Seeing this World Wonder absolutely is on your bucket list — good thing it is a cinch to visit while you're in India with ILP!
If you had to pick just one thing to see in India, would it be the Taj Mahal? This country boasts impeccable palaces, glittering lakes, Himalayan mountains, miles of beaches, and picturesque cities perched by the desert or dense rainforest ... but somehow, the Taj Mahal still is the top spot to see in India.
It's well worth the hype and something that should definitely be a part of any trip to India, especially if you're here teaching English with the ILP program.
What's this about volunteering in India with ILP?
ILP groups are in India for a full semester, with weekends off and vacation days from teaching English to fit in a ton of traveling. And, of course, the Taj Mahal in Agra is one of the most popular vacation spots to pick! For good reason, too — this iconic spot isn't just a pretty palace, it's a visualization of a fascinating chapter of India's history ... and may be an icon of the world's greatest love story? In essence, it's just one of those spots you have to see for yourself.
Since it's a given you'll make time for this experience during your ILP adventure in India, this post is all about letting you know what to expect — all the highlights, all the insider tips, and all the expectations are right here:
A Bit About The Taj Mahal
Okay, so I'm a sucker for history especially when it completely changes your experience (this is especially true with the Taj Mahal!). Are you ready for one of the most touching love stories in all of history? Before visiting, I didn't know much about the Taj Mahal but learned a bit before my trip (and a lot from my guide when I was there). To have some background before your visit, understand that the Taj Mahal is a mausoleum, built by a grieving Emperor for his beloved wife.
Shah Juhan ruled most of northern India in the 16th - mid 18th century, with one of his queens, Arjumand Banu Begum (she's sometimes known as the "Chosen one of the Palace", or Mumtaz Mahal, and was the clear favorite). They married in 1612, but Mumtaz Mahal passed away in 1631 during childbirth. Out of grief and devotion, Shah Jahan decided to construct her a tomb like no other, to express his love. That tomb is now known as the Taj Mahal.
When you hear "Taj Mahal", that iconic white marble structure comes to mind, right? You're not wrong, but technically, the Taj Mahal includes the entire area, made up of several buildings. The actual mausoleum is that white structure inlaid with the most intricate details delicately cut out of jade, crystal, turquoise, and other precious and semi-precious stones. There are other fantastically built structures inside the complex, including red sandstone gateways, reflecting pools, a square garden, and an active mosque.
There were supposedly plans to have an identical structure (but in black) built across the river from the Taj to house the remains of Shah Jahan after he died, but his third son, Aurangzeb, had other plans. He took over the kingdom, and decided to put his father under house arrest in the Red Fort, which had a stunning view of the resting place he had constructed for his wife. After he passed in 1666, Shah Jahan was laid to rest next to his love.
What Is A Visit Like?
Visit the Taj Mahal means entering that complex, where you can admire the buildings we mentioned above, as well as the shimmering white mausoleum.
You'll want to make sure to get a ticket that allows entrance into the mausoleum, where you can see the false tombs of the two lovers (according to Muslim traditions, tombs should be unadorned, so the actual tombs of the couple are found below in a basic crypt, though there are two place holder tombs inside you can admire — they're richly decorated).
You'll also want to spend time admiring the details of the mosque on the grounds as well as the detailed entrance gate and gardens.
What To Expect
Everyone Loves Seeing The Taj
Tourists from all over India + the rest of the world flood this world-famous site every year. A supposed 7-8 million people come to see the Taj Mahal each year, which breaks down to thousands and thousands of visitors every day.
You'll see the thickest crowds in the high season (October, November, and February) but even in the off-season, this place gets crowded. Be prepared to wait in lines and wait patiently for crowds to pass before you can get your pictures.
What To Wear
You'll hear the same thing all over India, but dressing modestly here is key. The Taj Mahal is a functioning place of worship and a mausoleum if you need two more reasons to dress appropriately on your visit. As a general rule, having your shoulders, chest, and stomach covered is a good guideline, as is wearing something that goes past your knees. Wearing something against those guidelines will draw more unwanted starts and is disrespectful to this site.
When it comes to your shoes, if you got the ticket to go inside the mausoleum (I recommend it!) you should be provided with shoe covers to protect the marble. Or, take your shoes off before entering, and bring about 50 rupees to pay the person who manages the shoes left outside.
If you want your photos to pop, wear a solid, bright color. Most of the tile work and the actual marble of the Taj Mahal is white (or neutral), so you'll stand out.
It Gets Hot
Be prepared for the weather! It can get scorching hot in Agra, and the Taj Mahal and surrounding sites are all in full sun with no shade. I was so happy I packed a foldable paper fan with me to provide a bit of a breeze when I was visiting (and was glad I was wearing loose and flowy clothing, too).
A Few Insider Tips
Keep On The Lookout
Once you arrive in Agra, keep an eye out for the Taj Mahal. This icon is so big you can see it from all over the city — maybe your hotel has a glimpse of the Taj, or maybe you catch a view driving by before you actually get to visit. Getting to glimpse the white mausoleum before you get to see it yourself is a highpoint so be on the lookout!
Eat And Drink Before
Security is pretty tight here (more on that below) and eating and drinking on the premises is strictly prohibited. You are allowed to have a half-liter water bottle with you, but I'd suggest being well-hydrated before your visit in addition to carrying water with you. It gets hot!
Be Ready For Security
You'll pass through security before entering the surrounding grounds where the Taj Mahal is. Security lines are separated by gender and can involve a trip through a scanner as well as a pat down. Your bags will also be looked through, so pack carefully — don't pack food, GoPros, drones, camera equipment, like tripods, etc. (you can get a full list here). Don't pack in something larger than a backpack (backpacks aren't allowed).
If you're worried, just bring your phone, camera, wallet, water bottle, and other must-have essentials in a small bag. Prohibited items will be confiscated, so just bring what you need.
There are areas where photography is prohibited (inside of the mausoleum), so be mindful of that when photographing your favorite spots.
Don't Visit On Fridays
The Taj Mahal is an active place of worship. You'll see this whenever you visit, but it directly impacts your visit on Fridays, when the site is closed for practicing Muslims to worship at the towering mosque (it's found on the west side of the main mausoleum).
I'm So Glad I Went With A Guide
When I visited India with a friend, we knew we were going with a guide. Even though I typically love to explore on my own, I had heard India was best done with a guide for a few reasons. We had a personal guide while touring the Taj Mahal (and the rest of Agra) and I'm so glad I went that way.
I learned so much, got the inside scoop on the history, and wasn't bothered by the other guides (official and unofficial) who pester tourists, and someone with us who spoke English with us the whole time ... ask your guide about how they preserved the Taj Mahal during WWII!
ILP volunteers will be vacationing in India with a guide (which is the way to go!).
Get your camera ready, you'll want to take a zillion photos! Everyone will go through one of three gates to enter the grounds surrounding the Taj Mahal. Just know that everyone will stop the minute they enter to take pictures of the Taj (you will too!). Snap your first few photos now, but do take time to walk the grounds to get better shots.
This building is blessedly symmetrical, so you may be able to get the same picture on the east side if the west side is overly crowded. Most people enter through the southern gate, so test out views at the eastern and western gates for photos with fewer crowds before leaving.
My Favorite Part
The whole view of the Taj Mahal complex is impressively beautiful, but my favorite part are the details found in the mausoleum. Be sure to get up close and admire the detailed flourishes in the stonework, and try to wrap your brain around the process of thinly carving semi-precious stones in geometric florals to gently inlay that into the carefully carved white marble. There are also verses from the Quran beautifully carved in the entrance gate of the Taj Mahal, along with exquisite tile work and lattice windows. The amount of details in this building is astonishing.
Getting Here + What's Next
Agra's very well connected, meaning it's a cinch to arrive by plane, train, or car. As an ILP volunteer in India, you have the major perk of having our in-country travel team plan the logistics of your vacation, meaning you won't have to figure things out all by yourself! It makes visiting the Taj Mahal (and all of the other spots you want to see in India) super easy.
It's very likely your trip to Taj will be sandwiched between destinations like the glittering temples found in Jaipur, camel treks through the desert in Rajasthan, or a whirlwind tour of the country's busy capital city, Delhi.
Most tourists visit Agra as a part of the so-called "Golden Triangle" which visits Jaipur, Agra, and Delhi, but you can work with your in-country travel team about finding the perfect itinerary that lets you see the Taj Mahal and the other places on your bucket list.
Are you so excited to see the Taj Mahal in person?
We're so excited for you! ILP is sends groups of college-aged volunteers to teach English and travel around India for a semester ... but what's even better news is that we're currently accepting applications for this once-in-a-lifetime experience: