Photographing the Taj Mahal

As published in Leisure+Adventure Magazine. April-May 2013

The Taj Mahal as reflected on my sunglasses

The Taj Mahal as reflected on my sunglasses

It’s been said that a trip to India wouldn’t be complete without seeing the white marble mausoleum of the Taj Mahal in Agra. Long considered to be the gem of Muslim art and a true testament to one of the greatest love stories known to man, the Taj Mahal was built by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan in memory of his third wife, Mumtaz. No words can truly describe this masterpiece of architecture upon seeing it – only evoking feelings of passion, love and awe. It is THAT beautiful.

A UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the New 7 Wonders of the World, there’s no surprise that it’s also one of the most photographed buildings in the world, and that poses a challenge for the serious traveling photographer. To get that shot that no one else has and to have an unobstructed view of the Taj Mahal are two main concerns for anyone who wants to bring home good photos of any iconic structure, hence I’ve created this guide to help shutterbugs know where to look and what to do to get their money shot or two.

GETTING PREPARED

The Taj Mahal is the most visited site in India therefore it gets very crowded during the day. The key is to wake up really early and head to the site at dawn while the expected hordes of tourists are still in slumber.

Make sure to bring only your camera and lens of choice (wide angle is highly suggested) with you. Camera bags and tripods are NOT allowed inside. If you have a pair of pants that has big pockets, that’s where you put your extra lens and memory cards. Leaving prohibited items back at the hotel can save you a lot time as you don’t have to queue to check them in before entering the premises and it allows you to breeze through the very tight security.

It also pays to get to know the layout of the Taj Mahal beforehand. The compound has three gates you can use, each with its pros and cons. The West Gate is about 100 meters from the ticket counter, however very crowded. The South Gate is closer to Taj Gand, where most budget accommodations are located, but requires a little walking to buy tickets and back. The East Gate has the least number of tourists but the farthest from the ticket booth.

THE SYSTEM

Once you get to the site, you will have to line up twice, first to buy tickets and the next to enter the gates. This is where having a companion makes all the difference in the world. In my case, my sister was all too glad to split queuing duties (and carrying half of my stuff) with me.

During our visit, only the West Gate was open, but fortunately for us, waiting time was a non-issue since we were one of the first visitors to arrive at 5 AM. By the time the ticket counter opened an hour later, people have already started to pour in. As soon as my sister got our tickets, she handed it to me and went to her queue. Take note that there’s a separate line for men and women, so work out a plan ahead in case you have a traveling companion – we agreed that I should go ahead to beat the crowd while she does the more leisurely part of the experience and just meet inside once I’ve accomplished what I came to do. The whole process of lining up and getting through security took us about an hour and a half to complete. I could only imagine those who visit later in the day to spend twice as much. As for those who insist on bringing their camera bags and tripods, expect another half hour of waiting.

 

INSIDE THE TAJ MAHAL GROUNDS

Once you get through security you have to move fast, and when I say that, treat it as your cardio equivalent for the day as you will be working within a few minutes of good lighting. The first structure you will encounter is the Darwaza-I Rauza, otherwise known as the Great Gate. Impressive as it is, ignore it first, you will pass through it along your way out anyway.

Once through the Darwaza, is your first view of the entire Taj Mahal grounds and the white-marbled mausoleum that turns pinkish in the early morning sun. I wouldn’t blame you if you take a deep breath and enjoy the sight, but first things first, you have to beat everyone who has the same goal as you – to take that classic shot you’ve seen in travel books a hundred times over. Snap a few photos from this platform, and move on – away from everyone who is doing the same.

Make your way quickly to where the four long pools intersect and once you’re on the stone platform, aim your camera towards the mausoleum with its reflection on the pool and flick away. This is your version of the classic Taj Mahal shot, and this is the only time you can get a clear shot of the monument reflected in the pool as the fountains are turned on an hour after the gates are opened.

Classic Taj Mahal shot early in the morning san the crowd.

Classic Taj Mahal shot early in the morning san the crowd.

So, now you have your money shot but you’re not done just yet. The Taj Mahal looks just as good from any angle, and it’s time to look for that unique shot of yours. On the platform are stone benches with arched legs that lend an interesting framing element to your photo. Don’t be shy and ignore all the stares. Just go under one of them. Meanwhile, down on the platform, an even more unobstructed view awaits you, however there might be a few people here wandering about. This spot is where most people take their cheesy shots. Yes, the ones where they create the illusion of holding the dome’s finial by the tip of their fingers. You can laugh later and just head on to either one of the buildings flanking the main tomb.

(left) Go to the southwest of the tomb and use the foliage from the Charbagh Garden to frame your shots. (right) Once the crowd gets big, focus on details.

(left) Go to the southwest of the tomb and use the foliage from the Charbagh Garden to frame your shots. (right) Once the crowd gets big, focus on details.

On east side is the jawab while on the west is the mosque. From both inside these buildings, you can get exquisite shots of the mausoleum framed by its teardrop doorways. Take note, you can only get this shot early in the morning as this area will be packed with people later in the day. Skip entering the mausoleum first and head down from the mosque to where the Taj Museum is. From this spot, you can do your jungle shots using the foliage in the Charbagh garden to frame the dome. You have to do this all in a matter of 30 minutes or less.  When you’re done, you can take it easy and go up the main mausoleum. Although photography is not allowed inside the main tomb, from the terrace you can take photos of its architectural details – from the calligraphy of Persian poems to the delicate piece of latticework on its walls.

While you are marveling at the magnificence of the Taj Mahal, remember all those people you’ve ignored all along? Now is the time to take their portraits, and don’t forget to have your own fun shots too.

Built as the ultimate expression of love, the Taj Mahal has become a pilgrimage site to mark milestones in visitor's lives such as this couple.

Built as the ultimate expression of love, the Taj Mahal has become a pilgrimage site to mark milestones in visitor’s lives such as this couple.

OUTSIDE THE TAJ MAHAL

When you’re done exploring the complex, there are several options for you to take unusual photos of the Taj Mahal from outside. One is from the back of the mausoleum where the Mehtab Bagh (moonlight garden) is. You can hire a rickshaw to get there. Alternately, you can walk down the eastern wall and hire a boat, all the while taking photos when crossing the Yamuna river. At this time, it didn’t seem like a good option since we finished exploring the inside grounds around 9 AM and by then, the tomb was against the light. If silhouettes are your thing, then by all means, but it’s better to wait until dusk if you are aiming for that magical and mysterious mood. Another incredible angle is from the Agra Fort. From this location, you need to have powerful zoom lens, which I didn’t, so why even bother, right?

The only other option for me albeit a better one in my opinion, is to get to one of the rooftop cafés in Taj Gand in time for sunset. Two of the most popular ones are in Saniya Palace Hotel and The Shanti Lodge. Making your way through the streets is confusing, however you only need to look up should you ever get lost. Where there are people drinking on the roof, that’s where you must be. This option gives you a time to relax and enjoy your drink while you get to take photos of the Taj Mahal with wonderful views from the top. Of course, staying in one of the hotels in this area can also provide you with excellent views without ever having to leave the comforts of your room.

A spectacular view of the tomb and Darwaza from one of the rooftop cafès in Taj Gand at dusk.

A spectacular view of the tomb and Darwaza from one of the rooftop cafès in Taj Ganj at dusk.

If you aim to try out all the suggestions I’ve mentioned, it is best to spend two full days in Agra to take photos of the Taj Mahal from different vantage points and at different times of the day. Of course, if you put enough effort to what you do, you might even discover new ways to document your experience. However you choose to spend your visit, don’t forget to put down your camera once in awhile and just give in to the wonder the Taj Mahal has to offer.

GETTING THERE

Agra is a major city in Uttar Pradesh. It is accessible by private car, bus, train and plane. Most people get in via New Delhi which is a 4 hour drive away.  A year-round destination, the best time to visit are either early or late in the day when the crowd is thinnest. The Taj Mahal is closed on Fridays.

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Do’s and Don’t’s Inside The Taj Mahal

As the Taj Mahal is a sacred monument and deserves the most utmost respect, here are some things to remember while inside the grounds:

  1. Tickets can be used the entire day. You can get in early in the morning and come back anytime within the day.
  2. Bottled water is allowed inside and is provided free along with a guide map of the city for foreign visitors.
  3. Absolutely no smoking and eating inside including gum, liquor and anything that causes fire.
  4. Except for cameras and mobiles phones, anything electronic such as video cameras, extra batteries, and mobile chargers are prohibited. Above mentioned list along with mobile phones are not allowed for night viewing of the monument.
  5. Visitors are advised not to make noise inside, hence phones should be switched off or in silent mode.
  6. Avoid running while in the premises. This is also neither the time nor the place for jump shots.
  7. If your camera can take videos, you can only do so in a designated platform at the Darwaza. Strictly no photography inside the main mausoleum.
  8. Only hire approved guides and photographers who show their Identification cards. It’s up to you if you want their help to get the best angles for your photos, however they ask for quite big tips after.
  9. While day bags and books are allowed inside, this may increase your time at the security checkpoint.
  10. Avoid touching and scratching the walls of the monument and keep the grounds clean.  Use a shoe cover when in the main mausoleum, these are available for rent near the steps going up, however the handler asks for a little tip. It shouldn’t cost you more than 20 Rupees.
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