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Posted by Jessica on Oct 8, 2009
To the Taj Mahal or Bust?

Tim and I have the pleasure of having absolutely no clue about where we want to go for our upcoming India trip. Other than the fact that we know we are arriving in and departing from Delhi, everything else is up in the air. And that's exactly how we like it.

It's wonderfully exciting to have so much time available in another country and nothing to fill it up yet but daydreams. That said, we're quickly understanding that two or three weeks in India isn't really all that much time. And we also understand what time we do have will have a way of being filled up quite quickly in India with bureaucracy and confusion. (Not to mention, of course, the adventure of scoring available train tickets to the next place we may want to go.)

When we began our research for India (during our important quest to appreciate the pre-trip anticipation part more), there were some names that popped up more often than others. Places like Jaipur, Udaipur, Goa, Mumbai, Calcutta, Varanasi, Darjeeling, Jaisalmer, and Delhi are all very popular tourist destinations. (It took me several weeks, but I'm finally able to remember where all those places are located on the map.) But perhaps unsurprisingly the number one place that appears on most traveler's lists is the Taj Mahal.

Located in Agra (about a three hour train ride south of Delhi), the Taj Mahal (according to Lonely Planet) is "described as the most extravagant monument ever built for love." Rudyard Kipling, the British writer most often noted for his story The Jungle Book, described it as "the embodiment of all things pure." Many of of our friends (although perhaps not as well known as Lonely Planet or Kipling, we trust their opinions just as much) have described the monument as magical and one of the most stunning buildings they have ever seen in person.

But with limited time in India – and once we take into consideration travel days and delays – is visiting the Taj Mahal a "must see" for a (relatively short) first trip to India?

Tim and I are big proponents of traveling in a way that makes someone happiest even if that means missing out on Machu Picchu or the Galapagos Islands or Angkor Wat. We tend not to see traveling as a "once in a lifetime" adventure and we believe more than one sight or experience makes up a country. But we have discovered many folks (particularly people who aren't into the backpacking lifestyle) are uncomfortable with that approach. Some travelers must see the "must sees" no matter what. (And hey, if that works for them, I think that's wonderful. As for me? That's just feels too stressful!)

We've realized that leaving the Taj Mahal out of our travel plans entirely gives us more room to travel in India. By putting the 2-3 days that we would have spent traveling to Agra and visiting the Taj back on the table, it's been fun to see what new possibilities develop. (Side note – We know it's possible to visit the Taj Mahal during a day visit from Delhi or just spend one night in Agra, but that's not really our style.)

So rather than make any decisions about what we must see in India, we've been enjoying flipping through Lonely Planet and looking at photos online for inspiration. Every day brings a new idea ("Hey, have you heard of this village in Karnataka before? The photos look amazing!") or a new approach ("Maybe we should get a flight from Delhi straight over to Calcutta and then make our way back overland"). It's incredibly fun to not know exactly where we'll go once our feet hit the ground.

But I am curious about what everyone else thinks too. If you had a chance to go to India for two or three weeks, would the Taj Mahal be at the top of your list? Or would you prefer to save it for another trip?

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October 10, 2009 at 11:43pm
There really isn't much in Agra --– but stopping along the way at Mithila (the birth place of Krishna) or at Khajuraho (the temples with the Kama Sutra statues) is well worth it.

Personally, I wouldn't go to Delhi without stopping at the Taj Mahal, first, because Delhi is the only easily accessible major city to get to the Taj Mahal. And, next time you fly into India, maybe you'll instead fly into Mumbai or Kolkata or Bangalore --– all cities that are far from Agra.

I have been there twice and Patrick has been there once. It literally took our breaths away. It is one of the most singularly beautiful places I have ever seen in my life. And, yes, everybody does it --– but that's because it's well worth doing. There are a lot of other places in Delhi that people think are must see (like India Gate and Humayun's Tomb) that I think are only okay --– but the Taj Mahal is, at least in my mind, truly incredible and unique.

We took two days to do it (one going there and seeing Mithila on the day), the second day seeing the Taj, and then returning that evening. I've done it before in just one day and that's a pretty long and tough day even on the Shatabdi. So, my two cents --– don't miss it!

October 11, 2009 at 11:26pm
I'm planning on going when I get to India this week for the first time! However, I have much more time to play with (about 6 months).
Oh, and I should mention (since I just popped up out of nowhere) I've been reading your site for a while since researching my trip to South America and following in your footsteps! Your writing and pictures were invaluable to be as a trip planning tool and as fantasy fodder for all the cold nights I spent at home planning the trip!
October 12, 2009 at 3:18am
Akila mentions a good point about a return visit. When I return to an area I've been I try not to see the same things again. A return visit to see only the Taj doesn't sound like your style.
Stick your noses in some local markets while you are there, find some Indian beer, sit near a mango tree and watch the people. There are more sights to see and stories in the faces to make up for a day's visit.

Ken Koch
October 13, 2009 at 12:45am
I am in a similar dilemma over what to see and what to cut during a soon to happen trip to New Delhi. I'm arriving there after a two week business thing in Dubai, and it will be my first trip to India (3 hours in Mumbai airport on the way to somewhere else doesn't count in my book).

I will have 9 days & nights, want to spend time in Delhi, Agra (for the Taj, of course) and Jaipur. I have found that traveling by train is, frankly, a pain in the butt to schedule until you get there, and while I am all about open trip planning and going with flow, I was considering cutting out Agra and the Taj in lieu of spending more time elsewhere.

Everything I have read about it says, No-do not be that close and not go to Agra and see the Taj Mahal.

The posts on this subject were very helpful. I will go and see the Taj. It is just making me crazy trying to decide how much of the limited time I have to spend in each of the 3 places I'd like to see.

I basically go by the idea that it is better to see one place well than many places barely. And I like your approach of just going there and figuring it out as you go along.

Make a plan, but be prepared to plan to change it.

Ken Koch

October 16, 2009 at 8:37am
Hey Hedgehogs, couldn't let this go by without adding my two cents :)

I LOVED the Taj Mahal (and you know that means a lot, considering how much I didn't like India). It was my favourite place in the country. And there is lots more to see in Agra than just the Taj. There is also the Agra Fort, Fatehpur Sikri, Itmad-uh-daulah's Tomb, Akbar's Tomb, Jama Masjid, Ram Bagh, etc. (check Agra in Wikipedia for more details).

Definitely go and see the Taj, and be there at sunrise – it will take your breath away.

On another note, I just bought a book called "Off the Tourist Trail: 1000 Unexpected Travel Alternatives" (they beat Klaus to it!). There are some entries in there for India – I'll check them out and send you an email with the info.

Happy travels!

October 16, 2009 at 12:09pm
Maybe I will stick to taking pictures then :)
Thanks Deb, Agra sounds like fun to me now, if there is stuff to do in the city, not just a whirlwind photo op at the Taj Mahal. I am sure I will like the street food, the ruins of abandoned factories, and the temples of the more obscure cults in Agra.
October 19, 2009 at 11:32pm
Well, I'll be the lone dissenter…

skip the Taj! Or at least consider it. Sure, it's beautiful (although pollution and smog cut into even that) but it's located in a town lacking any charm at all and it's a tourist hellhole full of scams and touts. At least for me, it didn't come close to comparing to say, Machu Piccu, Angkor Wat, Petra – those are all miniature cities to explore. The Taj is sort of… (travel blasphemy here) just a building.

At the very least, save it until the end of your trip when you circle back to Delhi. Talk to people on the ground and be flexible about it – when I visited, I didn't meet anyone who enjoyed it (people said "Well, we had to go, it's a must-see, but…";) however, this was during a particularly foggy/smoggy winter and it made it a bit dull I think. Maybe if the sun had been shining, the skies blue, the birds out, things would be different.

October 21, 2009 at 7:02pm
You should still write your book Klaus! I'm sure your destinations will be way better :)
October 26, 2009 at 12:12pm
If it were me, I don't think I'd go all the way out there without stopping to see it. Buuuut that is just me, if you guys don't want to, it's certainly not "necessary" to do! :)

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