Within Reach, The Taj Mahal

Imagine a room that comes with a view of one of the world’s most spectacular icons. Lucky occupant Christina Kautzky was awed.

The great author Virginia Woolfe once wrote that every woman needs a room of her own. I had always imagined it to be not just any ordinary room. So I made my way to the Indian city of Agra, as nearly three million other travellers do every year, and checked into the ITC Mughal, whose rooms offer stunning views of one of the world’s most spectacular monuments – the Taj Mahal.

One of the aspects of the trip I was most looking forward to, aside from seeing the Taj itself, was to enjoy the majesty and presence of this great site every waking moment. The ITC Mughal provided just that, and then some. Designed and built to reflect the architecture of the Mughal era, a time of opulence and wealth during which the Taj Mahal was constructed, the hotel immediately transports one to a time when kings rule, queens are adorned with the world’s rarest diamonds and jewels, and banquets last for days.

And then there was my room, a spacious two-bedroom suite that made me feel like a guest in a palace. The hotel staff walked over to the window and drew back the curtains, and in the first light of the day (I arrived on an overnight train rather early), there the Taj stood, in all of its glory, looking exactly as it has appeared for centuries, only instead of seeing it in paintings, or on postcards, it was outside of my room, within reach.

The history of the Taj is, in fact, the ultimate love story; a monument built to commemorate Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan’s love of his favourite wife, Mumtaz Jahan, after she died giving birth to their 14th child. In 1633, construction on the symmetrical, structurally flawless mausoleum began. It took 20,000 workers 17 years to build. Not long after completion of the Taj, one of the Shah’s sons had him arrested and seized control over the country. As the story is told, Shah Jahan did not fight his son, but instead asked that his prison cell be located in Agra Fort, across the river from the Taj, so he could spend his last days gazing at the monument dedicated to the woman he loved.

In modern times where cynicism about relationships and high divorce rates seem to overshadow stories of commitment and love, the Taj is an inspiration.

Just before the sun began to set, I walked through the sprawling lobby, out the front door and down the hotel’s entrance pathway, lined with lush greenery, lotus ponds and friendly staff in traditional Indian dress. To my surprise, and in what made the day even more unique, waiting for me in the driveway was my tour guide and a horse-drawn buggy, my transportation for the evening. This was one of the many ways in which the employees of the ITC Mughal went out of their way to make staying there, and near a heritage site, even more meaningful.

At one point on our way to the Taj Mahal’s entrance, cars ceased to be allowed on the road. It was then that my experience of visiting the final resting place of Mumtaz Jahan and Shah Jahan truly began. The street felt like it must have felt ages ago, full of pedestrians, stalls selling fruit, vegetables and handcrafted goods and carts being drawn by camels, elephants and horses.

And there were the modern additions: postcards, calendars and electric sparklers, the metal detector at the entryway, digital cameras of every shape and size. The excitement built, until I finally walked through the doorway to the complex. It was, quite simply, breathtaking.

Having wandered through the gardens, taken the obligatory photos and fought my way into and out of the crowded mausoleum, I sat in front of the mosque to the left of the Taj, watching the sun’s final rays of the day paint increasingly off-white, then peach, then pink tones across the dome of the mausoleum. I was struck with the tangibility of the notion of time as it passed, and also by the idea of that which remains.

Being afforded the opportunity to witness a monument dedicated to eternal love, in person, is truly a singular experience. The building is, as guides will tell you and your eyes confirm, perfect in every way. Even the minarets on the corners of the dome are angled three degrees outward so that if they were to fall, they wouldn’t impact the dome. The dome itself is placed on its own foundation, and the etchings in the walls on each side of the building are symmetrical.

Looking around at the people who had also come, like I did, to feast on this architectural wonder, there was a sense of calm and peace, a feeling that we were all a part of what was at the same time a similar, yet disparate experience that for each one of us would represent something significant for the rest of our lives.

The horse-drawn buggy was waiting for me when I peeled myself away, and on return to the hotel, my guide talked to me about his family. His daughter was to be married in a month’s time and he and his wife were busy with the preparations. Having just attended my friend’s wedding in Lucknow (the capital of Uttar Pradesh, one of India’s northern states) prior to my trip to Agra, the idea of love, marriage and commitment were in the forefront of my mind already. My guide and the Taj viewing brought this idea full circle, and I thanked him for the day before heading back to my room, walking through the heavy front doors of the hotel, down the hallways, and up to my room where, again I was presented with night views of the Taj Mahal.

As I sat with a cup of tea, wrapped in a bathrobe, I stared out the window at a structure that had been there long before me, and would endure long after.

Overwhelmed by the day, I sunk into my mattress, and woke to one of the ITC Mughal’s prize features: an outdoor terrace that looks onto the Taj. The hotel regularly caters to special requests for the use of the terrace, like marriage proposals, birthday or anniversary celebrations and sunset champagne toasts. I was treated to breakfast, courtesy of general manager Anil Chadha. Fresh squeezed orange juice, dosas with dipping sauces, coffee and pastries were served under a tent that protected us from the blazing heat from the sun and framed the monument in the distance. A most brilliant way to start the day in Agra.

The hotel’s grounds will soon be home to India’s largest spa, a sprawling 9,191-square-metre expanse comprising meditation areas and opulent treatment rooms, and staff who are trained in the art of relaxation. I can only imagine waking at dawn to see the Taj, basking in the sunlight along the terraces in front of the mausoleum, and making my way back to the hotel’s spa pool, soaking up the experience in a solitary moment of meditation followed by that ultimate Ayurvedic treatment.

It has been a while since I returned home to Hongkong. When I relay the story of my journey to the Taj, waxing and waning somewhat poetic, I’m often accused of painting a dreamlike picture of an experience that certainly had to be more real than the idealism of my description. But that’s what makes being in Agra, sleeping in a beautiful room that overlooks the Taj, and a visit to one of the world’s greatest sites so awe-inspiring beyond words or pictures.

LOCAL ADVANTAGE

  • Contact the hotel directly as opposed to booking online. By speaking with someone over email, or on the phone, you are more likely to get the type of room you want, with specific requests granted. If you are going all the way to Agra, take the extra time to make sure you get it right.
  • Have the hotel staff arrange a transfer to and from the train station or domestic airport in Agra. Especially if you are travelling by train, a driver will be able to navigate around the very confusing station with ease.
  • Hire a guide. There is no book in the world that tells you everything a well-trained guide can tell you about the Taj Mahal. And, they can take you to the best spots for viewing (like the corner of a garden to see the Taj without anybody else around) and act as your personal photographer.
  • Dine at Peshawri in the ITC Mughal. The sister restaurant to the famed Bukhara in New Delhi (even Clinton, Bush, Blaire and Putin rave about it!), this tandoori kitchen turns out the best kebabs and the biggest naan.
  • Ask the hotel staff for information before you wander off on your own. Regardless of what your guidebook says, nothing is better than the locals’ recommendations for shopping or restaurants and for getting to know the city.

FAST FACTS

The train is what some consider a must do while in India. There are several train stations in Agra, and this type of transportation allows you to see the countryside as you travel. The airport in Agra serves domestic flights to and from major Indian cities, although there are talks about building an international airport.

Weather: Agra is located in a tropical region, which means it has extremely hot summers (between April and June), as well as a rainy season (July to September). The best time to get there is between October and March, when the city enjoys cooler temperatures and less humidity.

Visa: One, two and multiple entry visas are valid for three months from the date of issue.

Front seats to an icon 

ITC Mughal
tel 91 562 233 1701
www.itcwelcomgroup.in

The Oberoi Amarvilas
tel 91 562 223 1515
www.oberoiamarvilas.com

The Taj View Hotel
tel 91 562 223 2400
www.tajhotels.com


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