While I’ve visited many places in India, all thanks to my father who is an avid traveller and deems it necessary to make a trip every time there is a birth, death or wedding within the family or over at friends’, I somehow missed out on Agra, one of the key destinations in the country.

Mumbai is where I was born and raised, but I’m also fortunate to have a large extended family mostly settled in the northern states of India – Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand and Rajasthan. Growing up, we were packed off to the north every summer break to visit grandparents, uncles, aunts, cousins and other relatives. During those two months, every conceivable mode of transport was used, from planes and long-distance trains to rickety buses and dusty bullock carts, and the trips can take hours under the sweltering summer heat. We would reach our destination all sweaty and grimy but full of energy for what’s in store. From the glistening metros to the most remote parts of India, where having electricity was a luxury and water drawn from a well, I have seen them all… or so I thought! When I joined the travel industry in Singapore, many a times I was asked if I’ve seen the Taj Mahal. And upon uttering “No… “, I would get a look which can only be interpreted as “Helloooooo, you are an Indian and you’ve not been to the Taj?!” It got a bit embarrassing after like the seventh time so I resolved to see India’s No. 1 tourist attraction the next trip back home. Boy, did it become the ultimate mission on my mind!

For the idea to materialise, however, there was one stumbling block: the dear husband. After all, I’m more into historical places and wildlife while he’s more of a mountains and adventure person. So when I’d declared to my un-amused partner that a visit to the Taj needed to be incorporated during our annual India pilgrimage in December, it was not without protest. In the end, it boiled down to a battle of wills, and the desperate one won.
After much planning and budgeting, we finally etched out an itinerary which would go on to cover a distance of more than 2,000km. As usual, we landed in Mumbai and ended our travel in Delhi, visiting Indore, Agra, Fatehpur Sikri, Roorkee, Haridwar, Rishikesh and Dehra Dun in between.

Face to faze
From Indore, a 15-hour train journey brought us to Agra. As we arrived at Agra Cantt Railway Station at 7am, the 2° Celcius winter wind hit us face-on and sent chills down to the deepest bone – a stark contrast from the comfortable two-tier air-conditioned coach which brought us here. The kids are quickly wrapped up and bundled into the car of Uncle Kapoor, our very good family friend and host in Agra. Besides the cold, there was also a notorious fog in the area, but excitement knows no bounds and we started to unpack and get ready for our visit of a lifetime to one of the greatest wonders of the world, the Taj Mahal.

And, there it was… so mesmerising… so surreal! Yes, I was finally standing in front of the Taj Mahal, one of the most beautiful monuments ever built in history. The majestic white structure was a breathtaking sight… no words could describe the joy of that moment!

Indeed, one has to see the Taj Mahal to fully appreciate its beauty, as well as the love story behind it – the 17th century Mughal ruler Shah Jahan envisioned a unique memorial for his wife Mumtaz Mahal, whom he loved dearly. Although I have read a lot about the structure and how titles such as a marvel in marble, poetry in marble, a diamond in the blue sky, etc. have been bestowed upon it, nothing can quite prepare you for the spell-binding magnificence of this attraction! The massive white-domed mausoleum and its four minarets are a picture of architectural perfection, which probably explains why it attracts some 2 to 3 million visitors every year, even after three centuries. The well-appointed lush gardens with fountains in front of it and the river Yamuna flowing behind it – although just a narrow trickle at the time of my visit – further add to the beauty of the Taj.

But the charm of the Taj is not just about its outward appearance. If you look closely, you will see that the walls have been engraved with beautiful flower patterns that are studded with what were originally semi-precious stones. The floors are adorned with geometrical patterns of contrasting colours and the ceilings with beautiful inlay work. Some walls have the holy Quran inscribed on it in stunning calligraphy. The exquisite marble lattice screens and the side panels with lilies & tulip patterns sculpted within a single stone – no joints – leave one amazed. You can spend hours admiring the serene beauty inside. Every nook and corner entices you as if it has a story to narrate. It’s a true masterpiece!

As I gazed in awe I could not help but pay tribute to the 20,000-odd workers – architects, masons, sculptors, artisans and others – employed to build the Taj, a project that lasted over two decades. These heroes underwent the ultimate sacrifice of getting their hands chopped off after the Taj was completed – although not corroborated by historians, legend has it that Shah Jahan ordered the hands of all the workers to be chopped off so that they would not be able to build another structure like it again.

Unlike our generation, where a Taipei 101 or Burj Khalifa stands tall within five or six years thanks to modern technology and nifty machines, those in the 17th century went through painstaking processes to build this marvellous icon from scratch. Their skill, intelligence and perseverance know no comparison, and I salute them. Had the Taj Mahal been built in this current age, would it still be the same? I don’t think so – modern machines and commercial mentalities simply cannot replicate the devotion, dedication and emotion that resulted in the Taj, an ultimate expression of love and beauty!

Editor’s note:
Quotient’s 5-day India Golden Triangle private tour shows you the best heritage treasures and architectural highlights in New Dehli and Agra, including the country’s largest mosque, the Fatehpur Sikri or capital of the Mughal empire and of course the Taj Mahal. A vist to the Pink City of Jaipur completes this insightful journey resplendent with history.