Taj Mahal, India

The Many Faces of the Taj Mahal

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After our all-too-brief two days in Ranthambore, our Semester at Sea group of 24 got up early (yet again) to board a train (yet again) and head to the city of Agra where we’d be visiting the Taj Mahal. I found train travel in India (or anywhere, really) ridiculously fun—as did most of our group it seemed, judging by the friendly card games we played to pass the hours—so I didn’t mind the time in transit one bit. Our first stop was a marble inlay factory, where we watched the tedious process the artists go through to make each intricate slab of marble.

Then we were ushered into the back rooms with marble products galore, but seeing as none most of us didn’t have an extra couple grand lying around to purchase end tables, the majority (including SVV and me, of course) left empty-handed. Besides, we had more important sites to see…the Taj Mahal!

Once you arrive at the Taj, you must purchase your tickets and either walk the kilometer (ish) to the gate or take one of the on-site trams. To avoid being harassed by the many shop owners trying to lure us inside their storefront and guilt us into buying cheap crap we don’t want—and because we had a couple of older travelers with us—we opted for the latter. It wasn’t unlike the process to get to Disney World (only with less singing, more hustling).

One important thing to note before visiting the Taj is that pretty much everything is banned. Luckily our tour operator communicated this to us before getting off the bus, as SVV and I had hauled the tripod all around the country simply for this one visit. I would have hated to get it confiscated once we went through security. In fact, many of the students had made signs to wear for their parents for photographic purposes, and even those were taken from them. (The smart ones were the girls who knew better and smuggled them in under their shirts.)

In short, everything’s banned, including the kitchen sink.

After we had gone through the ticketing point, I kept waiting for a peek at Her before we actually arrived—I assumed we’d see Her from a distance, and then inch closer and closer, the vantage point changing with every step we took—but She was more or less shielded from the public eye by a rather substantial gate.

And then we passed through said gate and BAM! There she stood in all Her centuries-old glory.

Let’s get this out of the way up front: Do you know just how difficult it is to photograph the Taj? Insanely so. Everyone neglects to tell you that after the fact, but there are approximately a hundred billion people there at once so what you come out with is you, sweaty and shiny-faced with your husband, the monument reduced to a rather indistinguishable, overexposed blur in the background that maybe could be the Taj. Maybe. (This is where that tripod would have come in handy.) But, instead, it’s more likely than not some cheesy backdrop you found at your local mall and they were offering a two-for-one deal on travel scenery, so heck, you bought five.

(Let’s detract from that minor point and notice how tan India left SVV and me, shall we?)

Option two is the globally universal peace sign, which I’ve done since 2005 when I photographed a children’s conference and did not manage a single candid shot of the Korean schools all week long, as they would spin around with huge grins on their faces just as I crept up in what I thought to be a stealth manner and whip out the peace sign (both hands, all of them) before I could click my shutter. Now, I peace sign around the world in an homage to those adorable moppets.

We didn’t aim for your typical Taj Mahal shots, which consist of holding it by its tip or balanced on our palms or, Heaven forbid, attempting to eat it. It was far more fun watching the students do so and shoot their silly efforts.

Although you knew I couldn’t leave without my token jumping shot. Though, this time I grabbed one of my student pals Tor and made her participate.

Not my best effort, rocking the amputated limbs and all, but with said a hundred billion people milling around, what’s a girl to do? The guys on our trip managed to one-up us after a couple efforts. How great is this?

We lingered at the Taj for nearly three hours, leaving just as the sun was setting—6pm, in our case, that warm October afternoon—just as they started to boot people and shutter the gates.

More Taj Mahal fact and photos to come later this week, shot from a different perspective.

Until then, have you visited the Taj? What were your initial impressions?

COMMENTS
  • November 8, 2011

    That first glimpse must have been incredible – even with 100 billion other people there!

  • November 8, 2011

    I’m surprised you were allowed to take photos at all. And they did turn out good. Especially the jumper.

    • November 9, 2011
      Kristin

      I’m seriously anticipating the day when you and I happen to be passing through the same place and can take a jumping shot together. (Preferably with Ella, too…she also digs the jumping.)

  • November 8, 2011

    The Taj Mahal is one of my all-time favorite buildings. It is the relic of an incredible love story between a Hindu and a Muslim, I don’t remember which is which, but this super wealthy Raja built it as a tomb for his favorite wife. She was of a different religion and under his rule he allowed both Muslims and Hindu’s to practice without fear. The entire building is completely symmetrical and her marble-encased tomb is in the dead-center of the building. Original plans included a twin building on the opposite end of the reflecting pool in black marble to act as his tomb, but he died earlier than expected and those plans were abandoned under the new regime. Instead, he is buried with his love in the Taj Mahal, but off to the side in an unassuming marble coffin. The building is absolutely dedicated to her, not him.

    At least, that was the story from my Art History class. I really hope it’s true because it makes me a little teary every time I think about it.

    xox

    • November 8, 2011
      Kristin

      I rest my point. You shouldn’t just work for Utah’s tourism board, but ALL tourism boards around the globe. (Or maybe lead architectural tours instead?) We didn’t receive any of that information while actually at the Taj!

      • November 8, 2011

        Ok, I went back and looked it up. Mumtaz Mahal was Emperor Shah Jahan’s favorite wife and most intimate confidant. She died giving birth to their 14th child in 1631. She was Shia Muslim and he was, in fact, the first major proponent of religious tolerance in Northern India and Pakistan.

        Sometimes I feel really, really smart when I can (almost) accurately spout facts learned years and years ago. 🙂

        xox

  • November 8, 2011

    I was underwhelmed by the Taj Majal. (Puts up defensive shield.) Don’t get me wrong–I think it’s incredibly beautiful, but I didn’t have any sort of emotional reaction to it. To me, it was just a great piece of architecture, one of many in the world. I felt completely done with it after an hour or so, but we hung around for much longer in case I was somehow missing something (and because we were not at all impressed with Agra).

    Also, what is this tram you speak of? When we were there, the ticket office was about 20 steps outside the gate. They must have changed things up since 2009 (though the incredibly long list of don’ts seems not to have gone anywhere).

    • November 8, 2011
      Kristin

      Yeah, I’m with you. It was fun to photograph, but overall, I too was underwhelmed. It was just…another building (albeit a remarkable one). I had more fun observing all the Indian people who came in their elaborate saris and were so excited to be there for the first time!

      The parking lot was a kilometer (or mile? can’t remember) from the parking lot, so we had to take a tram.

      • November 9, 2011

        OMG, how could you. YOU, YOU…okay, I’ll stop with the melodrama now. 😉 I remember preparing myself to be underwhelmed by the building itself as we see visuals of it all over the place and then I saw it and was all, ‘wow, it really is beautiful’ but no, I didn’t get that ‘transported back in time’ feeling when I was there. Oh well, we can’t have it all I suppose.

        P.S. There was no tram when I was there but that was a long time ago.

        • November 9, 2011
          Kristin

          No that’s exactly what I meant–that “transported back in time” feeling. Rather, a “this is cool and the architecture is indescribable but I don’t exactly feel emotionally moved” if that makes sense. It was amazing to see and experience, but I was underwhelmed by the building itself. The overall picture–and all the people I spoke with there, the grounds surrounding it, the minarets–were what fascinated me. I definitely wouldn’t take back the chance to see it!

  • November 8, 2011
    Ris

    These pictures are absolutely stunning.

  • November 8, 2011

    Well, I think your pictures turned out great all things considered! My favorite photos I took at the Taj Mahal are actually all closeups (of the inlay) for the exact reasons you describe (this was before I owned a digital camera, so I was just guessing what would turn out). I also had the weird experience of being one of the few non-Indians there the day I visited and so people kept coming up and asking me to post in their family pictures with them.

    • November 8, 2011
      Kristin

      Yes, the rest of the ones we took are of up close to the Taj. I actually like those better, as the details of the building are pretty remarkable. Love the unpredictability of old school film! =)

  • November 8, 2011

    Awesome pics for sure. That sign of banned items is hilarious!

  • November 8, 2011

    I would be lying if I said that sometimes I have to remind myself that the Taj Mahal is a real place and not just someplace from Aladdin. It looks spectacular!

    • November 8, 2011
      Kristin

      I should have worn my magic carpet ensemble! Damn.

      • November 9, 2011

        Oh that would have been brilliant. As always, can’t get over your jumping skills but yeah, the boys beat you this time. 🙂

  • November 8, 2011
    Rachael

    Your pictures look great! I do have a question about your clothing.

    I’ve been researching visiting India and from everything I’ve seen, it is highly suggested for women to wear sleeves and dresses/skirts, especially not tight fitting clothing, due to the conservative nature of the people. I know you have to cover your head in most temples (I saw you had a scarf with you) as well.

    Seeing these pictures, you had your shoulders bare and the girl in your jumping picture was in tight pants, did you have any problems with this? Were any of the locals offended or seemed uncomfortable.

    I’d be interested to hear your take as India is so hot that having to wear sleeves (even short ones) as opposed to tank tops and shorter dresses could be a pain in the butt.

    • November 8, 2011
      Kristin

      You only need covered shoulders inside places of religious worship (e.g. the Taj) but not outdoors. The Indian people themselves dress pretty revealing with their midriffs (and shoulders) exposed. Honestly, it seems that bare ankles are more offensive than shoulders, hence the long saris they wear (and my long dress at the Taj). I got more stares when walking around with a knee-length skirt than I did in tank tops. I never saw any sign that people didn’t accept tight clothing; again, most of what the locals wear is SUPER tight.

      In short, I kept a scarf in my bag at all times for going in temples and the like but rarely needed it. To me, India did not seem nearly as conservative in terms of clothing as some of the other places I’ve visited (like Cambodia for example), and I didn’t ever feel like people thought I was disrespecting them no matter what I was wearing. (I wore tight calf-length yoga pants and a tank for most of the train journey.)

      • November 9, 2011

        Aaaah, okay, the long dress makes sense now. Actually, I didn’t think about it until I read this comment. 🙂

        • November 9, 2011
          Kristin

          Kavita, you can clarify! It’s not considered rude to have bare shoulders outdoors in India, right? You just need to be respectful and cover yourself when entering sacred spaces, yes?

          • November 10, 2011

            No, it’s definitely not rude and I think it’s perfectly all right in places like the Taj Mahal as it’s more a monument than a place of worship. Dressing a bit conservatively when entering a place of worship is all you need to do and your scarf should do the trick there.

  • November 9, 2011

    If anyone can capture a great photo, it’s you!

    • November 9, 2011
      Kristin

      You are so sweet–thanks, Susan!

  • November 9, 2011

    I love your jumping photos! I feel like I need a trademark photo move, but I just don’t know what it should be.

    • November 9, 2011
      Kristin

      Maybe you need a prop with which to travel and photograph in every place you visit? When Megan W. and I studied in Holland and Denmark, we had an inflatable parrot named Steve who we took with us all over Europe and posed with in front of various famous monuments…until a drunk American in Prague took a bite out of him and Steve met his untimely demise.

  • November 9, 2011

    Great shots and worth the effort. I had read that its nearly impossible to get those postcard shots unless you’ve got some permits to have the place to yourself. Its on my to-do list, so I’ll definitely bookmark this and come back to it when the time is right. Well done.

  • November 9, 2011

    Me wants to go 🙂

    You two look fantastic. That feeling sucks, for sure. Being all geared up to snap pictures of a lifetime and then feeling like things aren’t coming together as planned. You two rock it, though!

  • November 9, 2011

    Looks. So. Pretty.

    Want to go now.

    That last shot is so peaceful you can almost imagine that there aren’t ten million tourists milling around!

    • November 9, 2011
      Kristin

      Thanks, Kyle! The wide-angle shots (to come tomorrow) were even better as I could actually get the monument in even with all those people. But having a tripod would have been SO handy!

  • November 9, 2011

    It’s the one place in India I do really want to visit. Do you think it would have been easier to photograph early in the morning (before the crowds arrive? That’s why I like to be the first one at sights as soon as they open. That can be hard when you aren’t traveling by yourself or are on a bus tour.

    • November 9, 2011
      Kristin

      That’s a good question–and one for which I don’t have an answer. I think sunrise and sunset are the most popular times to visit. One of the other groups went just after lunch and said it wasn’t crowded at all, but then the sun is at the highest and it’s not great lighting for photos. You know what could solve this conundrum? ALLOWING TRIPODS. Then you can use filters and take all the people out of the frame!

  • November 11, 2011

    I can’t believe all the banned items…like…why no books? I’m sure there’s a good reason but I don’t get it.

  • November 22, 2011

    Hello Kristin,
    I can’t get enough of the Taj. I visited it only once but ended up staying at the site for five hours, just sitting and reading by the river as hundreds of people walked by.
    Priyank

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  • November 18, 2016

    Taj is really very beautiful. I have been there once and still it is in my list .Will surely visit it again. Your blog is awesome.

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