Travel clichés. We love to hate them and yet, we continually do them.
After I wrote the article, Can hype kill famous landmarks… like Angkor Wat?, more famous sites erupted to memory, like a serial killer’s growing body count.
Angkor Wat wasn’t the first site to bite-the-dust. Nope, there’d been others before it.
The Eiffel Tower. I have only one memory of it– being squished in an elevator and suffering a long queue, all for a 15 minute view of Paris that I now can’t remember.
The Sistine Chapel. Bumper-to-bumper traffic at a snail’s pace through displays of art artifact, only to arrive upon my long-awaited prize… the ceiling painted by Michelangelo. Unfortunately, slide projections in darkened art history class lectures made the actual painting seem faded, not to mention… smaller. For an art student and big-time fan of Michelangelo’s works, it was a huge letdown and neck cramp!
Reasonably, you can’t get travel-gasms from every sight you see. And when you’re fighting heat, hype and huge crowds, sometimes, a postcard offers a more romantic perspective than the real thing.
…Perhaps that’s why I wasn’t particularly dying to see the Taj Mahal.
The Taj Mahal is a must-see traveler’s dream
In person, the Taj Mahal is as beautiful as the love story of Emperor Shah Jahan erecting this mausoleum to honor his deceased wife, Mumtaz Mahal.
…Forget that its beauty is silently stained by the blood of 20,000+ craftsmen, who labored for 22 years, only to get their hands chopped off and eyes gorged out, so as not to replicate it or witness anything grander!…
The Taj is everything you imagine it to be in architectural poetry. Each angle is exactly as every photo or postcard has captured it. The clinching view is almost always this.
Taj Ganj: Beauty and the Beast
But the things we fall in love with aren’t always predictable. For me, they’re usually things, which I have a personal connection or interact with. I went to the Taj, early in the morning when it opened. The time was ideal and I wasn’t suffering heat or crowds. I was able to take my time exploring the grounds in silence.
The Taj is a cross between an architect’s heaven and a lover’s poem. In many regards, it holds a delicate and romantic face. But it didn’t blow my knickers off. Afterall, looking at it I felt like I was viewing it through a glass case. It wasn’t like Amritsar’s Golden Palace, where visual design meets functionality and you can’t help but feel the vibrational intensity of prayers as they wash over you through a loudspeaker, as you watch pious devotees bathe in the open pool, fall to their knees in prostration …or line up on the long bridge walkway to enter the temple. That’s an experience.
But put simply, the Taj’s design invokes idyllic beauty… for me, a bit of boredom. So it’s interesting to note that the Taj Mahal’s surroundings- outside of its gates- appear to be the opposite of this.
Agra Travel Guide: Taj ganj town
Under the southern shadow of Shah Jahan’s opulent throne resides Taj ganj. Centuries ago, it was said that Taj Ganj was a bazaar selling luxuries and jewelry.
Today, its appearance hangs ragged with dirt road streets, old and oily looking hotels and restaurant signs worn with sun-faded damage. It’s a bit of a shanty area; not a place you’d originally expect to find a UNESCO site or the pride of India cradled in. At first glance, the area appears sketchy and disappointing, but explore the streets and you may find an unusual love here.
Like a five o’clock shadow the ganj stands in defiant opposition to the Taj’s beauty, reminding visitors that the Taj Mahal was built by working class hands, blood and sweat and by a people, who lived a simple lifestyle outside of the Taj’s powerful affluence.
A bit of a bazaar feeling still remains with local shops selling fresh produce, sweets, spices, jewelry, housewares, etc… Meanwhile, larger streets accommodate shops for family doctors, a pharmacy, barbers, tailors, etc… The area makes for an interesting and delightful stroll, as it’s filled with a warm character of the hard-working Indian masses.
What is life next to a world-famous landmark?
For a site that’s drawn millions across the globe each year, Taj Ganj residents don’t appear any more “well-off” or fattened by their glamorous neighbor, than any other Indian town. Nor have they set up blocks of souvenir shops (although there are strings of souvenir shops at the west gate), to cash in on tourism. They don’t even push you to buy anything! Surprisingly, local life doesn’t revolve around its celebrity neighbor the way you think it would. Residents go about their lives un-phased; and the ganj refuses to go out of its way to invite tourist and modern sensibilities in the way Goa might with its international restaurants, hippie-rasta clothing shops, glow sticks and bakery cafes.
Travelers can expect to find a no-fuss laid back village town, doing its own thing, refusing to change in the face of tourism. The ganj may not be idyllic or even very pretty . But is a very real beauty, that one shouldn’t overlook.
Photo slideshow of Taj Ganj residents below. Please wait to load…
Where to stay in Agra?
There’s a range of great budget hotels in Agra. The problem is always finding one of good quality and standard. Taj Ganj holds several guesthouses (and hotels) for the budget backpacker. Many lodges boast a close proximity to the Taj with views of the Taj (mostly from the rooftop) at cheap prices; however, the joints here can range from decent to gritty. The nicer guesthouses and hotels, reside further (10+ minutes) from the ganj and require a drive. Taxi entrance into the ganj is closed at some point due to security purposes and you’ll need to be dropped at the the road block and need to walk in. Aside from the ganj, there’s not much to do in Agra and many things are spaced apart, so you’re looking at the ganj as your main form of excitement.
I stayed in a string of guesthouses next to the western gate of the Taj and near the Protected Forest. Across my guesthouse was a row of souvenir shops selling anything from sandals to clothes. One night ranged around 700rp for a room with two twin beds and a bathroom ensuite. No AC, just fan. Tip: If you’re in Agra, get the room with the AC.
East of the Taj Mahal is Fatehabad Road, boasting modern family-friendly hotels (with pools) sit near parks, cafe chains, maybe even a Pizza Hut. Cantonment and Sadar Bazaar areas offer something for everyone. You’ll want to book a nearby hotel in advance— affordable, clean, respectable and preferably without the culture shock of broken toilets, stained walls, critters, etc…
Where to eat in Taj ganj
There’s few restaurants to dine at in Taj Ganj as well as, a few basic convenience or town houseware shops, where you buy toiletries and snacks. If you’re escaping the heat, there’s a nice air-conditioned chain coffee joint past the Taj west gate. More centrally located is Joney’s Place, a small shack of a restaurant that I had lassi at due to a Lonely Planet recommendation. Also, there’s a variety of hole-in-the-wall cafes soliciting tourists (and Asian tourists at that). They’re located on the main street Fatehabad Road and reading the menus will add a little chuckle to your day.
Two restaurants in Taj Ganj which serve “KOREIN” food.
Getting to Agra
The main station is the Delhi Railway Station, which is located in Paharganj and can feel like bit of a culture shock for the average tourist. Another station in Delhi, 20 minutes away is the H Nizamuddin Railway Station. Your arrival station in Agra is Agra Cantt (AGC). Duration: 3-5 hours. Take a taxi to Taj ganj. You will be dropped outside.
Trains : 12002 Bhopal Shatabdi (runs every day except Friday). The trains that run daily: 2280 Taj Express Superfast, 2279 Taj Express, 12001 NDLS Shatabdi. More train info here
Taj Mahal Information
Official website: www.tajmahal.gov.in Admission: foreigners 750 ruppees. Hours: Sunrise-Sunset (closed on Fridays)
Government-run budget tours (Taj Mahal, Agra Fort, Fatehpur Sikri)- click here – Full & Half-day tours, departure from Agra Cannt Train station at 10:30A
About traveling to Agra & map: http://www.mapsofagra.com/