ultramarinus – beyond the sea

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DAY 9 (1/4): CROWN OF THE PALACES, Taj Mahal, Agra, Uttar Pradesh, India, 2018.12.02

On the banks of Yamuna River stands one of the world’s most recognizable man-made wonders that has captivated the imagination of people for generations.  Its perfectly proportioned domes, minarets, white marble facades with spectacular stone inlays, represent the utmost architectural beauty and splendid craftsmanship of the Mughal civilization.  The complex immortalizes the eternal love of Emperor Shah Jahan (reigned 1628 – 1658) towards Mumtaz Mahal, whose marvelous tomb complex has become the most famous national icon of India.  This tomb complex is of course the magnificent Taj Mahal, which literally translates as Crown of the Palaces.  The Taj Mahal stands out as the single most important monument that draws travelers from all over the world to India.  Not a mosque or a palace, the Taj Mahal is indeed the final resting place for Queen Mumtaz Mahal and Emperor Shah Jahan.

It would be absurd if we made two visits to India without seeing the Taj Mahal even once.  Fitting Agra into our Rajasthan itinerary and completing the Golden Triangle was easy with the frequent train services between Agra, Jaipur and Delhi.  In Agra, we purposely picked a guesthouse at Taj Ganj, the district right next to the Taj Mahal.  Though not many good hotel options were available in the area, staying at Taj Ganj placed us just a few minutes of walk away from one of the gates of Taj Mahal.  Hoping to experience the golden sunrise at the Taj, queuing at the gate about half an hour before sunrise is a common practice for both foreign and local visitors.

Before the trip, we were a little worry about the restoration work and scaffolding conditions of the Taj.  Since 2016, scaffolding were up at different parts of the Taj for a major cleaning work to restore the original white colour of the marble.  The process had been painstakingly slow.  By October 2018, the cleaning was almost over except the main dome.  It would be a woeful view if the central dome was covered in scaffolding.  Luckily, the authority had decided to delay the cleaning process until the end of the tourist high season, meaning that the Taj would be scaffolding free from November 2018 to April 2019.

DSC_2485After purchasing the tickets at the gate, we queued in the foreign visitor line for about 20 minutes before going through the security check and arriving at the Jilaukhana Forecourt in front of the Great Gate.

DSC_2603Beyond the Great Gate, we arrived at the starting point of the Water Channel.  The channels symbolize the four rivers in the Paradise mentioned in the Koran.  A tint of orange gradually lighted up the east side of the minarets and domes.

DSC_2609We slowly walked to the central pool and platform at the centre of the Charbagh Garden.

DSC_2624From the Central Pool, the majestic Taj Mahal looked beautiful and poetic under the early morning sun.  No tourist brochure or travel literature could do justice on conveying the true beauty of the marble architecture.  We were grateful for not seeing any scaffolding on the Taj, and could see clearly all the major components of the iconic building: four minarets, five domes and an octagonal central structure.

DSC_2648_01It was a little hazy looking back to the Great Gate.

DSC_2655It was a huge relief to see the Taj scaffolding free.  We slowly walked towards the main tomb structure to pay a brief visit of the interior.

DSC_2681No photography was allowed inside the tomb, where the cenotaphs of Mumtaz Mahal and Shah Jahan were on display.  Their actual resting place is off limit to the public below the main deck.

DSC_2682After touring the interior, we stayed on the marble platform to check out the minarets and marble facades.

IMG_2336To the west of the Taj stands a beautiful mosque.

DSC_2713To the east, an identical building was used as a guesthouse.

IMG_2339To the north, Yamuna River provides a peaceful backdrop to the Taj.

IMG_2367From the marble platform, we could admire the details of marble carving on the Taj.

DSC_2684Standing face to face to the exterior marble walls, we were overwhelmed by the marble relief and stone inlay.

DSC_2724From the grandeur of the minarets to the splendid carvings and stone inlay of the marble walls, Taj Mahal is truly an amazing man-made wonder.

DSC_2689The sun get higher as time passed, and so as the number of visitors.

IMG_2393We circled the Taj to examine its beautiful marble walls before heading back down to the Charbagh Garden.

DSC_2744Back in the Charbagh garden, we could once again admire the overview of the Taj Mahal,

IMG_2432Back at the Central Pool, we took a few more shots of the classic view of the Taj once again.

IMG_2444Visitors continued to pour in from the Great Gate as we were about to leave the Taj Mahal complex.

DSC_2752We passed by the Khawasspuras (tomb attendant living quarter) one last time before exiting the Great Gate.



XIDI (西遞), Anhui, China

After Hongcun, we returned to Yixian by public bus.  It was mid-afternoon by the time we arrived at Yixian.  At Yixian’s bus station, we decided to switch bus to visit another UNESCO World Heritage Huizhou village, Xidi.  Similar to Hongcun, Xidi has a good amount of ancient architecture dated mainly from the Ming and Qing Dynasties.  Dated as far back as the Northern Song Dynasty in the 11th century, Xidi had been inhabited for almost a millennia.  Like Hongcun, Xidi has become a popular tourist spot in Anhui attracting loads of visitors during holidays and weekends.  We didn’t have our own transportation and had to rely on the public transportation.  As a result, we only had less than an hour of time wandering in the winding alleyways and visiting the magnificently decorated Huizhou houses of Xidi.

The most prominent feature of Xidi caught our eyes at the village entrance.  It was the majestic Xidi Paifang (牌坊) or Pailou (牌樓).  Named as Huwenguang Paifang (胡文光牌坊), the paifang was commissioned by the Ming Emperor Wanli to celebrate the good work done by Hu Wenguang, a government official originated from Xidi.  Three-tiered and four legged, the Huwenguang Paifang has become an icon for Huizhou heritage nowadays.

We quickly entered Xidi through its labyrinth of alleyways.  We entered a few courtyard houses along our way into the heart of Xidi, where the ancestral hall of the Hu family stood.  According to some accounts, the Hu people was originally descendants from the royal family of the Tang Dynasty.  After the fall of Tang, they changed their surname to Hu and gradually moved south.  They found the village of Xidi in Northern Song Dynasty and became a settlement of scholars.  At its heyday during the Ming Dynasty, the Hu people had turned themselves into successful businessmen, and transformed Xidi into a prosperous village.

We stayed in the Ancestral Hall of Hu’s for a while, checked out the nicely decorated timber halls and courtyards, before slowly finding our way out to the exit where the last public bus would take us back to Yixian.

1The open plaza and lily pond at the entrance of Xidi.

2The majestic Huwenguang Paifang, the only one of a dozen or so paifangs survived the Cultural Revolution.

3Stone carving details at the column base of Huwenguang Paifang.

4Beyond the Huwenguang Paifang lies the entrance into the village.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAMuch of Xidi seemed like an extensive labyrinth of alleyways.

6Today, Xidi has become a tourist attraction.  Many houses have been converted into guesthouses and restaurants.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAInner courtyard or skywell of a family home with extensive wooden decorations and furniture.

8These semi-open courtyards or skywells present the lifestyle of the former residents.

9One of the courtyards we walked by was full of antiques.

10The detailed wooden carvings in each courtyard house revealed the former glory of Xidi.

11At the heart of Xidi stands the Hu’s Ancestral Hall.

12“Hu’s Ancestral Hall”

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERATimber columns and wall panels at Hu’s Ancestral Hall expressed an image of harmony.

14The courtyard of Hu’s Ancestral Hall was the biggest we visited in Xidi.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWooden furniture and traditional portraits were some of the most remarkable features in the courtyard of Hu’s Ancestral Hall.

16Villagers were using the forecourt of Hu’s Ancestral Hall for drying their agricultural produces, such as corn.

17Sun-dried peanuts and chili peppers.

18Near the exit of Xidi we passed by several squashes standing against the wall of a white washed wall.

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Read other posts on 2015 Anhui and Hangzhou
1. History, Scenery, Architecture, 5-day tour of Anhui and Hangzhou, China
2. Laojie (Old Street), Tunxi, China
3. Hongcun, Anhui, China
4. Xidi, Anhui, China
5. West Sea Canyon, Huangshan, Anhui, China
6. From Monkey Watching the Sea to Welcome Pine, Huangshan, Anhui, China
7. Xiangshan Campus, China Academy of Art, Hangzhou, China
8. Folk Art Museum, Xiangshan Campus, China Academy of Art, Hangzhou, China