Few places on Earth can compare to the Taj Mahal. Officially chosen as one of the New7Wonders in 2007 and regularly included in other ‘wonders’ lists, a visit to the monument to eternal love deserves to feature on anybodies bucket list. We visited the Taj Mahal on the final day of our Golden Triangle tour (which also happened to be Christmas Eve) and could not have been happier with the experience.
Finally going to “that big white place” after 4 days of seeing it in pictures was a big deal for our eldest. It had featured heavily in our holiday planning, it was on the cover of the brochure we were given when we arrived in India and it was emblazoned on the postcards thrust into our faces by every hawker we had encountered during our first few days in the country. As such, this was somewhere that our 5 year old knew. And so it was that we stepped out of our car near the entrance road for “the castle thing”.
Tickets for the Taj Mahal are available from a small building at the start of an access road which is lined with touts, hawkers and merchants selling all kinds of India-themed souvenirs. The price itself is split between two different organisations (the Agra Development Authority and the Archaeological Survey India) who both charge 500 rupees for entry. Entry for an adult then is priced at 1000 rupees and includes shoe covers for inside the Taj and a bottle of water. Should you decide that the 1km walk from the ticket office to the entrance gate is too much (and you invariably will be told that it is too much by the pony cart owners and bus drivers encamped outside the ticket office) you can pay 100 rupees for a ride to the entrance. We did this unquestioningly, seeing the gauntlet of people hawking plastic Taj Mahals we would had to have run should we have chosen to walk.
The list of prohibited items for the Taj Mahal is extensive and they take this very seriously. Items banned from the site include food of any kind and any type of entertainment device. Phones are OK as long as they’re on silent and cameras are also fine. Video cameras are allowed but require a separate fee to be paid and can only be used from a distance in a marked area by the entrance gate. Security is very on the ball in this respect and found one Chupa Chupps lollipop, which we didn’t even know we had, lurking at the bottom of my wife’s handbag. This was promptly thrown away in front of our now crying children who hadn’t realised they wanted a lollipop until that exact moment.
Security passed, we were left with one final challenge before the monument came into view. Photographers.
“I know an excellent photographer inside,” said our guide as we approached the entrance gate. “He charges 100 rupees per photograph and they are excellent quality. If you want photographs that is fine but there is a certain way that we have to do things.”
This sounded interesting.
“At the gate, there will be lots of photographers who will want to follow you and take your picture. They will ask me to ask you if you want a photographer. Say no and I will take you to my friend once we’re inside.”
Ok. I understand. Let’s go.
We approached the entrance gate and sure enough there they were; the photographers. But, unlike the guide had said,they all seemed very relaxed, checking their cameras and chatting amongst themselves. Nobody was following or hassling us.
As we stopped by the gate, the guide broke away from us and approached the photographers. He came back with one of them, chatting and laughing. When he reached us he looked at me and said “This man wants to know if you want him to take some photographs of your family and the Taj. Do you want him to?”
I paused, staring into the guides eyes to try and get a clue. This man had been brought to us by the guide. He wasn’t hassling us but he wasn’t inside either. Was this the man I had to say no to or was he the guide’s friend?
“Erm…” I hesitated. We had decided we did want some photographs of ourselves and the children but I couldn’t for the life of me figure out if this was the guy. “Ok?”
The deal was done. The photographer walked ahead to get himself set up. The guide matched my pace and said quietly. “That wasn’t the guy”
Tickets bought, hawkers avoided, security passed, photographer engaged. We joined the throng of people heading through the south gate, waiting to get our first glimpse of the Taj.
And then there it was. Looming through a slight haze and looking exactly like every postcard and documentary image we had ever seen. Huge and white and beautiful. Surrounded on three sides by throngs of snap-happy tourists.
The Taj Mahal is one of the few tourist spots that meet and even exceed expectations. For somewhere so familiar, it would be easy for it to disappoint. Everybody knows what it looks like and yet in the flesh it was still as breathtaking as I hoped it would be. Like the Eiffel Tower or Times Square at night, the Taj Mahal manages to take your breath away by being both familiar and somehow bigger and more impressive than you were expecting.
The lawns and fountains outside the Taj are devoted to photography. Tourists with phones, amateurs with expensive cameras and armies of ‘professional’ photographers offering their services to tourists, fill every available spot. There are also certain ‘hot spots’ where everybody wants their picture taken. The ‘Diana Bench’ is probably the most well known of these and the crowd around this spot was particularly enthusiastic in their endeavours to get the perfect shot.
We covered the lawn and fountains in about 30 minutes, stopping whenever the photographer told us for the requisite poses (point to the Taj as if it is your house, put your hand like this so it looks like you are holding it in your hand etc) and then it was time for him to leave us. He would, he said, take the time that we spent inside to print the photographs and put them in an album for us. He would also put them on a CD so we had soft copies. He reiterated our agreement that the photographs would cost 100 rupees and surprised us all by saying that as he had taken 98, this would be 9800 rupees (or £118 at the current exchange rate).
My jaw hit the floor. Firstly, we didn’t want 98 photographs and secondly, I wasn’t paying 9800.
I explained this and the photographer affected the act of being very put out. Why had I engaged his services if I didn’t want the photographs? He had been with us for 30 minutes when he could have been with somebody else. It all suddenly felt very high pressure. I wasn’t enjoying this anymore.
Sensing a sale about to be lost, he suggested fewer photographs, maybe 80 instead of 98? Price 8000 rupees but I cannot give you the CD for this price.
At this point the guide stepped in to ensure that I understood what he was saying.
We eventually agreed to 50 photographs for 5000 rupees but even this was substantially more than we had expected (the previous day we had paid a photographer 500 rupees for 10 picture in an album at the Amber Fort).
With an agreement reached, the photographer headed off to print our pictures. Feeling slightly violated, we slipped on our shoe covers and prepare to head inside.
Part two posted soon