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How to visit the Taj Mahal

"No, madam. I am sorry. Taj Mahal is closed today."

"But," I thought, as I skeptically squinted at the guard delivering this bad news, "this is the Taj Mahal. The TAJ MAHAL! It's one of the most recognizable structures in the entire world. How could it be closed?"

"It's Friday, holy day," offered the gatekeeper. My whole body slumped with disappointment. And just like that I had my Walley World moment.

I had arrived in Agra, India, home of the world's most famous Muslim shrine, on a Friday. No travel agent would have arranged an itinerary whereby I arrived in Agra on the one day that its main attraction was closed. But, seeing as how I was living in India at the time, I thought I could plan my own Golden Triangle adventure. I like to think that jaundice, the disease I had contracted two months before and that had left me home-bound and mustard-skinned up until a week before my travels, had contributed to my lack of planning. But my sister, who had come all the way from the U.S. for this once-in-a-lifetime trip, was none too pleased.

Nevertheless, we did what any traveler in such a situation should do. We rolled with it, retreating to a nearby cafe to work on Plan B. Turns out, arriving on a Friday was the best thing that could have happened to us. Agra was quiet, save for the Hindu wedding livening up the backstreets, and we got the opportunity to see the Taj Mahal and the Agra Fort, the city's other big landmark, from several vantage points.

My very first view of the Taj Mahal was from the roof of a small restaurant a few blocks from the Western Gate, the main entrance to the Taj. Drying laundry and the crumbling brick rooftops of Agra's city center framed the panorama. The air was sooty and hazy, giving the marble monument an almost mirage-like quality. Was that really the Taj Mahal?

Following lunch, we set out with a tour guide to the Agra Fort, the other landmark in Agra. The Agra Fort was built in the 16th century by the grandfather of Shah Jahan, the Moghul ruler who built the Taj Mahal as a shrine to his late wife Mumtaz Mahal. These sprawling red sandstone fortifications of Agra Fort would be an attraction in their own right were it not for the Taj. In the last years of his life, Shah Jahan was placed under house arrest in the Fort, forced to gaze upon the gleaming monument in the distance without ever setting foot inside its gates. I could relate.

After an hour or so at the Agra Fort, our guide drove us to the back side of the Taj. It was February, still a few months away from monsoon season, so the Yamuna River had all but dried up. Local kids were playing cricket in the dusty riverbed. The late afternoon light was rendering the Taj's white marble pink.

That's the thing about the Taj Mahal. It changes with the day's light. Sunset turns the marble dome and its corresponding minarets a rosy color while sunrise, I learned the next morning after entering the Taj gates, gives the complex a golden tint. During the afternoon, or at times of bright sun or cloud cover, the Taj can take on a rainbow of hues, subtly switching from one to the other like a mood ring. Had I not made that huge travel mistake - arriving at the Taj Mahal on a Friday - I would not have had the chance to see the monument in all its many sublime shades.

Filed under: History, Asia, India

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