I was pretty excited to have time to visit Taj Mahal because to be honest, India was never one of my desired travel destinations. At least not till now.
Due to the pollution problem, cars are not allowed near the Taj, so our taxi had to wait for us at this large parking area, where we can choose to reach the entrance of Taj by electric scooter, horse carriage or camel carriage.
There were several kids hustling us to buy souvenirs and they even gave themselves English names so we would remember them. My advice is: Ask how much, if you are interested, and say you will come back (because you have to anyway). Then compare prices outside Taj Mahal and decide later.
We chose the horse carriage and off we went to purchase the tickets. The ticket office is located near the parking area and it costs 750 rupees per person for foreigners and with that you get a free bottle of water and shoe cover which you will need when you visit the mausoleum.
This young man who jumped onto the horse carriage with us very kindly brought us to the ticketing office. We needed to produce our passports to purchase tickets. This guy turned out to be a guide who asked if we wanted his service. He promised he would answer all our questions, tell us the background story of Taj Mahal and ensure that we do not get pushed around or have to queue for a long time to get in. His fee was 950 rupees.
We entered by the East gate and ladies and men have separate lines because we have to go through security screening. There wasn’t really a line so I felt the guide over-exaggerated. The lady guard felt my pockets and checked my bags. Apparently we are not allowed to bring any food, candies, biscuits, electronic devices, other than mobile phone and camera or odd, unfamiliar objects. I was told my snack bar and mini torchlight was not allowed and thankfully the guide was there, so he deposited them somewhere outside. At that point I guess he could have also been right about the line because with such security checks in place, a line can form quite quickly if someone gets held up in front.
Syed, the guide, then brought us on a specific route of the grounds and offered to take pictures for us at specific scenic spots. He was very knowledgeable and I can say he did his job quite well. It isn’t too much to ask considering that despite the expansive courtyard, the main monument is quite small.
There are 4 towers surrounding the Taj Mahal and without these 4 towers, the Taj will otherwise look like a mosque. They were also constructed in such a way that should there be an earthquake, the towers will collapse outwards and not onto the main building.
Close up of the artwork adorning the walls of the Taj Mahal. The various precious gems used to adorn the Taj is perhaps the most painstaking and detailed form of art. The guide took a torchlight and showed us how it will look under light. From a distance, the artwork looks like it is painted on, but upon closer inspection, they are various gemstones ground and entrenched in the marble. You have to see it to believe!
We are not allowed to take photos inside the Taj Mahal. In it lies the replicated tomb of the emperor and his wife. Their real tombs are directly underneath and have been closed off to the public because there was no oxygen.
After showing us this optical illusion and touring the guest block, our tour came to an end. He then brought us to this supposedly government approved genuine marble shop, where the locals use the same technique to create the artwork in the Taj, to make marble products. He claimed that some independent shops also sell similar products but they use softer marble.
Two young men were outside the shop working on the products. It is a highly skilled and tedious process and so the products are all priced above 1000 rupees. Price tags are attached on every item and the good thing is, no two items will be exactly the same.
We hung around for a while and another man invited me to the back of the shop to look at scarves and saris. He said the scarves were made from bamboo using hand looms, by some prisoners. I bought a few and paid about 470 rupees each. On hindsight, I wasn’t sure if he was telling the truth but if he was, I’m glad that it was for a good cause.
This shop was also where the guide left my snack bar and mini torch. Obviously him bringing us to this store is not purely coincidental. And I did notice earlier on that the moment we came out from the East gate, he took his mobile phone out, so I am presuming he might have informed them that we were coming so they could put up a show? Despite that, I didn’t think he was being dishonest, or at least I wasn’t unhappy with the experience. Everyone works very hard for a living here and while I do not like the hustling, I can put up with it as long as they don’t get pushy.
I did get ripped off buying magnets. In a moment of fluster, I forgot to do the math and ended up paying 500 rupees (almost S$15) for 2 magnets! And they aren’t even of good quality. And the same kid I bought the magnets from can hustle my friend and offer 500 rupees for 3!
Getting ripped off is part of the experience.