Sunrise at Taj Mahal

One of the must-stop attractions in India is the Taj Mahal. It is the mausoleum that commemorates the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan’s “undying love” for his beloved wife Mumtaz Mhal. The Taj Mahal was commissioned in 1632 and was completed in 1653 for a total cost at the time of 32 million rupees (US $827 million in today’s cost). It is considered the new Seven Wonders of the world and attracts 7-8 million visitors per year. 

Getting There

The Taj Mahal is about a three hour drive from New Delhi. So most people make New Delhi their home base and make a day trip out of Agra for the Taj Mahal visit. There are several options for commuting to Agra, one can either drive, take the train, or take a private tour. 

Driving is not recommended as the driving culture in India is very different from North America and Europe. Most drivers honk as their way of saying “hi”. Merging and driving between the lines are the norm, and some drivers take traffic light as recommendations rather than the law. 

Taking the train is an inexpensive option. Visitors from New Dehli can either depart from New Delhi Railway Station (NDLS) or Hazrat Nizamuddin Railway Station (NZM), depending on where in New Delhi they are staying. Both stations arrive at the Agra Cantonment (AGC) in Agra. You can get tickets here. Note that once you arrive at AGC, you will have to arrange your own transportation within Agra if you go with this route. 

Here are the cost for some of the train options. All prices are for Air conditioned chair cars.

Train Name From/To Departure Time Arrival Time Cost (INR/USD)
Gatiman Express 12050 NZM/AGC 08:10 09:50 INR755/11USD
Shatabdi Express 12002 NDLS/AGC 06:00 07:57 INR555/8USD
Gatimaan Express 12049 AGC/NZM 17:50 19:30 INR755/11USD
Shatabdi Express 12001 AGC/NDLS 21:15 23:30 INR555/8USD

The last and recommended option is to take a private tour. Private tours generally cost ~$80-$150 USD per person, depending on how many people are in your party. They usually include transportation between New Delhi and Agra via private vehicle, tour guide at Taj Mahal and Agra Fort, and a breakfast or lunch. Depending on the tour option, it may or may not include entrance tickets. 

I highly recommend the private tour as the cost was reasonable at $120 per person for our party of two. I picked the sunrise tour because I wanted to get to Taj Mahal early when there are the least amount of people and the sun is glistening over the white marble at Taj Mahal. The added benefit of a private tour is that you also get a personal photographer 🙂 

Cost

Here’s the cost breakdown between the train and private tour option.

By Train:

Description Cost per person (USD)
Uber between New Delhi and train station $5
Trains between New Delhi and Agra $22
Tuk tuk or cabs in Agra (No Uber there) $5
Entrance fee to Taj Mahal and Agra Fort ($15 / $8) $23
Breakfast / Lunch $10
TOTAL $65

By Private Tour

Description Cost per person (USD)
Tour (includes transportation, breakfast, tour guide, entrance fees) $120
Gratuity (INR 1000 per person) $15
TOTAL $135

The difference is ~$70 between a self tour and a private tour. I am willing to pay the extra $70 so I don’t have to plan anything and get my own personal tour guide / photographer. And taking the train would’ve meant that I wouldn’t have been able to see the sun rise over Taj Mahal. This all comes down to budget constraints and what you are willing to pay for convenience.

Tour

After I booked the tour, I received a WhatsApp message from the tour guide confirming my booking and the hotel location in New Delhi for pick up on the day of the tour. Also on the day before the tour, we were confirmed again by the tour guide of the pick up location.

Since this is the sun rise tour, we were picked up by our driver at 2:15AM at our hotel. It was a smooth three hour drive to Agra on the new Yamuna Expressway, which completed construction in 2012. The Yamuna Expressway cuts the travel time between New Delhi and Agra by 1.5 hours! 

Taj Mahal

We arrived at Agra at 5:15AM and were immediately brought to the West Entrance of the Taj Mahal. There are three entrances to the Taj Mahal, Southern, Eastern, and Western Gate. The Southern Gate was meant for pedestrians and construction workers of the Taj Mahal back in the day. Today, it is also the least used gate. The Eastern Gate is known for having hoard of people there during sun rise (as the sun rises from the East). Their ticket counter is also a ten minute walk from the Eastern entrance. The Western Gate is usually used by local Indian tourists but it is also the least crowded during early entry. 

West Gate ticket counter
Security at the West Gate. It was pretty empty when we first entered
The walkway leading from the West Gate to the Great Gate

After passing through the Western Gate, we arrive at the Great Gate which is the gate before the garden and the Taj Mahal. Note that there are eleven cupolas on top of the Great Gate. There are eleven more on the other side of the Great Gate, signifying the 22 years it took to complete the Taj Mahal. There are also Arabic writing and floral patterns on the front arch of the Great Gate, which is replicated on the front of the Taj Mahal as well.

The Great Gate

Once we passed through the Great Gate, I was in awe by the sight of the garden and the Taj Mahal. It was so beautiful and quiet at this hour. Our tour guide gave us some interesting history of the Taj Mahal and walked us around the entire garden. Apparently there were plans to build a Black Taj Mahal across the Yamuna River, opposite to the Taj Mahal. The Black Taj Mahal was Shah Jahan’s way of commemorating himself. However, Shah Jahan’s son, Aurangzeb, saw that Shah was using more than half the fortune of the Moguhal empire at the time to build the Taj Mahal. Aurangzeb decided to take the throne for himself and placed his father on house arrest. The Black Taj Mahal plans had to be abandoned and Shah Jahan is now buried in the current Taj Mahal, next to his wife. 

The Taj Mahal white marble came from the near-by town of Makrana. It is a six hour drive from Makrana to Agra with a car today. So you can imagine how resource intensive it was to construct the Taj Mahal. 

The Taj Mahal in its full glory. Make sure to get this reflection picture!

Don’t forget to take as many selfies as you can while it’s still relatively empty! I did many of the classic posts. #basic

After a tour of the garden, our tour guide left us to explore the actual Taj Mahal and the mosque and the guest house that were to the left and right of the Taj Mahal by ourselves. Guests that enter this area must put on shoe cover to protect the site. 

Putting on shoe cover while touring the Taj Mahal, the mosque, and the guest house

Photography was not allowed in the Taj Mahal. But inside the structure, there lies the replicas of Shah Jahan’s and Mumtaz Mhal’s grave. The real ones are actually in the basement of the Taj Mahal and are not open to the public. 

Inside the Taj Mahal. Courtesy of Sarthak Johari of Tripoto

Both the mosque and the guest house were not open to the public so we were only able to take pictures outside. The mosque is open, however, to Islamic prayers on Fridays. Hence it is why the Taj Mahal isn’t open to the public on Fridays. The guest house, on the other hand, was meant for Shah Jahan’s guests to stay while their visit to the Taj Mahal back in the day. It also provided symmetry to the garden and structure. 

The mosque. It is to the west of the Taj Mahal. The guest house on the east looks virtually identical to this.
Don’t forget to find an arch at the mosque to get this iconic shot of the Taj Mahal
More pictures of the mosque
The detail of the roof of the mosque is exquisite
The sun finally came up while we were touring the mosque. However, because it is the month before Monsoon, everything is smoggy and dusty, which led to this color-saturated  and silkscrren-ish effect
One more of the arch and Taj Mahal photo

After the tour of the Taj Mahal at around 7:45AM , we were brought to the Howard Park Hotel (5 minutes away) for their buffet style breakfast. I was too hungry at this point to take any pictures. But it had a wide selection of Indian and Western style breakfast item such as sausages, eggs, fruits, and cereal. 

We finished our breakfast around 9AM. Since the next attraction, Agra Fort isn’t open until 10AM, our tour guide brought us to a gem / tapestry shop. No tour is complete until you have been brought to buy something! The tapestry is beautiful there and they showed us the hand-made process of making one tapestry. Although we were brought there to persuade us to buy something, I didn’t feel pressured at all. Once they felt that we weren’t interested in purchasing anything, they politely let us browse around until we were ready to leave.

Tapestry making

At 10AM, we were brought to the Agra Fort. Agra Fort was the residence of Mughal Emperor between 1526-1638, where the capital was then moved to New Delhi. Our tour guide explained the significance of each building in the Agra Fort. He also pointed out the house where Shah Jahan was placed on house arrest by his son. 

Entrance to Agra Fort
Most buildings in Agra Fort are made of either white marble of red sand stone. This is an example of white marble
This is an example of red sand stone

From Agra Fort, you can see the Taj Mahal across the Yamuna River, as Shah Jahan’s goal was to be able to see his wife’s final resting place every day for the rest of his life. 

The location where Shah Jahan was being house arrested. You can see the Taj Mahal from here. You can also see me sweating a lot as it’s getting really hot after the sun has come out
The residence of the Mughal Emperor 
All the white marble have such intricate cravings 
Intricate cravings on the red sand stone buildings too

We completed the Agra Fort tour at 11AM and were brought to a carpet shop where hand-made Indian carpet is made. They were very beautiful and it was fun seeing how the carpet is made first hand. But we weren’t very interested in purchasing any. They were, again, not forceful at all and allowed us to browse for a little and take pictures before leaving. 

Hand-made carpet
From wool to carpet
The finished products

We left Agra at 11:30AM and our driver took us back to New Delhi by 2:30PM. It was a fun filled day and it was amazing to see the Taj Mahal. Don’t forget to tip your driver and tour guide. For the two of us, we gave both the driver and tour guide each INR 1000. After some research, I think it would’ve been more than enough to give the tour guide INR 1000 and the driver INR 500. But the USD – INR conversion rate is pretty favorable for us, so INR 1000 per person really wasn’t bad. It probably made their day 🙂

We went to the National Museum of India in New Delhi when we got back from Agra. Stay tuned for my next article that shows you my two days at New Delhi. 

2 Replies to “Sunrise at Taj Mahal”

  1. Great photos. Taj Mahaj and the golden circle is on my list. Was summer a good period to travel or was the heat excessive?

    1. The heat was pretty unbearable in May (before the monsoon hit). I’d suggest going after the monsoon season so you can avoid both the heat and the rain. Winter is another good time to travel as it cools down a little in India.

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