A. Murray Seeks Out Unusual Views of the Taj Mahal
Excerpted from To North India With Love, available from ThingsAsian Press.
I remember a Russian tour guide once telling me something quite interesting. "There are two man-made structures in the world whose beauty has never been fully captured in photographs. One is the Saint Basil's Cathedral in Moscow's Red Square. The other is Agra's Taj Mahal."
Standing in Agra, at the entrance to the Taj complex from where the "classic" shot of the structure is usually taken, I had to concede that there was truth to her claim. The long ornamental lake was directly in front of me, and beyond it stood the marble wonder with its four towers and onion-shaped dome in dead center. I was so familiar with this angle that the Taj appeared somewhat spiritless and one-dimensional, like a caricature of its own photographs.
There had to be other perspectives from which to view the Taj Mahal. Unusual angles that captured its different moods. Perhaps, distance was one element that could be used to introduce some exciting new variations. With this thought in mind, I began to explore the area around the Taj, and I was delighted to discover some excellent vantage points from the rooftop terraces of the budget hotels in the Tajganj neighborhood.
My first look at the Taj from one such terrace was in the minutes preceding sunset. The end of the day was still stiflingly hot, as are all summer days in Agra, but from the top of this four-story building, I could catch the slightest of breezes as I gazed. And it was simply that-an exercise in gazing. Looking over the blue roofs with a heat haze shimmering off the buildings, past the rusty red and white marble Taj Mahal gate, through to the dome and minarets. Just taking it in. While the sky gradually lost color and the dome turned many shades of purple before finally disappearing into the night.
The search for more long-range viewing spots took me to the Musamman Burj in Agra Fort next, where I found the tower's balcony, another great perspective from a distance of a few kilometers. But the spectacular view from this location depends on the day being bright and clear. I happened to be there once when a thick smog was settling on the horizon, and I could only look on in horror as a veil of smoke and sulfur dioxide gradually wrapped the Taj Mahal in its folds and made it disappear entirely from view.
My newfound interest in long-distance compositions kept me busy jumping on and off any elevated ground I could find around the Taj, and it was two full days before I could concentrate on something else that the classic Taj Mahal photograph cannot capture: the beauty of the inlay designs that embellish the structure's surfaces. Turquoise from Tibet, sapphire from Sri Lanka, carnelian from Baghdad, and jade from China, all combined with an unbelievably fine hand to create stunning floral and arabesque motifs in the signature Mughal style. The gradations of color and the play of light and shade achieved by mixing and matching bits of precious stones were so magnificent that I was momentarily stunned by the sheer scale of the work in front of me.
I must hasten to add here that the different viewing options I have put down are mere suggestions. It isn't my place to comment on how someone chooses to admire such an object of near perfection, but I must confess that it pains me to see people spend all their time organizing a customary photo-op with their spouses on the "lover's bench," with the monument tidily in the background. Or queuing up in front of the entrance to take the classic snapshot. It seems a pity to waste this great opportunity to find a new vista and take home your very own memory of the Taj Mahal.
Day trip to Agra
There's much to see in the city of Agra besides the Taj Mahal-Akbar's tomb, for example, and the Agra Fort. If you're going all the way there just for the Taj, it is possible to make a day trip out of it. Convenient trains from Delhi leave early in the morning and return to the capital in the evening. Otherwise, you can hire a taxi for this two-hundred-kilometer journey.