You may have seen the Taj Mahal in thousands of pictures, but nothing can prepare you for standing in front of this vision of grace, calm, and order.
You know what you never see in the postcards? The chaos. My own visit will indelibly be framed by what remains for me the worst car trip ever, an interminable four hours careering down the highway from New Delhi to Agra in nostril-searing 112-degree heat while cramps stabbed at my gut. The driver was in the grip of a mania that impelled him to floor the accelerator and pull onto the dusty median strip to pass long convoys of army trucks—only to have the car's radiator overheat. While we were parked on the side of the road, I lay in the backseat, soaked with sweat, and watched the trucks lumber past.
And then we arrived.
Shuffling, weak-kneed, toward the great white soaring domes and spires, hazy against the pale sky, I saw a vision of grace and calm and order, a revelation of a better world, a place that human beings had imagined and then brought to this world from that other realm. And though what I was seeing looked just like thousands of pictures I'd come across, this time I not only saw the Taj Mahal, but understood it.
by Diane Vadino
When to Go
Seize the opportunity to view the Taj Mahal during one of the five late-night viewings every month (on full moons and the two nights that precede and follow them). Only 400 after-dark tickets are doled out daily. Timed tickets are sold 24 hours in advance at the Archaeological Survey of India office (Agra Circle, 22 The Mall, asi.nic.in, $16). Note: The Taj Mahal and the ticket office are closed Fridays.
From New Delhi, it's three and a half hours by car or as fast as two hours by train to Agra, home of the Taj. Approximately 15 trains make the trip daily. You want to be in an air-conditioned car and on an express route. It's possible to reserve tickets online at cleartrip.com or irctc.co.in, but the process can be so frustrating that the India forum website indiamike.com came up with guides for helping you book.
Where to Stay
There's nothing fancy about the Hotel Sheela, but the rooms are clean, the staff helpful, and the front door is a two-minute walk from the Taj's eastern gate (hotelsheelaagra.com, suite with air-conditioning $17.25). Plus, it's located within the Taj Trapezium Zone, a no-car area designed to reduce pollution. No cars means less noise—a fact worth celebrating over a meal of curried vegetables and a mango lassi in the Sheela's peaceful garden.
Where to Splurge
Stop for a drink at cocktail hour on the terrace of The Oberoi Amarvilas hotel, where, from late October to mid-March, traditional dancers perform with the Taj as a backdrop. Free peanuts—and bug repellent (Taj East Gate Rd., oberoiamarvilas.com, cocktails $10.75).
IN YOUR WORDS
"Seriously, nothing can prepare you for its beauty—the symmetry, the architecture, and the detail in every bit of marble make it just plain a must-visit." —Beverly Smick, Spokane, Wash.