World wonders are a funny thing. Whether it’s the Great Wall of China, the Statue of Liberty or the Eiffel Tower, most of us spend lifetimes seeing images of these important places from nearly every angle. What happens though is that we build them up to be much more than they are and, sometimes, people may even be disappointed. Yes, the Statue of Liberty is smaller than you think and yes, there is a Pizza Hut next to the Sphinx, so managing our expectations before visiting these popular destinations is important. At least that’s the theory. When I first arrived into Agra in the late afternoon, I wasn’t being all too rationale and I certainly wasn’t managing my expectations. No, I was excited for the opportunity to finally visit what has been called the most perfectly constructed building in the world, the mighty Taj Mahal.
I had though set myself up for success. Traveling with legendary tour provider Abercrombie & Kent, I couldn’t have experienced the wonder in any better way and, from experience, that matters. The ability to quickly move past throngs of people, to learn more about an important place with the help of a guide, and ease of travel are all key and I enjoyed that and more with Abercrombie. Checking into the incredible Oberoi Amarvilas, intellectually I appreciated the fact that the hotel is one of the closest to the Taj Mahal and that from nearly every window you can see the building, but that only made things worse for me. As I was being shown to my room, my internal monologue was on fire screaming to go visit the Taj. But patience is key when visiting the Taj Mahal; it’s a process that, if done just right, maximizes any visitor’s chances of enjoying and appreciating this world wonder.
Spread out across 42-acres, like many world monuments I’ve visited, simple pictures did nothing to prepare me for the actual experience of being there. Staying with Oberoi made getting there easy, their golf cart delivering us to within a short walk away from the main gates. The plan was to visit the Taj Mahal twice, once at sunset and again at sunrise. From experience I knew that the two times would reveal vastly different experiences and I couldn’t wait to get started. What was missing from the scene was the chaos I had expected. Friends had regaled me of tales of touts on every corner, livestock roaming unencumbered and more stories of an undisciplined UNESCO site. That’s not what I found though. No, instead I found a clean and tidy shopping district that led up to the main gates themselves. There were cows and dogs about, but it’s India and I had come to expect that. Apparently, a few years ago an effort was made to clean up the entrance way to the Taj Mahal and the result is an access point that is just like many others in the world.
I think my guide could sense my excitement, because he sped up to keep pace with me as I double-timed it through the entry courtyards. Mentally, I wanted to appreciate that the Taj Mahal is in fact an enormous complex, but the little kid inside couldn’t wait to just see the funerary monument. After that first sighting I could relax, but it was a moment I had waited decades for and I didn’t want to be deterred. Built in the 17th century by the great Mughal emperor Shah Jahan, the Taj Mahal complex was constructed to house the tomb of his favorite wife. It’s called many things including the most romantic structure in the world, but it’s also the best example of the incredible Mughal architecture that once reigned supreme in India – an important part of the country’s history and heritage.
The great advantage to visiting at the tail end of the busy season is that the crowds at the Taj Mahal weren’t as crazy as I had imagined. It was busy, no doubt there, but so has every other famous monument I’ve ever visited. In fact, it wasn’t as chaotic as many, but it wouldn’t have mattered. As soon as I crossed the threshold into the center of the complex, I was in my own little world. What makes the Taj Mahal so remarkable isn’t the perfection of just one building, it’s the perfection found throughout the site. Perfect symmetry, incredible design and style, every inch of the complex is without flaw. Of course, like a moth to a flame, I too was drawn in to the main mausoleum itself.
Sometimes these incredible places are disappointing. Sometimes they’re so different from what we’ve mentally constructed that our brains refuse to accept the reality. That’s not the case with the Taj Mahal. No, as I walked around the grounds that late afternoon, dutifully listening to my guide while searching for the best photos spots, I was amazed. I was amazed because it was all so much better than I’d been led to believe. Why don’t more people share images of the grounds and outbuildings? Why don’t they tell their stories of spending hours just admiring and reflecting? As soon as I left the main Insta-worthy spots, I found a quiet bench where I could sit and relax. It was an opportunity for peaceful thought which, believe me, isn’t remotely possible at most other globally popular monuments. But then again, the Taj Mahal isn’t like any other world wonder.
That evening as I grabbed bites of my room service dinner while frantically trying to complete my work for the day, I looked up once and again to peer out of my hotel room window. While not lit up at night, I knew it was there, that giant tomb just waiting for me to visit again. Waking up with the roosters the next morning, I prepared myself for another visit, curious to see what, if anything, was different.
As it turns out, there’s a reason why my guide insisted on visiting at two very different times of day. The experiences could not have been more different from one another. While there was a short line, the crowd entering the Taj complex that early morning was nothing like the night before. With so few people there, it was an intimate and almost private experience. Don’t misunderstand, there was still a 5-minute wait to sit on the so-called “Diana bench,” and to grab that one famous selfie also required a wait. But overall, the crowds were negligible and as I waited for the perfect morning light, I walked right into the main mausoleum itself, skipping the hour-long wait that was there the night before. The tomb perhaps was the one aspect that was disappointing, a simple nod to a great love affair. But the complex isn’t about that one final resting place, it’s about a love so deep and profound that it inspired one of the most remarkable structures that the world has ever seen. And, for the most part, it looks just as perfect as it must have the day it was finished. Through war and famine, disease and neglect it stood and still stands today. That fact is important, it’s unique and it’s a heritage that we as a global community should be proud to inherit.
For me, that’s the real importance of visiting sites like the Taj Mahal. It’s not about getting that one selfie pic or ticking another monument off the list, it’s my own tacit acceptance of this cultural responsibility. By visiting and sharing my experiences at the Taj Mahal I, along with millions of others, help preserve it so that many more generations to come can stand there like me, awed and amazed, cowed and honored to be a part of that enduring history.