I went to India with zero expectations. Some of you more experienced travelers are probably looking at this post wide-eyed wondering how I managed to not know India is one of the greatest travel destinations out there. I know about the Taj Mahal but not much more. I fully admit to being a fool. Try not to judge me too hard.
Of course, so many travelers will tell you that India is so much more than the Taj Mahal. And it is! Lodhi Garden in New Delhi. The Red Fort in Jaipur. Dinner in real palaces. There were so many times in India that I had a “pinch me I can’t believe this is real” moment. But the Taj Mahal was the crown jewel of my visit.
We arrived in Agra around noon and met up with our Taj Mahal guide at the steps of the East Gate. The huge complex was packed. So many people everywhere. I have seen my fair share of tourist destinations but this one was the most crowded I had ever been to. By far.
Our guide walked us around the complex, telling us fascinating stories about the construction of the Taj. He explained why it is a symbol of love and gave us fun facts like the 53 water fountains symbolize the year it was completed, 1653. He helped us understand the optical trick the builders used, as you move closer to the gate, the Taj Mahal keeps getting smaller. And of course, he took many pictures of us around the amazing complex.
Instead of watching the sunset in the complex (along with a million other tourists) our guide took us to the moon garden, which is directly behind the Taj across the river. We watched the sun go down while standing on the foundation of the mythical black Taj Mahal that was never built. That in itself was magical and would have been worth the trip to Agra.
But we had one more goal for the Taj Mahal. I had read online that in the morning the sun rises and turns the stones of the Taj Mahal pink. I had to see it for myself.
We woke up at 5 am the next morning and I dressed in a saree I had bought earlier in the trip. We headed to the East Gate and joined the small line that had already formed before the first rays of sunlight had even made an appearance over the horizon. The line was tiny, especially compared to the massive crowds the day before, but still bigger than I had assumed. Everyone in line chatted sleepily to their neighbors. You could immediately tell how excited we all were for this experience.
All of us bonded quickly over waking up so early. I met a group of 50-something Australians who had just spent 10 days hiking a remote mountain in India. I met an American who had been traveling for 5 months social media free. We all met a cow. He joined the line for a good 5 minutes and thoroughly enjoyed us all scratching his ears and back.
Finally right before sunrise started the doors opened and we all quietly filed inside. We collectively gasped as we rounded the corner. The Taj was awe-inspiring. The light was still low but you could see the tiles turning slightly pink as the sun finally showed its beautiful face.
The mood in the air was so serene. There is something surreal about immediately bonding with so many different travelers. We all came from around the world with one common goal: See the Taj at Sunrise. After we all took turns happily taking pictures of one another in the empty garden the small group that woke up ungodly early dispersed among the huge complex. A sad strange feeling settled in my stomach knowing I would probably never see those strangers again.
Matt and I found a bench and watched the sun rise slowly over the Taj. I don’t know if it was my imagination or if time was just being kind but it was the longest sunrise I have ever witnessed. We mostly sat in silence both completely lost in thought, both of us not truly believing the perfect travel experience we were witnessing.
Our silence was broken when a group of 5 or so Indian women with literally 20 small children approached me to ask for a picture. I happily smiled for a photo with them and they asked me in thick accents where I was from and complimented me on my saree. One of the women, the oldest in the group, explained to me the joy she feels when she sees foreigners traveling and embracing her culture to the fullest. She told me she hoped I wore the saree once I returned home. I promised her I would.
Head here to read more about my tips for planning a trip to India.