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Poet Rabindranath Tagore described it as 'a teardrop on the cheek of eternity'; Rudyard Kipling as 'the embodiment of all things pure'; while its creator, Emperor Shah Jahan, said it made 'the sun and the moon shed tears from their eyes'. Every year, tourists numbering more than twice the population of Agra pass through its gates to catch a once-in-a-lifetime glimpse of what is widely considered the most beautiful building in the world. Few leave disappointed. The Taj was built by Shah Jahan as a memorial for his third wife, Mumtaz Mahal, who died giving birth to their 14th child in 1631. The death of Mumtaz left the emperor so heartbroken that his hair is said to have turned grey virtually overnight. Construction of the Taj began the following year; although the main building is thought to have been built in eight years, the whole complex was not completed until 1653. Not long after it was finished, Shah Jahan was overthrown by his son Aurangzeb and imprisoned in Agra Fort, where for the rest of his days he could only gaze out at his creation through a window. Following his death in 1666, Shah Jahan was buried here alongside his beloved Mumtaz. In total, some 20,000 people from India and Central Asia worked on the building. Specialists were brought in from as far away as Europe to produce the exquisite marble screens and pietra dura (marble inlay work) made with thousands of semiprecious stones. The Taj was designated a World Heritage Site in 1983 and looks nearly as immaculate today as when it was first constructed – though it underwent a huge restoration project in the early 20th century. • Entry & Information Note: the Taj is closed every Friday to anyone not attending prayers at the mosque. The Taj can be accessed through the west and east gates. The south gate was closed to visitors in 2018 for security concerns but can be used to exit the Taj. The east gate generally has shorter queues. There are separate queues for men and women at both gates. If you are a foreigner, once you get your ticket, you can skip ahead of the lines of Indians waiting to get in – one perk of your pricey entry fee. It's possible to buy your tickets online in advance at https://asi.payumoney.com (you'll get a ₹50 discount for your troubles), but you won't save much time as you still have to join the main security queue. A ticket that includes entrance to the mausoleum itself cost ₹200 extra. Cameras and videos are permitted, but you can't take photographs inside the mausoleum itself. Tripods are banned. Remember to retrieve your free 500ml bottle of water and shoe covers (included in Taj ticket price). If you keep your ticket, you get small entry-fee discounts when visiting Agra Fort, Fatehpur Sikri, Akbar's Tomb or the Itimad-ud-Daulah on the same day. Bags much bigger than a money pouch are not allowed inside; free bag storage is available. Any food or tobacco will be confiscated when you go through security, as will pens. • Inside the Grounds From both the east and west gates you first enter a monumental inner courtyard with an impressive 30m red-sandstone gateway on the south side. The ornamental gardens are set out along classical Mughal charbagh (formal Persian garden) lines – a square quartered by watercourses, with an ornamental marble plinth at its centre. When the fountains are not flowing, the Taj is beautifully reflected in the water. The Taj Mahal itself stands on a raised marble platform at the northern end of the ornamental gardens, with its back to the Yamuna River. Its raised position means that the backdrop is only sky – a masterstroke of design. Purely decorative 40m-high white minarets grace each corner of the platform. After more than three centuries they are not quite perpendicular, but they may have been designed to lean slightly outwards so that in the event of an earthquake they would fall away from the precious Taj. The red-sandstone mosque to the west is an important gathering place for Agra's Muslims. The identical building to the east, the jawab, was built for symmetry. The central Taj structure is made of semitranslucent white marble, carved with flowers and inlaid with thousands of semiprecious stones in beautiful patterns. A perfect exercise in symmetry, the four identical faces of the Taj feature impressive vaulted arches embellished with pietra dura scrollwork and quotations from the Quran in a style of calligraphy using inlaid jasper. The whole structure is topped off by four small domes surrounding the famous bulbous central dome. Directly below the main dome is the Cenotaph of Mumtaz Mahal, an elaborate false tomb surrounded by an exquisite perforated marble screen inlaid with dozens of different types of semiprecious stones. Beside it, offsetting the symmetry of the Taj, is the Cenotaph of Shah Jahan, who was interred here with little ceremony by his usurping son Aurangzeb in 1666. Light is admitted into the central chamber by finely cut marble screens. The real tombs of Mumtaz Mahal and Shah Jahan are in a basement room below the main chamber.
A complex of courtyards, gardens and buildings, the impressive City Palace is right in the centre of the Old City. The outer wall was built by Jai Singh II, but within it the palace has been enlarged and adapted over the centuries. There are palace buildings from different eras, some dating from the early 20th century. It is a striking blend of Rajasthani and Mughal architecture. The price of admission includes entry to Royal Gaitor and the Cenotaphs of the Maharanis, as well as to Jaigarh, a long climb above Amber Fort. This composite ticket is valid for two days and costs Indians an extra ₹60 on top of City Palace entry (no extra cost for foreigners). Mubarak Mahal Entering through Virendra Pol, you’ll see the Mubarak Mahal (Welcome Palace), built in the late 19th century for Maharaja Madho Singh II as a reception centre for visiting dignitaries. Its multiarched and colonnaded construction was cooked up in an Islamic, Rajput and European stylistic stew by the architect Sir Swinton Jacob. It now forms part of the Maharaja Sawai Mansingh II Museum, containing a collection of royal costumes and superb shawls, including Kashmiri pashmina. One remarkable exhibit is Sawai Madho Singh I’s capacious clothing; it’s said he was a cuddly 2m tall, 1.2m wide and 250kg. The Armoury The Anand Mahal Sileg Khana – the Maharani’s Palace – houses the Armoury, which has one of the best collections of weapons in the country. Many of the ceremonial items are elegantly engraved and inlaid, belying their grisly purpose. Diwan-i-Khas (Sarvatobhadra) Set between the Armoury and the Diwan-i-Am art gallery is an open courtyard known in Sanskrit as Sarvatobhadra. At its centre is a pink-and-white, marble-paved gallery that was used as the Diwan-i-Khas (Hall of Private Audience), where the maharajas would consult their ministers. Here you can see two enormous silver vessels, each 1.6m tall and reputedly the largest silver objects in the world. Diwan-i-Am Art Gallery Within the lavish Diwan-i-Am (Hall of Public Audience) is this art gallery. Exhibits include a copy of the entire Bhagavad Gita handwritten in tiny script, and miniature copies of other holy Hindu scriptures, which were small enough to be easily hidden in the event that zealot Mughal armies tried to destroy the sacred texts. Pitam Niwas Chowk & Chandra Mahal Located towards the palace’s inner courtyard is Pitam Niwas Chowk. Here four glorious gates represent the seasons – the Peacock Gate depicts autumn, the Lotus Gate signifies summer, the Green Gate represents spring, and finally the Rose Gate embodies winter. Beyond this chowk (square) is the private palace, the Chandra Mahal, which is still the residence of the descendants of the royal family; you can take a 45-minute Royal Grandeur guided tour of select areas.
This magnificent fort comprises an extensive palace complex, built from pale yellow and pink sandstone, and white marble, and is divided into four main sections, each with its own courtyard. It is possible to visit the fortress on elephant-back, but animal welfare groups have criticised the keeping of elephants at Amber because of reports of abuse, and because carrying passengers can cause lasting injuries to the animals. As an alternative, you can trudge up to the fort from the road in about 10 minutes, or take a 4WD to the top and back for ₹450 (good for up to five passengers), including a one-hour wait time. For night entry, admission for foreigners drops to the Indian price. However you arrive, you will enter Amber Fort through the Suraj Pol (Sun Gate), which leads to the Jaleb Chowk (Main Courtyard), where returning armies would display their war booty to the populace – women could view this area from the veiled windows of the palace. The ticket office is directly across the courtyard from the Suraj Pol. If you arrive by car you will enter through the Chand Pol (Moon Gate) on the opposite side of Jaleb Chowk. Hiring a guide or grabbing an audio guide is highly recommended, as there are very few signs and many blind alleys. From Jaleb Chowk, an imposing stairway leads up to the main palace, but first it’s worth taking the steps just to the right, which lead to the small Siladevi Temple, with its gorgeous silver doors featuring repoussé (raised relief) work. Heading back to the main stairway will take you up to the second courtyard and the Diwan-i-Am (Hall of Public Audience), which has a double row of columns, each topped by a capital in the shape of an elephant, and latticed galleries above. The maharaja’s apartments are located around the third courtyard – you enter through the fabulous Ganesh Pol, decorated with beautiful frescoed arches. The Jai Mandir (Hall of Victory) is noted for its inlaid panels and multimirrored ceiling. Carved marble relief panels around the hall are fascinatingly delicate and quirky, depicting cartoon-like insects and sinuous flowers. Opposite the Jai Mandir is the Sukh Niwas (Hall of Pleasure), with an ivory-inlaid sandalwood door and a channel that once carried cooling water right through the room. From the Jai Mandir you can enjoy fine views from the palace ramparts over picturesque Maota Lake below. The zenana (secluded women’s quarters) surrounds the fourth courtyard. The rooms were designed so that the maharaja could embark on his nocturnal visits to his wives’ and concubines’ respective chambers without the others knowing, as the chambers are independent but open onto a common corridor. The Amber sound-and-light show takes place below the fort in the complex near Maota Lake.
Conceived as the cosmic chariot of the sun god Surya, this massive, breathtakingly splendid temple was constructed in the mid-13th century, probably by Odishan king Narashimhadev I to celebrate his military victory over the Muslims. Around the base, seven rearing horses (representing the days of the week) move the stone leviathan on 24 stone cartwheels (representing the hours of the day). The temple was positioned so that dawn light would illuminate the deul (temple sanctuary) interior and the presiding deity. The temple was in use for maybe only three centuries. In the late 16th century the 40m-high sikhara (spire) partially collapsed: speculation about causes ranges from marauding Mughals removing the copper over the cupola to a ransacking Kalapahad displacing the Dadhinauti (arch stone), to simple wear and tear from recurring cyclones. The presiding deity may have been moved to Jagannath Temple in Puri in the 17th century; the interior of the temple was filled in with stone in 1903 by the British. The temple has been under constant and careful restoration for years now, and its gradual weathering continues to this day. Every year, crumbling sections of ornate wall panels are replaced by new blocks (featuring unremarkable motifs sculpted by modern hands), and the structure slowly sheds the sculptural brilliance that made it so special in the first place. The gajasimha (main entrance) is guarded by two stone lions crushing elephants and leads to the intricately carved nritya mandapa (dancing hall). Steps, flanked by straining horses, rise to the still-standing jagamohan (assembly hall). Behind is the spireless deul, with its three impressive chlorite images of Surya aligned to catch the sun at dawn, noon and sunset. The chariot concept of the temple harks back to a stylistic trend in Indian architecture, reflected in the stone chariot at the Vittala Temple in Hampi and the Pancha Rathas complex (featuring five stone chariots devoted to the Pandavas from the Mahabharata) in Mahabalipuram. The base and walls present a chronicle in stone of Kalinga life; you’ll see women cooking and men hunting. Many are in the erotic style for which Konark is famous and include entwined couples as well as solitary exhibitionists. Persistent guides (₹150) will approach you at the entrance. The temple’s history is a complicated amalgam of fact and legend, and religious and secular imagery, and the guides’ explanations can be thought-provoking. But make sure you get a government-approved one; all licensed guides wear their official ID on them and should be easy to spot.
Come here twice: in the morning, when the honey-hued granite begins to assert its dominance over the white dawn sunshine, and in the evening, when the rocks capture a hot palette of reds, oranges, yellows and pinks on the crowning glory of Chola temple architecture. The World Heritage–listed Brihadishwara Temple was built between 1003 and 1010 by Raja Raja I (‘king of kings’). The outer fortifications were put up by Thanjavur's later Nayak and British regimes. You enter through a Maratha-era gate, followed by two original gopurams with elaborate stucco sculptures. You might find the temple elephant under one of the gopurams. Several shrines are dotted around the extensive grassy areas of the walled temple compound, including one of India’s largest statues of Nandi (Shiva’s sacred bull), facing the main temple building. Cut from a single rock and framed by slim pillars, this 16th-century Nayak creation is 6m long. Don't miss the sublime sculptures at the shrine dedicated to Lakshmi, to the right of Nandi when entering the complex. A long, columned assembly hall leads to the central shrine with its 4m-high Shiva lingam, beneath the superb 61m-high vimana (tower). The assembly hall's southern steps are flanked by two huge dwarpals (temple guardians). Many graceful deity images stand in niches around the vimana's lower outer levels, including Shiva emerging from the lingam (beside the southern steps); Shiva as the beggar Bhikshatana (first image, south side); Shiva as Nataraja, the cosmic dancer (west end of south wall); Harihara (half Shiva, half Vishnu) on the west wall; and Ardhanarishvara (Shiva as half-man, half-woman), leaning on Nandi, on the north side. Between the deity images are panels showing classical dance poses. On the vimana ' s upper east side is a later Maratha-period Shiva within three arches. The compound also contains an interpretation centre along the south wall and, in the colonnade along the west and north walls, hundreds more linga. Both west and north walls are lined with exquisite lime-plaster Chola frescoes, for years buried under later Nayak-era murals. North of the temple compound, but still within the outer fortifications, are the 18th-century neoclassical Schwartz's Church and a park containing the Sivaganga tank. Official guides can be hired at the tourist information booth just outside the temple for 90-minute tours (₹500).
The legendary Golden Temple is actually just a small part of this huge gurdwara complex, known to Sikhs as Harmandir Sahib. Spiritually, the focus of attention is the tank that surrounds the gleaming central shrine – the Amrit Sarovar, from which Amritsar takes its name, excavated by the fourth Sikh guru, Ram Das, in 1577. Ringed by a marble walkway, the tank is said to have healing powers, and pilgrims come from across the world to bathe in its sacred waters. Floating at the end of a long causeway, the Golden Temple itself is a mesmerising blend of Hindu and Islamic architectural styles, with an elegant marble lower level adorned with flower and animal motifs in pietra dura work (as seen on the Taj Mahal). Above this rises a shimmering second level, encased in intricately engraved gold panels, and topped by a dome gilded with 750kg of gold. In the gleaming inner sanctum (photography prohibited), priests and musicians keep up a continuous chant from the Guru Granth Sahib (the Sikh holy book), adding to the already intense atmosphere. Given the never-ending beeline of devotees, you will likely only get a few minutes within the sanctum before you are gently urged to exit and make way for other devotees. Entry and exit are both via the causeway. The Guru Granth Sahib is installed in the temple every morning and returned at night to the Akal Takhat, the temporal seat of the Khalsa brotherhood. The ceremony takes place at 5am and 9.30pm in winter, and 4am and 10.30pm in summer. Inside the Akal Takhat, you can view a collection of sacred Sikh weapons. The building was heavily damaged when it was stormed by the Indian army during Operation Blue Star in 1984. It was repaired by the government but Sikhs refused to use the tainted building and rebuilt the tower from scratch. More shrines and monuments are dotted around the edge of the compound. Inside the main entrance clock tower, the Sikh Museum shows the persecution suffered by the Sikhs at the hands of Mughals, the British and Indira Gandhi. At the southeast end of the tank is the Ramgarhia Bunga, a protective fortress topped by two Islamic-style minarets; inside is a stone slab once used for Mughal coronations, but which was seized from Delhi by Sikh forces in 1783.
There are extraordinary riches scattered around Mehrauli, with more than 440 monuments – from the 10th century to the British era – dotting a forest and the village itself behind the forest. In the forest, most impressive are the time-ravaged tombs of Balban and Quli Khan, his son, and the Jamali Khamali mosque, attached to the tomb of the Sufi poet Jamali. To the west is the 16th-century Rajon ki Baoli, Delhi's finest step-well. At the northern end of Mehrauli village is Adham Khan’s Mausoleum, which was once used as a British residence, then later as a police station and post office. Leading northwards from the tomb are the pre-Islamic walls of Lal Kot. To the south of the village are the remains of the Mughal palace, the Zafar Mahal, once in the heart of the jungle. Next door to it is the Sufi shrine, the Dargah of Qutab Sahib. There is a small burial ground with one empty space that was intended for the last king of Delhi, Bahadur Shah Zafar, who died in exile in Burma (Myanmar) in 1862. South of here is a Lodi-era burial ground for hijras (transvestites and eunuchs), Hijron ka Khanqah. The identity of those buried here is unknown, but it's a well-kept, peaceful place, revered by Delhi's hijra community. A little further south are Jahaz Mahal ('ship palace', also built by the Mughals) and the Haus i Shamsi tank. Wild pigs scamper about the forest, while bright-green parakeets and large black kites swoop from tree to tree. Troops of monkeys clamber across the ruins, especially at dusk. Stone pillars with the names of the main sights carved onto them guide you along the maze-like network of dusty forest pathways; don't come here too late in the day, as it can be easy to get lost. You can reach the forested part of the park by turning right out of Qutab Minar metro station then taking the small gate on your left, just as you reach the slip road that leads up to Qutab Minar. Note, there is no obvious entrance with English signage, but you'll notice the landscaped park-like area from the road.
Madhya Pradesh is the king of the jungle when it comes to tiger parks, and Kanha is its most famous. The forests are vast, and while your chances of seeing a tiger are probably slimmer than at nearby Bandhavgarh, this is still one of India's best parks for sightings. The sal forests and vast meadows are home to approximately 125 tigers and 100 leopards. The tiger reserve covers 2059 sq km including the 940-sq-km Kanha National Park which is the reserve's core zone. The reserve supports huge populations of deer and antelope, including the southern swamp deer ( barasingha) which exists nowhere else. You’ll see plenty of langurs and varied birds, the odd gaur (Indian bison), maybe even a family or two of wild boar and perhaps a lonesome jackal or two. Safaris venture into four zones within the core zone, of which Kisli and Mukki zones have the best reputations for tiger sightings, followed by Kanha zone then Sarhi zone. Kisli and Kanha zones are best accessed from the Khatia gate on the western edge of the reserve. Mukki zone is best accessed from the Mukki gate on the south side, a 54km, 1½-hour drive from Khatia. Up to 140 six-passenger 4WDs (known as Gypsies, because most of them are the Suzuki Gypsy make) are allowed into the reserve per day, but most of these can only be booked online (http://forest.mponline.gov.in, up to 120 days in advance) and the website does not accept foreign cards for payment. Save yourself immense hassle by booking through a hotel/agency (usually an additional ₹1000) – and make arrangements as far ahead as possible, because popular zones sell out months ahead. Tickets for 15 4WDs per day (90 seats, divided between the four zones and morning and afternoon safaris) can be purchased in person at the park gates between 6.30pm and 7.30pm for the next morning, and 11am to noon for the same afternoon. But queues can form as early as the previous evening. There are two safari slots each day: morning (roughly 6am to 11am) and afternoon (roughly 3pm to 6pm). Morning safaris are longer and tend to produce more tiger sightings. Note that the exact timing of safaris does vary a little over the course of the year according to sunrise/sunset times.
If your only reason for visiting a tiger reserve in India is to see a tiger, look no further. A couple of days at Bandhavgarh should net you a tiger sighting. India's 2014 tiger census counted 68 tigers here, the great majority of them in the 453-sq-km Bandhavgarh National Park, which forms part of the reserve's core zone. The main base for visits is the small, laid-back village of Tala, 32km northeast of Umaria, the nearest train station. February to June are generally the best months for tiger sightings but April, May and June are very hot with temperatures often climbing above 40°C. All safaris start from Tala and head into one of three zones of the national park: Tala zone is entered from the village itself; the entrances to Khitauli and Maghdi (or Magadhi) zones are about 5.5km and 6km southwest of Tala along the Umaria road. Up to 170 six-passenger safari 4WDs (known as Gypsies) are allowed into the park per day, but most of these can only be booked online (http://forest.mponline.gov.in, up to 120 days in advance) and the website does not accept foreign cards for payment. Do yourself a favour by having hotels/agencies make your safari bookings (typically an additional ₹1000) – and make arrangements as far ahead as possible, because safaris can sell out months in advance, especially for Tala zone. Tickets for 12 4WDs per day (72 seats) can be purchased in person at the ticket office in Tala village half an hour before safari starting times, but queues for these can start forming as early as the night before. Morning safaris, starting between 5.30am and 6.45am (depending on the season) are longer than afternoon safaris (starting at 3pm) and tend to produce more tiger sightings.
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