1. The ticket for the Taj is bought at the south gate (there are 3 gates – east, south and west) and costs 750 rupees, about 12€ (this is the price for foreigners).
2. You can visit the Taj on full moon night and also two nights before and two nights after. The tickets cost the same, but you should buy them at another place. We arrived there on the full moon, but we found out these tickets need to be bought always one day in advance (there are no same day tickets), so we decided not to do it and I’m glad we didn’t, because the night after it was raining. For more information on full moon night viewings, click here.
3. Go to Methab Bagh at sunset and see the Taj from a different perspective. You can also walk beside the Taj complex until you reach the river and see it closer, also from yet another perspective, without having to pay for the ticket. To see some of the pictures we’ve taken, check our flickr set here, or our previous post here.
Did you know?
The Taj Mahal was built by Emperor Shah Jahan after his wife Mumtaj Mahal passed away giving birth to their 14th child. When she was lying on the bed dying, Shah asked her if there was anything he could do for her. She asked him to build a tomb over her grave that would be so beautiful, it would remind coming generations of the love they had for each other.
Shah Jahan tomb is also in Taj Mahal with his wife’s tomb, but this was not the plan. It seems the emperor wanted to build another Taj Mahal, in black marble on the opposite side of the river in Methab Bagh, for his grave to be put there, and connect the Tajs with two bridges, one white and one black.
There is a legend that says that the Emperor had the hands of the architects amputated to ensure they would build or replicate such a work of art
The four towers surrounding the Taj Mahal are built at 89 degrees, meaning one degree away from the central dome, to prevent them from falling toward the dome and damaging it in case of an earthquake.
Emperor Shah Jahan also built a new city called Shahjahnabad, which is now known as Old Delhi.
We left Pushkar around 6.30pm to get a bus to Agra. We had bought the tickets from an agency the night before and the guy told us to wait for the bus in his other agency around 7pm.
The streets were crowded for the camel fair and the full moon festival so we had some trouble to understand how to get to the agency and there were too many touts offering their undesired help. Someone in the crowd saw the bus ticket in my hand and said “this is my agency, follow me”. We were so confused, that we ignored this guy, thinking he was also another tout, and decided to go back to the guy that sold us the tickets to show us the way to the other agency.
When we finally got to the agency, the guy we met on the street was there and he was a bit upset we didn’t trust him. We felt bad about it, but sometimes it’s so hard to understand who you can trust, that you end up being rude to honest people.
We apologized to him and he asked us to wait because he was gathering a group of people that would share the bus with us to go to Ajmer, the nearest city.
When everyone finally arrived, we realized that the bus was not coming to pick us up there, but it was 3km away, so we had to walk with the backpacks on our shoulders.
Everyone on the bus was going to different cities, so when we arrived in Ajmer, there was a guy waiting for us that belonged to the same agency, directing people to the correct bus.
He asked who was going to Agra. Apart from us there was also another guy from New Zealand. The agency guy asked us to wait. We waited for over 30 minutes and then he told us we had to go to the side of a main road to get a rickshaw.
We got into the vehicle with the fellow from New Zealand. Minutes later the agency guy came again and asked us to get out of the rickshaw. There were lots of Indians around and the moment we stepped out, they all started to get in the little rickshaw that we just left. A rickshaw should normally take 3 people maximum, but somehow these group of about 20 Indians managed to fit in.
The agency guy asked us to wait again. After another 30 minutes or so, we were still there, left alone on the side of the road, with the other fellow traveller.
I started to freak out, thinking this guy from the agency had forgotten about us and that we would have to stay there for the night. Tired of waiting I decided to go after this guy, but the moment I started to walk, there he was, hanging on the door of a bus that was going to Delhi. He told us to get in the bus that would give us a lift to our bus stop.
When I stepped in the bus I noticed that it had no windscreen. It was a cold night and I was just wondering how the people there would cope with the cold and the wind on their faces on an overnight bus. One thing is certain: the driver would be awake all the way to Delhi.
So, this bus dropped us to our stop. Again, it was an awkward place on the side of a main road. We waited for another 20 minutes until we saw someone pointing to a bus that had just stopped, saying it was the bus to Agra. While we were putting our bags in the trunk and paying 10 rupees for it (yes, in India some buses will charge you a fee to put the bags in the trunk) the agency guy reappeared out of the blue, saying that it was not the right bus and we had to wait. Once more! And so we waited. Finally, 10 minutes after, there it was, OUR bus to Agra.
We jumped in 4 hours after we left our hotel and at 6am we arrived in Agra, happy we had made it after this hilarious experience – yes you have to use your sense of humour in these cases.
We managed to get a nice budget hotel just beside the Taj Mahal, which was very convenient.
We heard from different people that the best time to visit the Taj was early morning, when the sun rises and reflects its beautiful colours and when there aren’t big crowds. So we bought the ticket for the following morning.
But we had to see it that day! With the help of our guidebook we realized there was a great spot to see the Taj from behind, during sunset: a park called Methab Bagh.
So, we bargained a good price for a cycle rickshaw to go to Methab Bagh without realizing it was such a long way. To get there you need to cross the river, but the bridge is a few km down the road and then you need to go up again. Cycle rickshaws are an environmental-friendly means of transportation, and by taking one you also help poor people (the rickshaw drivers, or rickshaw walas) to make a living, nonetheless the experience can be a weird one, to say the least. Our driver was a very skinny guy and when the road was uphill he could barely stand our weight, so few times, Emanuele had to go down and help him to push the bicycle. Also the pollution, the noise and the crazy traffic, contributed to make our trip a little bit more… alive, so to say.
Fortunately, we got to Methab Bagh just in time for the sunset. The moment my eyes met the Taj Mahal I was shocked with the splendour of that building. It was breathtaking! The sun was setting just beside it and I got all emotional. We took some pictures, but I must say they don’t do it justice.
The day after, we visited the Taj, very early in the morning. We were queuing at 6am. While we were standing in the queue, we noticed that no one had daypacks, but just very small hand bags, so we thought maybe daypacks weren’t allowed inside. Because the hotel was just two steps away, Emanuele went back to leave the camera bag and my other day pack (that became part of my body in this trip). He put the camera on his neck and the other lens on his jacket pocket. He came back to the queue to join me and switch on the camera to realize there was no memory card inside it.
The doors to the Taj were opening and the queue was starting to move, so this time he ran to the hotel to pick the memory card. On this way he fell down in the street making a nasty bruise on his hand and slightly scratching the side of the lens he had in his pocket. Fortunately, he’d left the camera with me and the lens he kept in his pocket is still working perfectly.
Even with his hand in bad shape, he insisted not to lose the spot on the queue also because we saw a sign saying that there was first aid assistance inside the building complex. When we got in we asked for first aid assistance but the police man said that first aid was at the south gate and it would open only a bit later.
We got in and visited the Taj Mahal. It was great to be able to be so close, but to be honest this time it didn’t have the same impact as the day before, perhaps because I was more concerned about Emanuele’s bruise and worried it could make some bad infection – you never know.
Also, we were a bit disappointed by the weather conditions. It was foggy and a bit cloudy that morning, so we didn’t manage to see the beautiful sunrise colours reflecting on the building. Only later in the morning it cleared, but just for a little while.
We looked for the first aid inside the Taj Mahal, to find out it was not there, but outside and when we got there it was closed – and it was a medical shop and not a first aid service from the Taj Mahal staff. So, we went back to the hotel and I used my first aid kit (very handy for these long trips) to finally disinfect Emanuele’s hand.
Apart from the Taj Mahal, the fort (that we opted not to visit) and few markets, Agra doesn’t have much more to see, so the day after we took the train and went back to Delhi to meet Emanuele’s ex work colleague Adhir and his brother in law, before getting on a 48 hours train ride that would take us to Kerala, in the south.
The guy had come on his motorbike and in India there is absolutely no problem if three people jump on the same motorbike and take a ride. We’ve been there before. But this time Romana and I had our backpacks and a day pack each. Those didn’t fit, so the guy said he would hire a rickshaw for us. I asked Romana to go with the guy on the bike, while I’d go with the bags in the rickshaw. The rickshaw turned out to be a rudimental cart with wheels, pushed by a man, and when the guy asked me to jump on the cart where I’d just dropped the bags, I declined as I wouldn’t have felt comfortable (both physically and psychologically). So I walked beside him and we cut through the chaos of Pushkar’s market making our way to the hotel.
Once at the hotel, Romana and I checked in and got a room – a little overpriced because there was the camel fair and everything is overpriced during this period.
When we got into the room we realized that the sink’s tap wasn’t working and there was no hot water in the shower, despite the hotel selling the room as having hot water, so we popped over to the reception again. The hotel owner tried to demonstrate, unsuccessfully and against any evidence, that everything was ok in our bathroom – funny attempt, to say the least. But after Romana’s complaints, which gained her the nickname of ‘Angry Lady’ among the staff, we finally got another room. Lesson learned: you have to put some Indian hotel owners in front of the reality three, four, five times before they can actually see it. No matter how small or big is an issue. You have to insist or they will always try to find an excuse for anything until you give up.
Taken an excellent lunch at the garden restaurant just a few steps away from our room, we were ready to explore Pushkar. Pushkar is a pilgrim centre famous for its holy lake (which is said to have been created by Brahma himself), its annual camel fair, and its Brahma’s temple (one of the 5 in India, as Brahma’s temples are not very common). The camel fair is held every year around October or November (depending on the full moon, which is always a day after the fair finishes) and along with the actual camel trade, it features interesting competitions, like a moustache competition, and various camel related contests, plus music, dance and sports, including wrestling. A number of professional and amateur travel photographers, alongside with many tourists from India and foreign countries gather around Pushkar for the camel fair, which is why the village becomes a mess, and fills with pickpockets and touts of all species looking to earn their bread.
Before leaving the hotel a guy advised us to keep our daypacks in front of us, rather than behind, and to mind our personal belongings. Once out and about we saw a sign stating that in Pushkar it is prohibited to eat meat, drink alcohol and use drugs. The sign also read that photographing pilgrims bathing in the lake is not allowed.
As a first thing, we took a walk around the lake and enjoyed its mystical atmosphere. A number of pilgrims, men, women and children were crowding the various points of access (ghats) and even though I was tempted (and I saw another couple of photographers taking pictures sneakily), I didn’t even take my camera out. A number of people were offering us flowers for the lake and others asked us to follow them by the lake so they could pray for our families, for wealth, happiness and success. As this is a known scam (these false priests ask for money in proportion to the number of components of your family and when you refuse to pay, they begin to annoy you and insist that you have to pay them) we declined every invitation.
A number of holy men, some of which semi-naked and others dressed as Hindu Gods, were all around. They would have made interesting subjects for photos but I didn’t feel like approaching them, so I have no pictures of them.
After getting a taste of the town’s market’s atmosphere, the chanting, the ‘spiritual walks’, and all the rest, we managed to go to the camel fair, which was taking place at the stadium.
Being wrecked we just took a peak and, on our way back to our room, we stopped for a lassi at Doctor Alone’s rooftop restaurant. Doctor Alone is a guy from Jamaica who’s been living in Pushkar for 17 years. He started from scratch, he said proudly, and ended up being the owner of a successful hotel (is this the realization of the Indian dream?). Having seen earlier on that people in the streets, including holy men, where smoking what seemed to be joints (and smelled like joints too), I became a little perplexed as I thought that drugs were prohibited in Pushkar, based on the sign we’d come across a few hours before. Nobody better than Doctor Alone, mister Jamaica himself, could clarify the many aspects of the connection between the, so to say, hippie-sh and the holy-sh. First of all, Marijuana’s leaves are legal in Rajasthan (this doesn’t apply to the flowers of a female plant, which carry most of the THC, the substance that gets you a high) – they have various medical uses, including being given to patients under certain treatments to sedate their pain. Now, a substance called Bhang, made out of marijuana leaves, therefore legal, is employed to make a drink called special lassi (not your usual fruit lassi, but a more powerful one). This drink is available all over Rajasthan, in bars and restaurants, and it is quite popular with tourists (and probably with some locals too) looking to blow their brains for a night. But what’s the connection with Hindu religion? And why is Bhang allowed in Pushkar, despite the fact that drugs are prohibited? Bhang is associated with Shiva, one of the Deities of the Hindu trinity, therefore holy men and devotees of Shiva use Bhang (smoke it, apparently) as a spiritual practice. You won’t be surprised that many tourists in Pushkar ride the religious wave, even though some of them may not have a clue that they’re getting closer to Shiva (which by a funny coincidence is the God of destruction).
The day after, we came back to the fair and we were offered the opportunity to take a free camel ride. We were brought to a place not far from the stadium where a show was being held, featuring Rajasthani traditional music and dance.
Following a tip from a fellow traveller, in the afternoon, just before sunset we climbed up to the Papmochani temple, which is on a hill, to take some pictures of the city and its holy lake. When we arrived there, a smell of marijuana hit my nostrils. A couple of Indian men, sweaty, with red eyes, asked me to take a picture of them, and because I’m not the type of person who says no to these requests, I took their portraits.
At night we went again around the lake, but because nobody was bathing at that ghat, we asked a policeman if he would let us take a quick shot of the lake, and he said yes. So we took a couple of pictures and went back to sleep.
The day after we were ready to go to Agra and see the Taj Mahal, but the bus would only leave in the evening and so we checked out, left our bags at the hotel and went around the market to socialize with people, dodge touts, ‘flower givers’ and false holy men, and do some shopping. I also finally got a haircut!
I kind of liked Pushkar. I didn’t enjoy the camel fair as much as I thought – probably because I had high expectations, or probably just because I missed the moustache competition and the wrestling, however I enjoyed the surreal, magical atmosphere, the interesting and colourful faces I saw around, the chat with Doctor Alone, and the afternoon on the Papmochani hill. Only one thing: If I ever go back to Pushkar, it’ll be outside the festive season.
From Bundi we took a government bus to Pushkar, we were excited about going to the camel fair, which is a big event in the Hindu community and also an event that attracts many professional and amateur photographers.
Because it was our first time on a government bus we were a little bit anxious. The bus station in Bundi was quite dirty, everything in it was written in Hindi and there were no screens or announcements. None of the people in the station, including the staff were able to give us any useful information as to how things worked and how we were supposed to recognize our bus.
We sat on a bench near the ticket counter and patiently waited for enlightenment – which finally came when we saw a guy coming over and screaming the name of what we understood was a destination. We figure out that that was the way it worked, and this time we were right: eventually a man screaming Pushkar appeared from around the corner and we followed him to the bus. The bus was very basic and a little dirty, but we had no issues with that, of course.
Once the driver hit the road I couldn’t resist the temptation to look at what was happening ahead of the windscreen (or should I call it the screen for it promised to be a movie, or a videogame, at least): other buses were coming in front of us on a collision course, whether we were in their lane or they were in ours. It was kind of scary. At times I closed my eyes out of fear, but when I opened them again, instead of finding myself dead or at least involved in a bad road accident, everything was back to norm. We were in our lane and the vehicles coming from the opposite directions were in theirs.
In India you don’t slow down or wait. If other cars, buses or trucks are on your way you just overtake them. No matter who’s coming your way, no matter if there’s a curve, or if you have to overtake three trucks in a row. If the road is large enough the other vehicles will get close to the border and let you through. You might just have to honk like crazy. But what then, if the road is not large enough? You overtake anyway and put a bet on your life.
Hindu’s belief in reincarnation must play a role in determining and supporting this traffic-related behaviour. Life in all its aspects and contexts, driving in our case, becomes a videogame. You die? No problem, you will be re-born. And actually there’ll be no ‘game over’ unless, of course, you achieve Moksha, the liberation from the cycle of re-birth.
The bus stopped many times along the way, which made me understand why it would take so much to cover what on the map looked like a relatively short distance. Some stops were longer than others.
During one of the longer stops Romana asked me to buy her some crisps as she was hungry. So I saw a shop fairly close, and ran off the bus, as I was not sure as to when the bus would leave again. During the run I managed to put my right foot into a piece of open air sewer. This was disgusting but I had to keep running and I didn’t have time to think about it. When I finally got to the shop I bought the crisps but I also realized that my bus was moving, although slowly. Panic!
So I paid quickly and ran toward the moving bus, but the bus didn’t seem to want to stop for me. Now, I looked around and saw so many buses, which looked more or less the same. I wasn’t sure anymore if the bus I was aiming at was the right one. I ran past this bus and scanned the station, but suddenly a couple of Indian women popped their head out of one of the windows of the bus I just ran past and waved at me. Romana stood behind them.
I realized that despite the bus was still moving there was a door open on the flank. There, a man moving his hands gently was inviting me to jump in. So I jumped in and when I saw Romana’s relieved face I knew for sure I had avoided the risk of getting lost in the middle of the Rajasthani countryside.
The trip continued, with a fat man with a child on his lap sitting beside me and jeopardizing my space, a couple of Indian guys listening to Hindi music loud from their mobile phones (some Indians must think headphones are not that cool to use), and of course the Rajasthani rural landscape out of the window.
Finally we reached Pushkar and got off the bus into the chaos, the heat and the mud (it had rained the day before). A guy from the hotel we booked picked us up on his motorbike to protect us from the touts and prevent them from hijacking us into any of the competitor’s hotels.
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