; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org; website: www.hoteltajplaza.in).
Top tip: Take a good night vision binocular along to see details of the Taj Mahal up close.