The palatial grounds of the Taj Mahal are not just an epic testament to expert craftsmanship and eternal love. They house intriguing optical illusions that captivate more than 1 million visitors each year and earn the monument a top spot on many bucket lists.
Named a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1983 and one of the New Seven Wonders of the World in 2007, the Taj Mahal was commissioned in 1631 by Mughal emperor Shah Jahan in honor of his favorite wife, Mumtaz Mahal. The main structure, completed in 1648, was designed to be her eternal resting place and a symbol of his undying devotion to her. Eventually, the surrounding grounds were developed with the addition of a stunning reflecting pool, tranquil gardens and twin outlying buildings that include a mosque and a guesthouse.
Visitors enter the mausoleum in a state of reverence, either barefoot or wearing soft shoe covers to avoid damaging the marble and show respect for local customs. Once inside, they find only false tombs. The two cenotaphs housed within, enclosed in intricately carved screens of marble inlaid with precious stone, are merely ornamental, as the bodies of Emperor Shah Jahan and his bride are actually interred in sarcophagi beneath the structure itself. Inside the tomb, sunlight enters through openings in the marble, sending playful beams of light throughout. In addition, the design of the interior features acoustics so perfect, it is said a single note from a flute will reverberate five times within the mausoleum.
The monument can easily play tricks on your eyes as you explore it from different angles and distances. From the moment you enter the complex through the Great Gate, the sheer enormity of the monument itself captivates you. But in contrast with what your brain expects, the structure seems to shrink in size, rather than become larger, as you approach.
The entire complex represents a study in balance and structure. Each aspect was carefully planned and designed to be a masterpiece of beauty, architecture and design, including the four identical minarets surrounding the mausoleum. From a distance, they appear perfectly straight and symmetrical. Closer inspection, however, reveals the truth: These slender towers actually lean outward, away from the structure, in a design intended to keep the Taj Mahal safe from disaster should they collapse. These tricks of dimension, created by careful design, prove a true testament to the dedication and craftsmanship of the architect.
Seating areas face the monument, separated by the famous reflecting pool that draws tourists by the hordes looking for the perfect photo op. Whether strolling through the ornamental gardens or relaxing in the archways set into the wall bordering the Great Gate to the south, you’ll experience a calming tranquility as you take a break to simply observe.
The simple act of taking this time to sit and reflect on the beauty of the architecture and the serenity of the grounds may reveal to the visitor one of the Taj Mahal’s greatest optical illusions. The monument is made of marble inlaid with intricate designs of semi- precious stones like jade and lapis lazuli. While the marble, taken from the northwestern state of Rajasthan, is the color of ivory, the appearance can be illusive depending on the hour. Visitors lucky enough to observe the monument at different times of day see a different color. Early-morning viewers will see a marble facade that appears pale pink, while evening viewers see a haunting shade of milky blue. Under the midday sun, the marble reflects the maximum light, giving it its natural white glow, while sunset brings with it an orange-bronze hue as the marble absorbs the fading daylight.
For a visit that takes your bucket-list vacation to one of epic proportions, plan for a night visit to experience the site during a full moon. For five nights each month, three during the full moon and one night before and one after (with the exception of Fridays and during the month of Ramadan), the Taj Mahal opens for special 30-minute night visits. With the moon hanging in the sky over the domed roof, the mirror image of the monument lies in reflection in the pool extending from the Great Gate. With each detail cast in perfection, the solitude of this majestic tomb in the moonlight pro- vides a truly magical experience that will stay with you for a lifetime.
INFO TO GO
The Taj Mahal lies just more than 130 miles southeast of the capital, Delhi, in the city of Agra. International travelers will likely fly into Indira Gandhi International Airport in Delhi. For the fastest route to Agra (approximately two hours), take the train from New Delhi Station, a 20- minute taxi drive from the airport. From Agra station, a short taxi or tuk tuk ride will take you to the Taj Mahal ticket office. Other options include private vehicle (approximately 2.5 hours) or public bus (approximately five hours). Once visitors reach the ticket booth, a short distance from the entrance to the Taj Mahal complex, gas- and diesel-powered vehicles are no longer permitted. Visitors can either travel on foot or take one of the site-provided electric vehicle transports the rest of the way to the East Gate entrance. The Taj Mahal is closed every Friday, and the best time to visit is between October and March when the threat of monsoon is low and the summer temperatures have not yet made it unbearable to stroll the grounds during daytime hours.
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