The time had come for one of the most anticipated parts of my 10 week trip in India.
After 3 long, hard days in Delhi attempting to buy rail tickets (Yes it really did take me 3 days to buy train tickets) I did arrive in Agra via train. Upon checking into my guest house, my host Max recommended that I visited some nearby gardens, Mehtab Bagh.*
*On a side note if you're visiting Agra and the Taj Mahal I would highly recommend staying at Max's guesthouse - Max is a superb and friendly host and will do everything he can to help you on your stay.
I headed to the Gardens thinking it would just be a nice walk and a nice way to pass an hour or so. As I walked around though, I noticed a beautiful, mosque style building just opposite the gardens on the other side of the Yamuna river. I thought to myself, 'that's a nice looking building' but didn't think too much more of it.
I'm ashamed to say that it took me some time before I finally clicked that it was in fact the Taj Mahal - a very dumb moment. In my defence, I was led to believe from what I'd heard about visiting the Taj Mahal, that it was quite a distance outside of Agra, so I certainly didn't expect to see it when I visited these small gardens within the City.
Turns out, while the Taj Mahal is obviously not placed slap bang in the centre of the city of Agra, it's actually not far from it at all. Certainly much closer than I was expecting. So as it turned out I actually probably got some of my favourite photos of the Taj Mahal from these Gardens, as it allowed me to get photos from a slightly different perspective and viewpoint rather than the same classic photo we've all seen hundreds of times.
The following day I visited the Taj Mahal for real and it just so happened that I visited as Muslims were celebrating Eid, the end of the holy month of Ramadan. As a result it was actually free to enter between the hours of 7am and 10am.
The Taj Mahal did not disappoint at all, it really is spectacularly beautiful and what's really impressive is that it was built in the 16th century yet is still just as pristine and immaculate as the day it was built.
Security is tight at the Taj Mahal and they're very strict with what you can take inside. Essentially you are allowed your phone/camera, a bottle of water and that's pretty much it. As a photographer I would have loved to take a tripod with me but I knew this was not possible. I did however think I was being clever by taking in a Manfrotto pocket tripod. It's a 'pocketable' 'tripod' which folds completely flat on the bottom of your camera but has three legs which fold out, barely a few centimeters high. A handy little tool just to give your camera a bit of support.
My plan was to use it to take a time lapse of the Taj Mahal, so I got myself set up but within seconds a security guard quickly blew his whistle, called me over and marched me over to several other guards. You can see the resulting time lapse in my video at the top of this page.
The security guards talked amongst themselves and inspected my tripod for sometime before one of them eventually shouted out 'Ok you've seen the Taj Mahal now you can go!' Another one of the guards then proceeded to march me to the exit.
I had been in there long enough to take a few photos and get that 'classic shot' but I was obviously disappointed that I hadn't been in very long and hadn't had chance to get real up close or inside the Taj Mahal.
I thought to myself that I'd only be here once so that I should try to persuade them to let me back in. So as the guard was walking me to the exit I asked him, if I got rid of the tripod would I be able to come back inside. He very bluntly shouted 'No!'
Well at least I got a photo and a story to tell I thought to myself. Thankfully though, the guard must have had a change of heart when we arrived at the entrance gate. He handed me back my tripod and told me that if I put it in a locker I would be allowed to go back inside.
So not only was I able to walk along close and inside the Taj Mahal but after I did re-eneter I also witnessed a really special event.
As Muslims were celebrating Eid al Fitr, the end of Ramadan, they had been allowed to give prayers at the mosque which is located inside the grounds of the Taj Mahal. Ordinarily Muslims are no longer able to pray at the Taj Mahal, except on Fridays when it is open to local people only. So I felt extremely privileged and fortunate to witness this. Especially as a Non-Muslim myself, this is not something I get to witness anywhere, never mind at the Taj Mahal.
Watching hundreds of Muslims all lined up and giving prayers at one of the most amazing locations on the planet was a remarkable and unforgettable experience. I'm so pleased I was allowed back in!