We had passed the 3rd level of security. The small group of tourists was down to 12. We felt like Charlie visiting Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory clasping our golden tickets. The big reveal was just ahead of us behind some menacing 15 foot high wooden doors. Our exclusive night time visit to arguably the most beautiful building in the world, the Taj Mahal.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. The day began at 3am in a modest Mumbai hotel. Allison, Dave, Lesley and myself had only managed 3 hours sleep after experiencing the exuberant Ganesh Festival the night before. Our destination was Delhi followed by a cross-country drive to Agra. An exclusive night viewing of the Taj Mahal awaited us. In fact we had no choice. We discovered that the 6th wonder of the world is closed of a Friday. Luckily, a night viewing, by the full moon no less, was our only opportunity to witness this bucket listed building during a whirlwind trip around the sub-continent.
The 2010 Commonwealth Games were just about underway in Delhi. A heightened sense of security hung in the air with tourists a likely target of terrorists. We had a sizeable drive ahead of us into unknown territory and little clue as to what was involved in a unique night viewing. But it was 3am and we were still in Mumbai. So these trivial matters would need to remain a problem for future us to solve.
We met our driver at the airport in Delhi who introduced himself as ‘Ram’. While Ram is an inconvenient name for a New Delhi taxi driver, more concerning was the word ‘Tourist’ plastered across the windscreen. Our desires to remain inconspicuous were soon dashed. Ram took us through a very congested Delhi passing the diplomatic region before heading north east out of the city.
Scenic would not be the word used to describe the surrounding scenery. Countless non-descript stalls stretched for miles along muddy pot-holed roads. A random assortment of industrial goods being traded out of decrepit buildings interspersed with mechanic workshops containing mangled carcasses of tuk-tuks. Cows strolled aimlessly across the road without a care in the world. Some bovine beasts were even sleeping on multi-lane freeways. Their sacred immunity well engrained in beast and human. Indian highways have to be travelled to experience the anarchy afoot. The one rule that tends to be followed is to try and get in front of as many vehicles and as quickly as possible.
Three hours into our hectic journey we enter the state of Uttar Pradesh which is where Agra is located. Here we enter a much more rural but equally hectic setting. Suddenly though there is a loud bang and Ram pulls over and the car grinds to a halt. We hop out to see a flat rear tyre. Not just flat but the entire side is blown out! I assist Ram to fix the tyre on the thin shoulder of the road keeping one eye on the many vehicles passing just a bit too close for comfort to our disabled car.
Another hour later we hear a familiar sound. Yes, our second flat tyre for the day. I made a mental note that most cars don’t carry two spare wheels. It seemed we were in fact ‘most’ cars. Ram looked a little worried and got on his phone. A quick time check showed the planned night viewing was in jeopardy. In fact we had no idea how far we’d come. 5 hours was the estimated travel time we’d been going for 4 hours and most of that time was in grid lock traffic.
About 10 minutes passed and Ram was still looking to get a tyre arranged. Allison took a stroll up the road to a small bamboo stall and struck up a conversation with the owner. Allison returned with news that the stall is actually a bus stop. A bus stop for routes to Agra! As we looked up the road a bus was fast approaching! We made a snap decision to get on the bus. We grabbed all the bags, I dumped the required Rupees into Ram’s hand and wished him luck. Then we then bundled ourselves onto the floor of the overcrowded bus.
An hour later we arrived in what we are told is central Agra. Given we had previously had door to door service we now faced a swarm of tuk-tuk drivers asking us where we wanted to go. We selected two tuk-tuks for the four of us and our luggage. Soon we were racing through familiar congested streets of an Indian city.
After getting lost more than once it was dark when we eventually arrived at our hotel, the Sheraton of all places. Upon check in we were handed our night viewing passes for the Taj Mahal which we’d asked to be booked along with our accommodation. With barely a chance to drop our bags we headed back out the door into the mild Agra evening and boarded another taxi, our 6th mode of transport for the day.
We arrived at the deserted car park of the Taj Mahal. A security check awaited us in a small government building before we were ushered up a road. At a set of huge wooden doors we joined about 12 other tourists waiting for them to open. Another security check. A well rehearsed national dance of displaying passports, stepping through an x-ray scan followed by a firm padding down.
Anticipation was building. We felt quite privileged to be the only people allowed into the Taj Mahal on this auspicious night viewing, a place normally crowded with tourists. We were led through the doors, into an alcove lit by small lanterns adding to the effect. A viewing platform awaited us with a chain to prevent falling into the darkness below. Before us stood the majesty of the Taj Mahal. Only we weren’t to know as it was completely pitch black!!
Not so much as a flood light to illuminate the Taj Mahal. The full moon not exactly emitting enough light that anything of note could be seen. The envisioned marbled dome some 400 metres away. At a squint you could make out an outline and the distinctive rectangular pool leading up to the main feature. We could only laugh. After this arduous day, this was the anti-est of climaxes.
It is said the best description of the Taj Mahal is by Noble Laurette Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore who described the Taj Mahal as ‘A teardrop in the face of eternity‘. It was a similar, but ultimately different quote of ‘A teardrop in the face of darkness‘ that we walked away with, and our teardrop was a bit more literal!
Taj Mahal by Day
Given our deflated view of the Taj Mahal the night before, we head out the next day to Methab Burj, a park by the Yamuna river. This park has another unique view of the Taj Mahal, from the rear. Yet in broad daylight this allowed the brilliant white marble to reflect the afternoon sun’s rays. The river separated us from accessing the building itself but the quiet uninterrupted view from this delightful park was as serene a view as you can get.
We were due on the midnight train to Varanasi. Our time in Agra was less than 48 hours. As we curled up in our bunks, the rattle of the train rocking us slowly off to sleep we were satisfied our Taj Mahal experience was complete and certainly unique.
Taj Mahal Night Viewing
If you want to see the Taj Mahal by night, be sure it is a cloudless sky to get a better view than us, although the experience is worth it! To check the full moon dates and enquire about tickets, visit the Taj Mahal government website.