The magical allure of the Taj Mahal draws tourists to Agra like moths to a wondrous flame. And despite the hype, it’s every bit as good as you’ve heard. But the Taj is not a stand-alone attraction. The legacy of the Mughal empire has left a magnificent fort and a liberal sprinkling of fascinating tombs and mausoleums; and there’s also fun to be had in the bustling chowks (marketplaces).
The downside comes in the form of hordes of rickshaw-wallahs, touts, unofficial guides and souvenir vendors, whose persistence can be infuriating at times.
Many tourists choose to visit Agra on a whistle-stop day trip from Delhi. This is a shame. There is much more of interest here than can be seen in that time. In fact, you can enjoy several days’ sightseeing with side trips to the superb ruined city of Fatehpur Sikri and the Hindu pilgrimage centre of Mathura.
Agra sits on a large bend in the holy Yamuna River. The fort and the Taj, 2km apart, both overlook the river on different parts of the bend. The main train and bus stations are a few kilometres southwest.
The labourers and artisans who toiled on the Taj set up home immediately south of the mausoleum, creating the congested network of alleys known as Taj Ganj, now a popular area for budget travellers.
The Taj Mahal
Poet Rabindranath Tagore described it as ‘a teardrop on the cheek of eternity’, Rudyard Kipling as ‘the embodiment of all things pure’, while its creator, Emperor Shah Jahan, said it made ‘the sun and the moon shed tears from their eyes’. Every year, tourists numbering more than twice the population of Agra pass through its gates to catch a once-in-a-lifetime glimpse of what is widely considered the most beautiful building in the world. Few leave disappointed.
The Taj was built by Shah Jahan as a memorial for his third wife, Mumtaz Mahal, who died giving birth to their 14th child in 1631. The death of Mumtaz left the emperor so heartbroken that his hair is said to have turned grey virtually overnight. Construction of the Taj began the following year and, although the main building is thought to have been built in eight years, the whole complex was not completed until 1653. Not long after it was finished Shah Jahan was overthrown by his son Aurangzeb and imprisoned in Agra Fort where, for the rest of his days, he could only gaze out at his creation through a window. Following his death in 1666, Shah Jahan was buried here alongside Mumtaz.
In total, some 20,000 people from India and Central Asia worked on the building. Specialists were brought in from as far away as Europe to produce the exquisite marble screens and pietra dura (marble inlay work) made with thousands of semiprecious stones.
The Taj was designated a World Heritage Site in 1983 and looks as immaculate today as when it was first constructed – though it underwent a huge restoration project in the early 20th century.
Entry & Information
Note: the Taj is closed every Friday to anyone not attending prayers at the mosque.
The Taj can be accessed through the west, south and east gates. Tour groups tend to enter through the east and west gates. Independent travellers tend to use the south gate, which is nearest to Taj Ganj, the main area for budget accommodation, and generally has shorter queues than the west gate. The east gate has the shortest queues of the lot, but this is because the ticket office is inconveniently located a 1km walk away at Shilpgram, a dire government-run tourist centre. There are separate queues for men and women at all three gates.
Cameras and videos are permitted but you cannot take photographs inside the mausoleum itself, and the areas in which you can take videos are quite limited.
Do not forget to retrieve your free 500ml bottle of water and shoe covers (included in Taj ticket price). If you keep your ticket you get small entry-fee reductions when visiting Agra Fort, Fatehpur Sikri, Akbar’s Tomb or the Itimad-ud-Daulah on the same day. You can also store your luggage for free beside the ticket offices and pick up an audio guide (₹118).
From the south gate, entry to the inner compound is through a very impressive, 30m, red-sandstone gateway on the south side of the forecourt, which is inscribed with verses from the Quran.
Inside the Grounds
Once inside, the ornamental gardens are set out along classical Mughal charbagh (formal Persian garden) lines – a square quartered by watercourses, with an ornamental marble plinth at its centre. When the fountains are not flowing, the Taj is beautifully reflected in the water.
The Taj Mahal itself stands on a raised marble platform at the northern end of the ornamental gardens, with its back to the Yamuna River. Its raised position means that the backdrop is only sky – a masterstroke of design. Purely decorative 40m-high white minarets grace each corner of the platform. After more than three centuries they are not quite perpendicular, but they may have been designed to lean slightly outwards so that in the event of an earthquake they would fall away from the precious Taj. The red-sandstone mosque to the west is an important gathering place for Agra’s Muslims. The identical building to the east, the jawab , was built for symmetry.
The central Taj structure is made of semitranslucent white marble, carved with flowers and inlaid with thousands of semiprecious stones in beautiful patterns. A perfect exercise in symmetry, the four identical faces of the Taj feature impressive vaulted arches embellished with pietra dura scrollwork and quotations from the Quran in a style of calligraphy using inlaid jasper. The whole structure is topped off by four small domes surrounding the famous bulbous central dome.
Directly below the main dome is the Cenotaph of Mumtaz Mahal , an elaborate false tomb surrounded by an exquisite perforated marble screen inlaid with dozens of different types of semiprecious stones. Beside it, offsetting the symmetry of the Taj, is the Cenotaph of Shah Jahan , who was interred here with little ceremony by his usurping son Aurangzeb in 1666. Light is admitted into the central chamber by finely cut marble screens. The real tombs of Mumtaz Mahal and Shah Jahan are in a locked basement room below the main chamber and cannot be viewed.
With the Taj Mahal overshadowing it, one can easily forget that Agra has one of the finest Mughal forts in India. Construction of the massive red-sandstone fort, on the bank of the Yamuna River, was begun by Emperor Akbar in 1565.
Further additions were made, particularly by his grandson Shah Jahan, using his favourite building material – white marble. The fort was built primarily as a military structure, but Shah Jahan transformed it into a palace, and later it became his gilded prison for eight years after his son Aurangzeb seized power in 1658.
The ear-shaped fort’s colossal double walls rise over 20m in height and measure 2.5km in circumference. The Yamuna River originally flowed along the straight eastern edge of the fort, and the emperors had their own bathing ghats here. It contains a maze of buildings, forming a city within a city, including vast underground sections, though many of the structures were destroyed over the years by Nadir Shah, the Marathas, the Jats and finally the British, who used the fort as a garrison. Even today, much of the fort is used by the military and so is off-limits to the general public.
The Amar Singh Gate to the south is the sole entry point to the fort these days and where you buy your entrance ticket. Its dogleg design was meant to confuse attackers who made it past the first line of defence – the crocodile-infested moat.
A path leads straight from here up to the large Moti Masjid (Pearl Mosque), which is always closed. To your right, just before you reach Moti Masjid, is the large open Diwan-i-Am (Hall of Public Audiences), which was used by Shah Jahan for domestic government business, and features a throne room where the emperor listened to petitioners. In front of it is the small and rather incongruous grave of John Colvin , a lieutenant-governor of the northwest provinces who died of an illness in the fort during the 1857 First War of Independence.
A tiny staircase just to the left of the Diwan-i-Am throne leads up to a large courtyard. To your left, is the tiny but exquisite Nagina Masjid (Gem Mosque), built in 1635 by Shah Jahan for the ladies of the court. Down below was the Ladies’ bazaar , where the court ladies bought goods.
On the far side of the large courtyard, along the eastern wall of the fort, is Diwan-i-Khas (Hall of Private Audiences), which was reserved for important dignitaries or foreign representatives. The hall once housed Shah Jahan’s legendary Peacock Throne, which was inset with precious stones including the famous Koh-i-noor diamond. The throne was taken to Delhi by Aurangzeb, then to Iran in 1739 by Nadir Shah and dismantled after his assassination in 1747. Overlooking the river and the distant Taj Mahal is Takhti-i-Jehangir , a huge slab of black rock with an inscription around the edge. The throne that stood here was made for Jehangir when he was Prince Salim.
Off to your right from here (as you face the river) is Shish Mahal (Mirror Palace), with walls inlaid with tiny mirrors. At the time of research it had been closed for some time due to restoration, although you could peek through cracks in the doors at the sparkling mirrors inside.
Further along the eastern edge of the fort you’ll find Musamman Burj and Khas Mahal, the wonderful white-marble octagonal tower and palace where Shah Jahan was imprisoned for eight years until his death in 1666, and from where he could gaze out at the Taj Mahal, the tomb of his wife. When he died, Shah Jahan’s body was taken from here by boat to the Taj. The now closed Mina Masjid , set back slightly from the eastern edge, was his private mosque.
The large courtyard here is Anguri Bagh , a garden that has been brought back to life in recent years. In the courtyard is an innocuous-looking entrance – now locked – that leads down a flight of stairs into a two-storey labyrinth of underground rooms and passageways where Akbar used to keep his 500-strong harem.
Continuing south, the huge red-sandstone Jehangir’s Palace was probably built by Akbar for his son Jehangir. It blends Indian and Central Asian architectural styles, a reminder of the Mughals’ Afghani cultural roots. In front of the palace is Hauz-i-Jehangir , a huge bowl carved out of a single block of stone, which was used for bathing. Walking past this brings you back to the main path to Amar Singh Gate.
You can walk here from Taj Ganj, or it’s ₹40 in a cycle-rickshaw.
This park, originally built by Emperor Babur as the last in a series of 11 parks on the Yamuna’s east bank, long before the Taj was conceived, fell into disrepair until it was little more than a huge mound of sand. To protect the Taj from the erosive effects of the sand blown across the river, the park was reconstructed and is now one the best places from which to view the great mausoleum.
The gardens in the Taj are perfectly aligned with the ones here, and the view of the Taj from the fountain directly in front of the entrance gate is a special one.
Nicknamed the Baby Taj, the exquisite tomb of Mizra Ghiyas Beg should not be missed. This Persian nobleman was Mumtaz Mahal’s grandfather and Emperor Jehangir’s wazir (chief minister). His daughter Nur Jahan, who married Jehangir, built the tomb between 1622 and 1628 in a style similar to the tomb she built for Jehangir near Lahore in Pakistan.
It doesn’t have the same awesome beauty as the Taj, but it’s arguably more delicate in appearance thanks to its particularly finely carved jali (marble lattice screens). This was the first Mughal structure built completely from marble, the first to make extensive use of pietra dura and the first tomb to be built on the banks of the Yamuna, which until then had been a sequence of beautiful pleasure gardens.
You can combine a trip here with Chini-ka-Rauza, Mehtab Bagh and Ram Bagh, all on the east bank. A cycle-rickshaw covering all four should cost about ₹300 return from the Taj, including waiting time. An autorickshaw should be ₹450.
The narrow streets behind Jama Masjid are a crazy maze of overcrowded lanes bursting with colourful markets. There are a number of different bazaars here, each specialising in different wares, but the area is generally known as Kinari Bazaar as many of the lanes fan out from Kinari Bazaar Rd. You’ll find clothing, shoes, fabrics, jewellery, spices, marble work, snack stalls and what seems like 20 million other people.
Amazingly, there is somehow room for buffaloes and even the odd working elephant to squeeze their way through the crowds. Even if you’re not buying anything, just walking the streets is an experience in itself.
Samadhi Swamiji Maharaj Bagh
Known simply as Swami Bagh, this huge white marble mausoleum , which houses the tomb of Sri Shiv Dayal Singh Seth, the founder of the Radhasoami Faith, is of particular interest because it is still being built – more than 80 years after it was started. Inside there’s a 1904 painting of what it should look like when finished, complete with a gold- latticed dome. For now it’s a work-in-progress project being undertaken by devotees. The design incorporates building styles from other major religions and includes some fabulously delicate floral carvings.
This outstanding sandstone and marble tomb commemorates the greatest of the Mughal emperors. The huge courtyard is entered through a stunning gateway. It has three-storey minarets at each corner and is built of red sandstone strikingly inlaid with white-marble geometric patterns.
The mausoleum is at Sikandra, 10km northwest of Agra Fort. Catch a bus (₹22, 45 minutes) headed to Mathura from Bijli Ghar bus stand; they go past the mausoleum.
This wonderful white-marble octagonal tower and palace is where Shah Jahan was imprisoned for eight years until his death in 1666, and from where he could gaze out at the Taj Mahal, the tomb of his wife. When he died, Shah Jahan’s body was taken from here by boat to the Taj Mahal.
This Persian-style riverside tomb of Afzal Khan, a poet who served as Shah Jahan’s chief minister, was built between 1628 and 1639. Rarely visited, it is hidden away down a shady avenue of trees on the east bank of the Yamuna.