The Taj: Up Close and Personal

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The thing about the Taj Mahal is that it’s one of those places that looks just like the photos. You know how when you visit some remote island on some unknown spot in the map that sounds more like He-Man’s home planet than it does an actual, legit place you can visit, and then you update your Facebook status to say “photos don’t do this place justice?” Well, that’s the opposite of visiting the Taj, at least in my experience. When you walk through the gates, there it is standing majestically before you, looking like it did in all the pictures you have seen since grade school. I found the less populated areas in India like Ranthambore that I hadn’t seen photos of my whole life much more remarkable in their novelty; however, the Taj is undoubtedly one of those boxes every traveler needs to check off when going to India.

So after taking our token tourist shots, SVV and I had a bit of fun, with both our 10-22mm wide-angle lens and our GoPro camera (which is nearly a fish-eye). If there’s one way to make something look not how it’s supposed to, it’s to make it look unlike a photo you’ve seen reproduced hundreds of different times in the same manner, it’s with a little distortion.

Plus, wide-angle lenses don’t just allow you to take in more of the picture, but they also enable you to capture a monument in its entirety even with tens of thousands of people trying to obstruct your view.

While the monument was more or less exactly what I was expecting, there’s no denying it’s one spectacular piece of work, particularly when you get up real close and fully inhale its intricate, minute features.

Of course, having just been at the marble inlay factory earlier in the day, I could definitely appreciate how much work was put into every last panel of the complex, as well as all the calligraphy detailing. And even though you can’t tell from these curved photos, the minarets that flank each side of the Taj are angled outwards, even though they appear straight.

To enter the mausoleum, you must take off your shoes—something I don’t recommend as two of our Semester at Sea participants had their shoes stolen—or put on protective covers they give you with your ticket. While the line was not short and snaked its way around the front side of the building, it went relatively fast and we were inside within 15 minutes. Once there, we spent less than five minutes padding around in our slippers before going back outdoors. I think the most impressive beauty of the structure is from the outside anyway.

The structure was built in 1631, completed in 1654—a feat that required the skill of more than 20,000 laborers—and designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1983 (my birth year!).

And despite how touristy the monument is, there were surprisingly few Westerners present in proportion to the mass amounts of Indians in a smattering of bright, eye-popping hues who had made the pilgrimage to Agra. We wandered about the grounds with two of the students, Montana and Glenna, and were stopped on multiple occasions by locals who wanted their pictures taken with us, for no reason other than we were Caucasian Americans. That was kind of interesting.

Overall, the visit was worth all the travel time and the crowds we braved even if I was a bit indifferent to the actual site itself. It’s definitely something I would say everyone should attempt at some point in their lives—if for no other purpose than to meet and interact with a genuine and good people in their own sacred space.

(And to illustrate the sheer chaos of our visit, here’s a brief minute-long video walk through we did of the grounds.)

COMMENTS
  • November 10, 2011
    Ris

    These photos are, as always, absolutely gorgeous. Love the video too–what’s the music?

    • November 10, 2011
      Kristin

      Thanks, Ris! Funny enough, it’s one of those free tracks that comes with iMovie.

  • November 10, 2011

    Interesting to read that there were few Westerners (and that locals wanted pics with you).

    I’m curious about the weather at this time of year. Just how hot was it?

    • November 10, 2011
      Kristin

      RIDICULOUSLY HOT. Like Southern U.S. height-of-summer, sweating-balls hot. I couldn’t fathom being a guy and having to wear pants as I was sweating enough in barely-there sundresses! (We were there Oct. 10-15 for reference.)

  • November 10, 2011

    Wow, I want a fish eye now! My widest lens goes down to 15mm… which does the trick in most situations but doesn’t make the fun shots you have here!

    • November 10, 2011
      Kristin

      The 10-20mm is awesome for city landscapes or crowded monuments as it gives you so much more to work with. (On the contrary, It isn’t particularly great for the countryside/outdoors, as it’s a little too far zoomed out. We usually use the 17-85mm or 24-105mm as our primary and the 10-20mm for cities.)

  • November 10, 2011

    Loved the photos. Also found it very interesting to see the lines and crowds of people. Not that I didn’t expect it, but most photos people share of the Taj are ones where they have painstakingly waited for no people in them. Can’t wait to see it someday myself.

    • November 10, 2011
      Kristin

      I don’t know how that’s even possible! I think you just have to be seated on one of the benches from the right angle and take a close-up portrait so that you’re blocking all the people in the background. SO MANY PEOPLE, EVERYWHERE.

  • November 10, 2011

    The pictures are so beautiful that I don’t think I’d mind it looking just like them, especially the details which I imagine must be really impressive up close. I remember Andi saying she got asked to be in a lot of pictures too – it’ll be interesting to go someday with dark-skinned Rodolfo and dark-haired me and see what our experience is like.

    • November 10, 2011
      Kristin

      I think you’d still be asked to be photographed, as we had a number of brunettes with darker complexions who were also solicited to be in photos. I think it has more to do with the fact that you/me/other tourists are not Indian than it does a specific hair color or skin tone!

  • November 10, 2011

    It’s the Taj, and yes, a very expected image. Yet the details of the building are So amazing. And the people watching half the fun. Especially when the people is you. Kind of fun to know your image will be in someone elses collection. Like being a celebrity. I like the wide lens look for something different. India is on my list, but not in high heat.

    • November 10, 2011
      Kristin

      The heat was stifling, and that’s coming from a Southern native!

  • November 10, 2011

    I had kind of heard the same thing about the Taj from a friend who went there a couple of years ago, but of course I would go there if I ever make a trip to India. Sounds like how I felt when I finally saw the Mona Lisa in person. But I love your pics! Thanks for the tour:)

    • November 10, 2011
      Kristin

      It was one of those times when I was a bit underwhelmed but also very glad I had the chance to see such a famous monument at some point in my life!

  • November 10, 2011

    Legend has it that Shah Jahan cut off the thumb/ hand of the architect to ensure he never built something like that again! My teenage self was horrified when I first heard it and then someone was kind enough to mention that it was just a myth. Thank God for that.

    • November 10, 2011
      Kristin

      That is terrible (but a fun fact nonetheless!).

  • November 10, 2011

    Ahhh. So magestic.

  • November 10, 2011

    1983 Represent!! *fist pump

    xox

    • November 10, 2011
      Kristin

      Best year. My tourism contact in Shanghai told me “the year of the pig” is meant to be a very desirable one in China. Obviously. =)

  • November 11, 2011

    Lovely photos! I remember from our visit that there are so many beautifully intricate details to capture – you just have to sometimes avoid the hordes of other tourists to get them. 😛

    • November 13, 2011
      Kristin

      Which sometimes is an impossible feat!

  • November 12, 2011

    I really love that first picture. What was your aperture setting?

    For some reason, unlike the Eiffel Tower, the Taj Mahal is one of the places in the world where I am okay with just seeing it in pictures. I don’t know why, but India just doesn’t appeal to me as a traveler. Am I missing out?

    • November 14, 2011
      Rachael

      Fidel, that’s weird, I’m the exact opposite!

      To me, yes, the Eiffel Tower has great view, but it’s a tower of metal that was built for the World’s Fair. The Taj is romantic and has a great story behind it. It was built for a woman by her grieving husband, and long before the Industrial Revolution made it easy (-er) to build.

      I would like to see both, but if I had to choose one, I’d take the Taj in a heart beat!

  • November 12, 2011
    Anu

    I’ve heard they no longer let you go through where the real bodies are buried, is that true? When I visited they had JUST cut off letting people up the surrounding turrets but were allowed to shuffle through the real tombs one level below (top floor ones are decoys).

    Even more amazing is when you consider that the entire structure was inlaid with gold, silver and precious gems. They truly bankrupted the country to build that, and it was only half the plan as the emperor was going to build one for himself across the river in black marble.

    • November 13, 2011
      Kristin

      Ooooh I didn’t see any such sign of being able to see a burial mound, so I’m guessing it’s no longer allowed. You could only go in one level within the mausoleum.

  • November 12, 2011
    Anu

    By the way, when I mean “we visited” I mean shortly after you were born. LOL. I think it was 85 or 86.

    • November 22, 2011
      Kristin

      Haha, yes, I was three then =) It’s funny working in a college environment, though, as we often reference the 80’s and realize NONE of our students were even born then–most were born in 1991 or 1992. Now THAT makes me feel old!

  • November 12, 2011

    Love these pictures. Not your usual views!

  • November 13, 2011

    I really like the unique photos you took, and the details about your experience. I feel it’s kind of like the Blue Mosque in Istanbul. You get exactly what you expect, but it’s still one of those places you need to experience for yourself.

    • November 22, 2011
      Kristin

      I haven’t been to Istanbul, but sounds like I need to add the Blue Mosque to my list!

  • November 13, 2011

    On my bucket list!

  • November 14, 2011

    Lovely pics. I am still trying to figure out the full potential use for the GoPro as I played with it early this year. Somehow, my trusty and beat DSLR still does wonders for me. With that being said, I should start planning a visit here to the T.M.

    • November 22, 2011
      Kristin

      We’re the same with the GoPro. The best footage we’ve gotten is by mounting it to the snowboard, but it’s still pretty wobbly anytime we film by holding it.

  • November 14, 2011

    I love the open shutter in the first photo, movement is a favourite of mine.

    • November 22, 2011
      Kristin

      Ours, too–though you really need a tripod for movement! (Stupid rules.) Oh well, we made do with what we had =)

  • November 15, 2011

    What a wonderful photo essay. I find it hard to believe it’s been a year since I was there 🙂

  • November 15, 2011

    Wow that looks amazing, hope I get to see it one day!

  • November 15, 2011

    Stellar pics Kristin!!

  • November 16, 2011

    Awesome pics of one awesome place. Agree that EVERY traveler needs to visit the Taj once in their life!

  • November 17, 2011

    I love these photos! The fish-eye lens really does give a cool effect and squeeze more in the frame. While India is not super high on my bucket list, I definitely want to see the Taj Mahal in person!

    • November 22, 2011
      Kristin

      You should give India a boost toward the top. I was the same–had no desire to visit–but it wound up being one of my favorite experiences this entire trip.

  • November 21, 2011

    I see you and ‘The Taj” are on a first name basis… you must be pretty tight!

    • November 22, 2011
      Kristin

      Well, you know, that’s just how I roll.

  • November 22, 2011

    Absolutely beautiful, esp the long exposure picture at the top. Wide angle lens is like my secret weapon. Thanks for the tour! 🙂
    Priyank

    • November 22, 2011
      Kristin

      Thank you, Priyank! We share the same secret weapon (though I guess announcing it on the Internet makes it slightly less secret, right?) =)

  • January 3, 2012

    Great photos. The black and white photo is very lovely especially. I always have a soft spot for well done B&W photos. I went there once, back in 1993 when I was a kid. There weren’t as many rules I think back then as to where you could walk around. I found it sad though that a lot of the pieces and decoration on the inner walls were removed by people looting years ago. The lower level is where the actual tombs are the upper level there aren’t tombs but just there to represent those at the lower level. Also the only thing out of alignment is the tomb of shah jahan which was added later as an afterthought. Another fun fact the calligraphy on the outside walls there actually increases in size as it goes up the wall and was created that way so it appears to be a uniform size for someone looking at it from below.

    Back when we were there my dad took a photo inside the Taj, which apparently was prohibited and the guard inside was angry and started yelling so my dad started yelling back. I recall saying. Dad you probably don’t want to be fighting with the guard carrying an assault rifle…

    • January 3, 2012
      Kristin

      I had no idea about the calligraphy! Our guide let us loose when we got to the Taj so it was more of a wander-and-learn-at-your-own-risk site tour =)

  • February 7, 2012

    Great use of the lens… it can be difficult to compose properly with such a wide lens, but this series of photos show how fisheye can be used so effectively. So many photographers at the Taj *avoid* putting random tourists in the scene, but why? It’s so much more interesting to see everything that is really going on – I feel like I’m there!

    Nate

  • February 7, 2012

    Love these photos, especially the self portrait snap!
    Hopefully I will get to see this next March….

  • August 9, 2012

    Not the usual Taj shots! Pretty interesting! And its always a wonderful feeling to be visiting Taj Mahal!!
    Arti ~ India

  • May 17, 2015

    This post makes me extremely excited about our visit to the Taj in October – your pics are amazing. I’m dreading the heat though – it sounds like a nightmare! I hope I can get over that and appreciate the experience of seeing one of the world’s most magnificent structures.

    Thanks for sharing Kristin 🙂

    • May 20, 2015

      Ahhh, you are going to have the best trip! Can’t wait to read about it!

  • May 10, 2017

    Thank you for sharing article. I will surely plan my next year trip to India. recently i have planned bahamas vacation through bookotrip, but after read this article i really excited to go India…

  • September 18, 2017

    Despite living in India I have visited it just once that too on an official trip to Agra. Need to photograph it myself. 🙂

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