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TAJ MAHAL, AGRA, INDIA

TAJ MAHAL, AGRA, INDIA

The most evocative views of the Taj Mahal are across the Yamuna River, and getting to the Taj is part of the magic. Although it is quicker to take a boat across, taking a cycle-rickshaw through the village of Katchpura is more atmospheric. In the cool of a pre-dawn morning, you will pass villagers sleeping on low charpoy beds outside their small dwellings, often passing so close that they could reach out and touch you.

On arriving at the fiver you mIght have to share the view with a fisherman or a small herd of water buffalo, but these merely add to the feeling of timelessness. From across the river the Taj MahaL is best seen at sunrise, when the light turns from cold misty blue to any variation of pink, pale gold or orange. The Taj mirrors these colours, eventually reaching a soft creamy white, changing, in turn, to a blinding white in the glare of the midday sun. Those who visit at that time of day often come away disappointed. It is worth visiting at different times over several days to appreciate both the might and grace of the structure as it changes with the light. You'll have to pay to enter the Taj MahaL and grounds, but it currently costs nothing to view it from across the river.

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The Taj sits on a marble platform with a marble minaret at each corner, and these minarets actually lean out slightly so that they won't fall on the main structure in the event of an earthquake, Each face of the Taj has a giant arch and is decorated with exquisite calligraphy from the Koran and ornate carvings of flowers inlaid with pietra-dura mosaics of semi-precious stones.

The Taj Mahal is set in a relaxed but formal garden complex, with pools of water leading to it from the main gate - a special view that has inspired a generation of photographers, The distance from the gate to the Taj is deceptive and the building seems to grow in both size and stature as you approach.

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The Taj Mahal was built in 1632 by Emperor Shah Jahan as a mausoleum for his favourite wife, Mumtaz. Legend has it that he intended to build a duplicate Taj in black marble on the opposite side of the river as his own tomb. In recent years the ruins of foundations and gardens have been discovered there, which seems to support this theory, but the truth will probably never be known. Shah Jahan was overthrown by his son and spent his last days locked up in Agra Fort, just down the river from the Taj.

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Agra can be reached by plane or fast train from New Delhi, although the latter has a reputation for pickpockets. The bustling streets of Taj Ganj, just outside the main gate. were once the home of the craftsmen who constructed the Taj. It is now a backpacker's ghetto with very cheap accommodation. Other attractions include the fort in Agra. which has good views down the Yamuna River to the Taj, and also the deserted city of Fatehpur Sikri a few hours away.

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