Agra, a.k.a. “Agro”, is a filthy, foul-smelling, scat-hole of a place with more than it's fair share of scheming and undesirable people. It is also home to some of the country's worst budget accommodations and restaurants that force you to consider an impromptu 2-day fast. Yup, few people who have visited Agra have anything positive to say about the city itself, yet almost all who have ever visited India have paid this place a visit. This is because India's most iconic structure lies along Agra's south section of the holy Yamuna River- the awe-inspiring Taj Mahal. By far the most tourist frequented sight in all of India, this is just one of those places where you have to suck it up, endure the city, pay the $15 entrance fee, and go see it with your own eyes (not that there's any other way of doing it). Often confused as a palace or a mosque, the Taj Mahal is actually a tomb and justifiably deserves its reputation as being the most beautiful building on this planet. Rudyard Kipling referred to it as “the embodiment of all things pure”- and Kipling don't lie! The story that encircles the Taj Mahal only adds to its romantic allure.
The mausoleum itself was built over a 9-year period (the rest of the complex took an additional 12 years to complete) commencing in 1632 after Emperor Shah Jahan's beloved third wife, Mumtaz Mahal, died during the delivery of his 14th child. So strong was his love for Mumtaz that he spent the next full year devising the ultimate resting place for his one and only love (the other 2 wives and the 100s of others in his harem just didn't measure up I guess). Perhaps too strong was his love though, as the Taj Mahal, which employed over 20,000 skilled craftsmen and labourers and used only the finest quality (and most expensive) materials, nearly drained the once mighty Mughal empire's coffers and ultimately contributed to its demise. Disgusted by his father's weaknesses, Aurangzeb overthrew Shah Jahan and imprisoned him in the Agra Fort for the remainder of his life. But being a good son, he granted his father's final wish of a cell with a Taj-facing view (Happy Father's Day!). Upon his death in 1666, Shah Jahan was floated down the Yamuna River and buried beneath the Taj Mahal alongside his most cherished wife.
We spent one morning walking arounding the Taj complex and an afternoon exploring the expansive Agra Fort (another attraction not to be missed when in Agra) as well as a sunrise and a sunset on the Yamuna's riverbank opposite the Taj Mahal. We didn't have a proper sunrise the morning we visited the Taj. It was a little overcast and the colors in the sky were somewhat lackluster as a result. But an hour or so after the sun came up some interesting cloud formations peppered the sky above and the lighting conditions proved very dramatic at times. My advise is to get there as the gates open- you won't be alone or even one of a hundred, but the cool early morning hours are the most enjoyable time to wander around the grounds and you might be rearded with a perfect sunrise. The hazy views from the fort can also be atmospheric (if distant) but at least you can experience the same view that Shah Jahan had for the last eight years of his life. The Taj Mahal is nothing less than breathtaking and no doubt the apex of Mughal architectural achievement.
Sitting on top of one of the rooftop restaurants in Taj Ganj affords a decent view of Agra's star attraction, but looking around at its “modern” surroundings also provides a very stark and bleak contrast. Agra is one of those places where the juxtaposition of the old and the “new” is overwhelmingly profound- you can really let your mind wander here about how beautiful it would have been to visit India in its better days.
For a far better history of the Taj Mahal than I've provided, I recommend clicking on the link below to watch an excellent short documentary put together by the fine folks over at the Nat Geo network.