Some call it the most beautiful building on earth, the eighth wonder of the world – but without an expert's guidance, the Taj Mahal in India can leave visitors cold. Here are my insider tips
Alright, I admit it. Arriving at the Taj Mahal in Agra just as it was about to close didn't seem like good planning on my part – but what my first visit lacked in duration was certainly made up for in atmosphere… and indeed a message from the very presence of the building itself.
A neon sign somewhere near the entrance to the grounds flashed "Relax". Having just got off the train from Delhi, after a chaotic two-hour journey, this made a lot of sense. Arriving at the entrance to the mausoleum, I found that most of the guided tours had ended and the tourists had gone back to their hotels for the night. I had the place pretty much to myself.
Just being alone in that inner sanctum was a revelation. Even though I am a reluctant singer, I found myself bursting into song – and the sound kept echoing onwards and upwards, high into the magnificent interior dome. The Taj Mahal is like no other building, with the possible exception of the Parthenon at night, standing alone and viewing the stars through its mighty columns.
How best to see the Taj Mahal
My first insider tip for savouring all that the Taj has to offer is to make sure you arrive either very early or very late. It opens at 6am and closes at 7pm every day except Fridays. In order to reduce the crush, and make some very useful income besides, there is now a charge for entrance to the temple grounds of 750 rupees (approximately £10, or $15).
Time your visit, if possible, for the full moon. You will need to book ih advance, numbers are restricted to 400. Your bonus will be to view the pearly white exterior shrouded in mystery. The mausoleum is only opened at night on the full moon, and on the two nights before and after this always mysterious event, when the temple takes on an other-worldly glow. Failing this, sunrise or sunset will reveal how the translucent white marble of the temple dome constantly changes colour as it reflects the fiery sky above.
Now is certainly a good time to go. The Taj's marble minarets have been restored to their original pristine white, and the rest of the temple will be similarly returned to its full stunning glory in the near future. In fact, the authorities should be congratulated on their conservation efforts – not just around the temple itself, but throughout the surrounding region. In a rare example of awareness of climate change and pollution, they have banned motor vehicles from a 4 sq km area around the Taj Mahal, while industrial development is banned within a 10,000 sq km area.
It helps to have a rough idea of the ground's layout. The tombs of Emperor Shah Jahan and his favourite wife, Mumtaz Mahal, are actually located in a shadowy burial crypt rather than the domed building itself. At ground level, in the very centre of the mausoleum is the cenotaph dedicated to Mumtaz, who died in childbirth. Sing in the inner shrine and the notes will float upwards like the music of the spheres. Once you have experienced that, you will have come to know the fatal attraction that India and the Taj exert on so many of visitors... or perhaps I should say pilgrims.
A word of warning
Before you reach the mausoleum area, you will need to negotiate the not inconsiderable hazards of a major tourist attraction. Beware pickpockets, fake gemstones and phoney antiques as well as over-priced tourist services. Be prepared to walk out of a shop before you receive the inevitable invitation to return as a price is finally lowered. You will need patience during the bargaining, but remember the initial price will be at least four times its true value. For best results, the negotiation will have to proceed over several days. This, after all, is the East where bartering is a way of life.
Myths about the Taj
It was once rumoured that Shah Jahan intended to build a black marble mausoleum for himself, and that the link between this and the current domed building was to be a silver bridge. No plans of this fabled extension have ever been discovered.
It is also a myth that the brilliant stonemasons, craftsmen, calligraphers and designers who built the Taj Mahal over a period of more than 20 years were deliberately crippled at the Shah's orders on its completion, to make sure no monument could ever be built to surpass it.
Where to stay
If you want to savour the delights of the monument to love and its surroundings at your leisure, you will benefit from checking into one of the more comfortable hotels rather than the standard Indian variety. The Taj View Hotel, as the name suggests, offers you vistas of the Taj Mahal from your room. Rooms cost £125 per night and you will need to book well in advance since this luxurious, stylish hotel is in constant demand.
A less expensive, but still comfortable option is the more traditional Clarks Shiraz Hotel where the staff make sure your every need is catered for. The restaurant draws rave reviews for its fantastic food.
More in the middle range of hotel prices is the Mansingh Palace which is built in the Mughal style using local sandstone. Recently modernised and renovated, it represents excellent value for money. The swimming pool here is particuarly good for relaxing and unwinding..
Finally, there is the Jaypee Palace Hotel Agra. Here, guests can enjoy a massage to ease away the stresses of Indian travel, followed by great food and sleep in remarkably clean and cool rooms in a modern hotel environment.
How to get there
You have little excuse for not seeking out the Taj Mahal if you are visiting northern India; it is very easy to get to by Indian standards. Lying just 130 miles south of Delhi at Agra, it can be reached in two hours by train, 40 minutes by plane or four to five hours by road from the Indian capital .
Some people combine a flying visit by plane to Agra with a round trip tour taking in the dusty temples of Khajuraho in the very heart of India. The temple complex and its sculptures are awesomely impressive, strange and beguiling with their uninhibited celebration of sensuality. You can then fly on further to Varanasi on the Ganges – the pre-eminent Hindu holy city and, to this day, a centre of traditional skills and learning.
This high-flying temple tour in northern India is one trip you should definitely do, if you want to get to know the essential subcontinent.