The difference between the words ‘enjoy’ and ‘visit’ in that title is very important. This is not a guide on how to visit the Taj Mahal, but one on how to enjoy it despite not visiting at all. Why would anyone go all the way to Agra and not visit the Taj Mahal, you ask? Well, they probably wouldn’t. Most people I know visited and some of them even felt they got their money’s worth. But I just couldn’t do it.
The promise of large crowds of annoying people had me questioning whether it would be worth it, but the entrance fee kept me away for good. After traveling in countries like Thailand and India for a while, you get really tired of the dual pricing system on absolutely everything and nowhere is the difference in prices for locals and prices for foreigners more apparent and more egregious than at the Taj Mahal. Indians pay Rs.20; foreigners pay 750. That’s an increase of 3650 percent. I just couldn’t do it.
And yes, I’ve heard the reasoning that foreigners can afford to pay more, so they should. That’s a load of crap espoused mainly by those whose pockets are being lined by the steep entrance fee. Not all tourists are from first world countries. What about the visitor from Pakistan? Or Bandgladesh? Sri Lanka? Those countries are far worse off than India financially. More than the money, though, it’s the principle. To put it in perspective, imagine going to the Grand Canyon and seeing a sign that reads: “Americans: $20. Foreigners: $750.” I don’t think that would go over well.
Luckily, you really don’t see all that much more from inside the complex than you can from without. My first stop: some of the nearby rooftops. Most of them have restaurants and some of them have excellent views of the Taj Mahal. For my first meal in Agra, I enjoyed a nice juicy tandoori chicken and snapped a bunch of photos of the giant mausoleum.
The next morning, I teamed up with another traveler and we hired an auto rickshaw to take us to the nearby Agra Fort. Despite being the second of Agra’s three UNESCO World Heritage sites, it is a bit more reasonably priced. From the Fort you can view the Taj Mahal in the distance on the banks of the Yamuna River—the same view the man who built it enjoyed for the last eight years of his life spent under house arrest in the fort at the hands of his son (if you’re curious, here’s the Wikipedia article on Shah Jahan).
From Agra Fort, we had our driver take us across the river and to the entrance of the Mehtab Bagh. Entering this botanical garden costs Rs.100 and you’ll get some pretty good views of the Taj directly across the river. So I was told anyway. If you follow the path next to the gardens, you get down to the river bank without paying an entrance fee and you won’t have a fence blocking your view. You will have to deal with a whole bunch of touts and scammers, but if you’ve been in Agra for more than an hour, you’ve undoubtedly already mastered the art of chasing them off.
Just don’t try shooing away the ones with machine guns. In a first for India, someone who approached me wearing an official looking uniform actually turned out to be a real official in a real uniform (unlike this ATM ‘guard’ in Jaipur). The Indian military guards a large perimeter around the Taj Mahal and they do not let tourists stray far from the path on the other side of the river. Naturally, we could see immediately that the best pictures were to be had from just outside the allowed area.
Luckily the guy I had teamed up with that day had a fake press pass he had bought in Bangkok. We showed that to the guard and explained that he was writing a piece on the exemplary security measures at the Taj Mahal and that I was his photographer. We even pretended to decide on the spot that the guard we were talking to was so ridiculously photogenic that we simply had to include him in our article. We quickly got special permission to enter the restricted area and were even provided with an armed guard.
If you don’t have a fake press pass, not to worry; it did not look difficult to recreate. All you need is a dot matrix printer from the 80s and a printer ribbon that has been used and rewound twice already. Make sure at least 60% of the writing is entirely illegible, your name misspelled and the whole thing slightly crooked. You’re now a member of the fake press corps.
We took pictures until the sun disappeared then headed back for some dinner. The next day, we walked around the side of the Taj Mahal and took in some more nice close-up views from the back. All in all, I’m very happy with my trip to Agra and don’t feel like I missed out at all. I saw the famous Taj Mahal up close, admired it from a distance and took countless photos of it.
I realize it might sound like I’m looking down on all those who actually paid the entrance fee and went inside or those who are planning to do so when they visit Agra, but I’m not. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that and if you do enter the complex, you will actually come home from India with the one vital thing I missed out on: the photo of yourself in front of the reflecting pool with the mausoleum in the background, framed by the row of trees. And if you don’t have that photo, can you really say you’ve been to India?