Agra, Part 2: The Great Sights (or Sites)

This post is about a long day of sightseeing we did on December 5, 2015, where we took in all the major sights in Agra, with the aid of a very good guide named Sudhir, and a driver who did not run into anything I noticed.

The Taj Mahal

The main reason for going to Agra is to see the Taj Mahal, undoubtedly the most famous symbol of India. The Taj Mahal was one of the three main reasons we wanted to visit India in the first place. I expected it to be interesting, but not overwhelming, but I was wrong. I was blown away by it. Let me explain why.

Probably every photo you’ve ever seen of the Taj Mahal is essentially the same – a distant shot from the gardens that shows the main mausoleum building with its onion dome and the four towers surrounding it. A really wide shot will also show the two buildings on the side, one of which is a mosque and the other which was built solely as visual counterbalance for the mosque. And those photos look great. You get a sense that the place is very symmetrical and artistic and well constructed. The white marble gleams in the sun.

But what these photos don’t convey that you can only see with the naked eye in person is the amount of fine detail everywhere. I had always assumed that this was a big marble building sort of like the Lincoln Memorial in Washington. But when you get up close to the Taj Mahal, you see that all around it, from the ground up, are tiny detailed carvings and gem inlays smaller than your pinky finger.

Stand back so you can see the whole thing at once, and these details are totally lost. Move in to see the detail, and the big picture of the mausoleum is lost. So it’s got a macro personality and a micro personality, even though the macro is all that 99.9% of the world ever sees.

Key points: The Taj Mahal (pronounced TODGE mah-HELL, not TODGE mah-HALL, by everyone in India) was built by Mughal emperor Shah Jahan as a mausoleum for his favorite of three wives nearly 400 years ago. Having an immense empire, he summoned designers, artists, and construction workers from all over. It took a team of 20,000 people about 22 years to complete. After Shah Jahan had it built, his son seized control of the empire from him and locked him in a corner of the Agra Fort, where Jahan looked out at the Taj to linger with the pain of his dead wife and his lost empire. When Jahan died, he was also buried beneath the mausoleum. His other wives were buried nearby.

To enter the grounds of the Taj Mahal you have to pass through this great gate house, made from local red sandstone with a little bit of the white marble used as an accent.

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You pass through a narrow passage and then there it is, the first glimpse of the Taj Mahal itself.

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The complex was designed to include this big garden area. But when the British took over India, the gardens were overgrown. They ripped them out and replaced them with English-style gardens instead. And that’s what we see today. They are very well cared-for, but aren’t the style of garden that Shah Jahan originally intended.

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All the surfaces of the main mausoleum building are covered in white marble quarried a ways away at Makrana and transported by river here. It’s said to be the hardest marble on earth.

There are a few types of up-close details I was talking about. First, along the sides and top of the entrance are passages from the Koran, written in Arabic. The height of the letters varies so that at the top the letters are taller than at ground level. This is so that if you stand off at a distance, there is the illusion that all the characters have the same height.

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Second, all over there are inlaid semi-precious stones. These designs aren’t painted on. They are actual stone inlays. One craftsman shapes tiny colored stones, and then another digs out the marble to exactly the size of the colored stone. Then they glue the colored stones into the holes. They must fit perfectly. It takes days to create just a few inches of this art, called pietra dura. And the inside and outside of the mausoleum have millions of pieces of it all over.

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Third, there are millions of fine engravings, bas relief, of flowers and similar stuff. Since it’s a Muslim structure, there can be no depictions of animals or people.

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For the rest of my best Taj Mahal photos, go see the Flickr gallery. I’m not putting them all here.

After leaving the Taj, we visited a place where they make things using pietra dura with the same techniques as were used at the Taj Mahal. It’s a dying art form, but a few families have kept it alive over the years. They gave us a demonstration of the technique and then showed us all their wares for sale. In the end, we declined, since we don’t want to carry anything around with us and we don’t have a home to ship something to back in the USA.

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Agra Fort

Then it was on to the Agra Fort. This giant complex predates the Taj Mahal, and is mostly built from the red sandstone from the local area.

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Some of the areas have white marble trim, and you can see that they used pietra dura here, too, though in much smaller quantities than at the Taj.

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Agra Fort is where Shah Jahan was imprisoned by his son for the final eight years of his life, in a high room overlooking his dead wife’s mausoleum in the distance. Nice son.

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Baby Taj

Next up was visiting the Tomb of I’tim?d-ud-Daulah, called “Baby Taj” by most tourists who can’t remember or pronounce the real name. This building was commissioned by the wife of the predecessor of Shah Jahan, to commemorate her father. It was built about 10 years before the Taj Mahal and is sometimes seen as a “warm up” exercise.

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The craftsmen were using pietra dura, but not nearly as intricately as they would later.

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Mehtab Bagh

The last place we visited that day, as the sun was setting, was the garden complex across the Yamuna River from the Taj Mahal, called Mehtab Bagh. Various rulers built eleven different gardens (“bagh” means “garden”) across the river, but Shah Jahan apparently noticed that this one was great for viewing the Taj Mahal, so he fixed it up to maximize the effect.

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There’s a legend that Jahan wanted to build a “Black Taj Mahal” here, but nothing in history or modern archaeology seems to support that idea.

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The gardens and orchards here are nice, but mostly the area is used as a place to view the Taj from the opposite bank of the river.

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Thanks for reading all this, and looking at my photos. I hope you’ve enjoyed them. I took about 10 times as many photos, then kept only the best. The ones above are only about 1/4 of the best, so if you want to see the other ones I like (which I will put in a slideshow someday), go see my Flickr album.

Also, leave me a comment to let me know you stopped by.


  1. Absolutely amazing. I had no idea of the brilliant art work and the intricate designs on the Taj Mahal. Thanks so much for your detailed explanation and photos! Headed to your other pics now…

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