“Oh, because it’s closer now that you live in Sydney?”
“Well, I mean, yeah, it’s closer I guess, but not exactly close. I’ve just always wanted to see it.”
“So wait, if it’s not close why are you just going for a weekend?”
…and that’s how some of my colleagues in Sydney learned about my travel habits as I made my way to India and the Taj Mahal last weekend. The 16th century tomb had been near the top of my list for a long time and I have many friends in Delhi, so why not spend 35 hours on airplanes going to see it?
Oh. The air quality.
The Air Quality Index scale goes from 0-500. I made sure to take a screenshot of the air quality in New Delhi.
So it turns out there are good times to visit the Taj Mahal, there are bad times to visit the Taj Mahal, and there is like a 3-week stretch in November where it’s basically The Wrong Time to visit the Taj Mahal…which is exactly when I went, having done no research. Farmers in northern India burn their crop husks after the harvest to make fields ready for the next planting season in early November, and the cooler air absorbs more of the smoke, leading to just horrid air quality.
But whatever. Live, learn, blog, right?
Getting from New Delhi to Agra
There are a few different ways to get from New Delhi to Agra, from a variety of trains to literally just Ubering for the 3.5-hour trip (which I did on the way back, an adventure in and of itself).
The easiest and best option is the new Vande Bharat train that leaves from Delhi’s Hazrat Nizamuddin station and its next stop is Agra. Amidst the many crazy tales of India’s trains, this one was about $15 USD in Executive Class and felt every bit as nice as many trains in Europe that I’ve been on over the years.
Hotel review incoming, but I’ll give you the quick version here: the Oberoi Amarvilas was the best hotel I have ever stayed at. I’ll tell you why later.
How to get tickets for the Taj Mahal
It was incredibly easy to get Taj Mahal tickets, I just went to the official website and it took about 3 minutes before I had my barcode: https://www.tajmahal.gov.in/ticketing.aspx
I wanted to be there for sunrise, so I woke up early at my hotel and was delighted to find out they had a golf cart that would take me right to the entry gate! I knew that the gates to the monument opened about 30 minutes before actual sunrise, so I decided to get there 30 minutes before that so I could get a good spot and avoid the crowds.
Avoid the crowds.
I was about 100th in line at 5:30am. By 6am, when the gates began to open, there were easily another thousand people behind me. Overall, though, it just didn’t matter. It was a Saturday in a festive season, it was going to be crowded. Taj Mahal experts recommend going on Tuesdays/Wednesdays for the smallest crowds. An important note: as it is a Muslim site, the Taj Mahal is closed on Fridays.
Basically, I picked the most crowded day during a festival season (it was the week before Diwali and the Cricket World Cup was going on) during the worst air pollution part of the year.
I went through security next. It is important for photographers to note that you cannot bring backpacks nor tripods into the Taj Mahal area. You will get through the quickest if you just have a camera. Even having a 70-200mm lens in a small handbag delayed me by 10 minutes.
(also for the photographers, I had a 24-70mm and a 70-200mm and feel like I would’ve been ok with just a 24-70mm. If you have a 24-105mm on a full-frame sensor that’s probably the perfect one-lens setup for the Taj Mahal)
And then I saw it.
All of a sudden I didn’t care about pollution.
The Taj Mahal
Shah Jahan created the Taj Mahal for one of his wives, Mumtaz Mahal, who had died during the birth of their fourteenth child. It is the crown jewel of Muslim art in India and is one of the world’s masterpieces.
There is so much I could say about the architecture across the 17-acre site, but the Taj Mahal is really about love more than anything else. A heartbroken Mughal emperor wanted a fitting monument for his beloved to find her rest.
It is a powerful site. Everything about the visit is intense. And yes, there are heaps of people. There will be people in your pictures. Embrace it and celebrate that so many are coming to see such a monumental symbol of love.
Where did I start? At the beginning.
Look, it’s tempting to try to get the classic shot down the fountain right when you walk into the complex. This is that shot.
The combination of pre-sunset and pollution kind of killed that shot, in my opinion. Remembering that the Taj Mahal looks similar from every side, I decided to go explore around the sides of the monument while waiting for the sun to rise. I tried to be creative with my compositions and also made sure to spend plenty of time with the camera at my side so I could enjoy being present in the moment.
As the sun rose
The blue sky tried to fight through the pollution as the sun rose. I continued making my way around the mausoleum as the morning light’s rusty hues reflected off the buildings and eventually overtook the sky itself.
The sun continued to rise and I explored some of the side buildings. The morning haze became an asset instead of an obstacle when I looked at it with that perspective!
Some tourists from Oklahoma recognized my Texas A&M shirt and were nice enough to grab a picture of me for posterity.
Finding the details
It was then time to switch lenses and zoom in on some of the amazing architectural details of the incredible Taj Mahal. The Sony a7rV with the 70-200mm G Master II lens was the perfect kit for the job.
I started working my way back to the entrance for another attempt at the Classic Shot. Even though there were still heaps of people, things had calmed down a bit.
The Classic Shot
Patience is a virtue. Some people were more virtuous than others at the Taj Mahal when it came time to get their perfect picture for Instagram. I consider myself more of an opportunist, so when I heard a tour group speaking Spanish, I befriended them only to find out they were from Mexico City. We had polite conversation while I snapped pictures of a few people with their phones…all while I was stealthily using them as cover to get myself into position for The Classic Shot.
I quickly turned around when I had a clear moment, only having a second or two to get the shot. And I nailed it.
In retrospect, I have the Photoshop chops to get rid of all the people in the shot, but I chose not to. Part of the “charm” of India is the heaps of people at seemingly every turn. I’d rather remember my visit to the Taj Mahal not with academically perfect pictures, but instead pictures that represent the reality of India. And why not celebrate people from all around the world coming together to see a story of love?
My visit was winding down, so I played around a little bit more with some reflections around the dais from where I took The Classic Shot.
If you want a super clean shot, turn your camera away from the Taj Mahal and take a picture of the southern entry, nobody will get into your foreground!
I walked towards the exit, happy that I got to see this incredible place. I kept my camera on, though, and fired off a few more shots before I left.
And, suddenly, it was over. I could’ve spent all day there but I’m happy with the time I did spend. It was a sip of the Taj Mahal, not a deep drink. I will return someday, until then it will be hard to forget the power of this place.
It reminded me of the first moment I saw Machu Picchu. Your eyes rest on the majestic scene in front of you and you just think, “Yes, worth it.”
It didn’t just live up to the hype, it eclipsed it easily.
It is worth the trip. Most will see it as a part of a Golden Triangle tour of Delhi, Agra, and Jaipur, but I have no regrets taking an entire trip to India from Australia purely to see the Taj Mahal.