Get orientated – The Taj Mahal is a manifesto-in-marble, an awesome architectural statement that declares the opulence and extravagance of 17th-century Mughal architecture. It’s listed by UNESCO and, in 2007, was voted one of the New 7 Wonders of the World. This mighty mausoleum – a confection of graceful minarets and jewel-encrusted arches, topped by a double dome – gleams on the right bank of the Yamuna River, in the heart of Uttar Pradesh’s Agra District.
It towers over 17 acres of exquisite gardens and serene waters, which reflect its highly polished structure. Artisans, masons, stone-cutters and calligraphers completed the tomb and its grounds in 1653. It is a testament to true love, built for the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan in memory of his favourite wife, Mumtaz Mahal – as such, the resplendent structure is the final resting place of the couple and their ornamental cenotaphs.
Getting there – Several airlines fly UK-Delhi. Oman Air flies London Heathrow-Delhi, via Muscat, from £396 return; total journey time is about 13 hours. From Delhi, trains run to Agra Cantt station; the journey takes from two hours and costs around Rs497 (£5).
The visit – The Taj Mahal is open from sunrise to sunset every day except Friday; entry costs Rs750 (£7.50) for foreign visitors. Arrive as early as possible to capture a crowd-free classic image of the monument in front of the Lotus Pool. The Taj is also open for evening viewing once a month, on the full moon. Entrance costs Rs750; visits are limited to 30 minutes, between 8.30pm and 12.30am. When you’ve had your fill of this amorous icon, acquaint yourself with the history of Agra by embarking on the City Heritage Walk.
The 90-minute tour takes in 12 sights, including the Jama Masjid (Friday mosque), the Mankameshwar Temple and the Amar Singh Gate, which is the entrance to Agra Fort. Head inside this 16th-centuy rose-red garrison, the city’s second UNESCO World Heritage site, to learn more about Mughal style. Within its 2.5km-long walls is a complex of courtly buildings, such as the marble Khas Mahal hall and Sheesh Mahal baths, as well mosques and pavilions. Next, swap culture for nature at Wildlife SOS’s Bear Rescue facility, just outside Agra. Entry costs Rs500 (£5) and allows you to see the little-known sloth bear up close while hearing about the charity’s conservation efforts. For an additional fee you can also visit and feed the eles at the neighbouring Elephant Haven.
Taj Mahal history – The Taj Mahal is believed to have been designed as an earthly replica of one of the houses of paradise. Indeed, its perfect proportions and craftsmanship have been variously described as a prayer, a vision, a dream, a poem, a wonder. It’s estimated to have cost around 30-40 million rupees at the time it was built; around 20,000 workers laboured for almost 22 years to complete it.
Four minarets – Each of the four minarets is 40m high and crowned by a chhatrl (dome-shaped pavilion); they highlight the complex.
Charbagh – The Persian-style garden was irrigated by the waters of the Yamuna River.
Dome – The 44m double dome is capped with a finlal.
Marble screen – The filigree screen, delicately carved from a single block of marble, was meant to veil the area around the royal tombs.
Pishtaq – Recessed arches provide depth while their inlaid panels reflect the changing light to give the tomb a mystical aura.
Tomb chamber – Mumtaz Mahal’s cenotaph, raised on a platform, is placed next to Shah Jahan’s. The actual graves, in a dark crypt below, are closed to the public.
Calligraphic panels – The size of the Koranic verses increases as the arches get higher, creating the subtle optical illusion of a uniformly flowing script.
Lotus Pool – Named after its lotus-shaped fountain spouts, the pool reflects the tomb. Almost every visitor wants to be photographed sitting on the marble bench here.
Pietra dura – Inspired by the paradise garden, intricately carved floral designs inlaid with precious stones embellish the white marble surface to give it the look of a bejewelled cask