Taj Mahal Myths
The Taj is a Hindu Temple
The well-publicised theory that the Taj was originally a Shiva temple built in the 12th century, and only later converted into Mumtaz Mahal’s famous mausoleum, was developed by Purushottam Nagesh Oak in 1989. (Oak also claims that the Kaaba, Stonehenge and Vatican City all have Hindu origins.) He petitioned parliament to open the Taj's sealed basement rooms to prove his theory (request denied) and in 2000 India’s Supreme Court dismissed his plea to officially name a Hindu king as the builder of the Taj. But the matter is still alive, with a similar court case filed as recently as 2015, this one naming a form of Shiva as one of the plaintiffs. Archaeologists and the Indian government remain unconvinced.
The Black Taj Mahal
The story goes that Shah Jahan planned to build a negative image of the Taj Mahal in black marble on the opposite side of the river as his own mausoleum, and that work began before he was imprisoned by his son Aurangzeb in Agra Fort. Extensive excavations at Mehtab Bagh have found no trace of any such construction.
Legend has it that on completion of the Taj, Shah Jahan ordered the hands of the project’s craftsmen to be chopped off, preventing them from ever building anything as beautiful again. Some even say he went so far as to have their eyes gouged out. Thankfully, no historical evidence supports either story.
Some experts believe there is evidence to show that the Taj is slowly tilting towards and sinking into the riverbed due to the changing nature of the soil beside an increasingly dry Yamuna River. The Archaeological Survey of India has dismissed any marginal change in the elevation of the building as statistically insignificant, adding that it has not detected any structural damage at its base in the seven decades since its first scientific study of the Taj was carried out, in 1941.
Within the Taj complex, on the western side of the gardens, is the small but excellent Taj Museum, housing a number of original Mughal miniature paintings, including a pair of 17th-century ivory portraits of Emperor Shah Jahan and his beloved wife Mumtaz Mahal. It also has some very well-preserved gold and silver coins dating from the same period, plus architectural drawings of the Taj and some celadon plates, said to split into pieces or change colour if the food served on them contains poison.
Top Taj Views
The Taj is arguably at its most atmospheric at sunrise. This is certainly the most comfortable time to visit in summer, and although it's still popular, there are fewer crowds than later in the day. Sunset is another magical viewing time.
Inside the Taj Grounds
You may have to pay ₹1100 for the privilege, but it’s only when you’re inside the grounds themselves that you can really get up close and personal with the world’s most beautiful building. Don’t miss inspecting the marble inlay work (pietra dura) inside the pishtaqs (large arched recesses) on the four outer walls. Shine the torch (flashlight) on your phone onto the pietra dura work inside the dark central chamber of the mausoleum (₹200 extra) and you'll see the translucency of both the white marble and the semiprecious stones inlaid into it.
From Mehtab Bagh
Tourists are no longer allowed to wander freely along the riverbank on the opposite side of the Yamuna River, but you can still enjoy a view of the back of the Taj from the 16th-century Mughal park Mehtab Bagh, with the river flowing between you and the mausoleum. A path leading down to the river beside the park offers the same view for free, albeit from a more restricted angle. Guards stop visitors entering both spots 30 minutes before sunset.
Looking Up from the South Bank of the River
This is a great place to be for sunset. Take the path that hugs the outside of the Taj’s eastern wall and walk all the way down to the small temple beside the river. You should be able to find boat-hands down here willing to row you out onto the water for an even more romantic view. Expect to pay around ₹150 per boat. For safety reasons, it’s best not to wander down here on your own for sunset.
On a Rooftop Cafe in Taj Ganj
Perfect for sunrise shots: there are some wonderful photos to be had from the numerous rooftop cafes in Taj Ganj. We think the cafe on Saniya Palace Hotel is the pick of the bunch, with its plant-filled design and great position, but many of them are good. And all offer the bonus of being able to view the Taj with the added comfort of an early-morning cup of coffee.
From Agra Fort
With a decent zoom lens you can capture some fabulous images of the Taj from Agra Fort, especially if you’re willing to get up at the crack of dawn to see the sun rising up from behind it (the fort opens 30 minutes before dawn). The best places to snap from are probably the Khas Mahal or Muthamman Burj, the octagonal tower and palace where Shah Jahan was imprisoned for eight years until his death.
Protecting the Taj
If India's most glorious monument looks particularly glowing on your visit, it could come down to a day at the spa. Dust and air pollution have tarnished the surface of the Taj over the years, giving it a brownish hue. More recently, a greenish tint began to appear, due to the excrement of millions of insects that breed in the polluted Yamuna River and are drawn to the Taj's white-ish walls.
In an effort to restore the marble to some of its earlier glory, a mud-pack cleanse was developed, based on a traditional recipe used by Indian women to restore their own facial radiance, and applied in 2017 and 2018.
Problems remain though. Drying of the Yamuna River and a lowering of the water table are starting to dry the wooden supports on which the Taj is based, causing the beams to dry and crack.
The Taj at Moonlight
For five nights around the full moon the Taj by Moonlight is open to groups of 50 people in a series of eight 30-minute time slots between 8.30pm and 12.30am. You can only view the Taj from the entry gate viewing area and you only get 30 minutes there, making this an expensive option but some people love it. The later time slots are best for moonlight views.
Tickets must be bought a day in advance from the Archaeological Survey of India office; see its website for details. (Note: this office is known as the Taj Mahal Office by some rickshaw riders.) You need to go through security clearance at the Shilpgram Tourist Facilitation Centre first, before being taken by security on an electric bus to the eastern gate.
The Dancing Bear & Working Elephant Retirement Home
For hundreds of years, sloth bear cubs were stolen from their mothers (who were often killed) and forced through painful persuasion to become 'dancing bears', entertaining kings and crowds with their fancy footwork. In 1996, Wildlife SOS (www.wildlifesos.org) – an animal rescue organisation that is often called around Agra to humanely remove pythons and cobras from local homes – began efforts to emancipate all of India's 1200 or so dancing bears. By 2009, nearly all were freed, and more than 200 of them live at the Agra Bear Rescue Facility, inside Sur Sarovar Bird Sanctuary, 30km outside Agra on the road to Delhi.
Visitors are welcome to tour the park-like grounds and watch the bears enjoying their new, better lives. You'll have to pay the ₹500 entry fee to access the centre through the bird sanctuary.
Wildlife SOS also runs an Elephant Conservation Centre, closer to Mathura, which is more hands-on. You'll get to see the elephants while touring the facility and might be be able to help prepare their lunch.
For both locations you should email or phone in advance to arrange one of three daily time slots (10am, noon and 3pm).
Volunteers are welcome here for a day or two weeks. Costs are US$100 per person per day, including accommodation and three meals at a volunteer house 10km away. Email email@example.com in advance.