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Taj Mahal At Sunset







The late afternoon light illuminates the white marble mausoleum of the Taj Mahal, which translates as “Crown of Palaces”.

Intro: Despite the hordes of other visitors, our first encounter with Agra’s Taj Mahal at sunset was a surreal and humbling experience, and as the late afternoon light illuminated this spectacular structure, we found a few quiet moments to just soak it all in.

No trip to Agra is complete without a stop at the Taj Mahal. Or rather, it is the main reason that most tourists visit this city, to see what is one of the new 7 wonders of the world. The last time I visited India in 2010 to photograph a wedding, I didn’t have time to take a day trip out to Agra from New Delhi. I also knew that if I tried go all the way there and back, and only got to spend an hour at the Taj Mahal in the middle of the day, it was going to be jam-packed with people.

Heading towards the security check gate at Agra’s Taj Mahal before entering the UNESCO World Heritage site itself.

With that being said, before we booked our India trip at the end of 2014, I knew I wanted to visit the Taj Mahal, both at sunset AND sunrise. Not only for the best lighting, but also to avoid the crowds. After flying into Agra, meeting our driver Nandu, and local guide Shankar, checking into our hotel, and a quick trip to the Agra Fort, Charlene and I were ready to finally visit this world-renowned landmark. We made sure we departed Agra Fort in a timely manner (around 4PM) so we could get to the Taj Mahal before sunset.

A camel waits to transport visitors to the main entrance gate of Agra’s Taj Mahal, considered the “jewel of Muslim art”.

Fortunately, the drive over only took a few minutes, but the process of getting into the Taj Mahal was a different story. Having Shankar guide us every step of the way was certainly needed and greatly appreciated. Although it’s open to the public from sunrise (around 6AM) to past sunset (around 7PM), to actually set foot in the Taj Mahal complex requires jumping through a few hoops. First and foremost, we couldn’t have Nandu drop us off at the entrance gate. No unauthorized vehicles are allowed within half a mile or so radius of the Taj Mahal.

That meant we either had to walk from the drop-off point on the main street to the entrance gate, or take a camel, rickshaw or tuk tuk (small motorized vehicle) ride. In India, there’s always a job available for everything and someone willing to work it, so as soon as Nandu dropped us off, there were already several means of transportation waiting to take us to the entrance. We opted to take the large, tram-like shuttle and skip the walkway, mostly to save time and avoid the countless people trying to sell us things.

Onboard the tourist shuttle to the entrance gates of the Taj Mahal, with our tour guide Shankar and some local visitors.

The ride was actually free, but out of common courtesy and custom, we tipped the driver a buck or two when he dropped us off at the other end of the walkway. Along the ride we passed by many people walking to and from the Taj Mahal, sellers aggressively trying to sell their wares to tourists, as well as both camels and rickshaws slowly plodding their way towards the entrance.

The separated security check lines at the entrance of the Taj Mahal, with different streams for women and men.

When we arrived at the entrance, we proceeded through the security line, although there just wasn’t one security line, but nearly half a dozen. There was one for foreign women (Charlene), local women, foreign men (myself), and local men (our guide Shankar). There were also huge signs in both English and Hindi on what not to take into the Taj Mahal. I won’t get too much into the details, but aside from the obvious (weapons, drugs, food), there’s also strict rules on the camera and video equipment you can take in. For example, we weren’t allowed to bring in Charlene’s GoPro, so we left it in Nandu’s car.

It’s a good idea to read up on the dos and don’ts of visit the Taj Mahal before you visit; the last thing you want to do is have to turn back or leave your valuables with the security staff. I knew I couldn’t take my large f-stop Tilopa BC backpack into the Taj Mahal, but wanted to take a few lenses with me. So I left the backpack in the car and wore my SCOTTeVEST vest, which can hold the 70-200mm lens, as well as a few accessories. For most people, the security won’t be an issue. But if you’re looking to take some professional equipment in, just be sure you have a good plan to go about it.

The elegant entrance gate of the Taj Mahal, beautifully decorated with Mughal architectural designs.

After getting through the security line, we finally made our way across the large courtyard that leads to the actual entrance of the Taj Mahal. You’ll know you’re there when you see absolute madness everywhere! Sure enough, as we got closer to the amber-colored gate, we noticed dozens (if not hundreds) of visitors rushing in. Even (or perhaps especially?) at sunset the place was very crowded, so I can only imagine how crazy it was earlier in the day.

Walking through the entrance gate towards the white marble mausoleum of the Taj Mahal – voted one of the New 7 Wonders of the World.

Finally, after months of anticipating, we gazed our eyes at the ever majestic, spectacular, one of a kind….Taj Mahal! Even after seeing all the photos online and getting our first glance at it from the Agra Fort balcony, (heck, even though there were hundreds of visitors pushing and shoving their way around me to get a good view and photo), it was still surreal to stand in absolute awe and witness the Taj Mahal in person! The late afternoon light that fell on it was pure magic, and the intricate design on the marble structure appeared to come to life right before our very eyes. Truly, I’ve never seen something so pure and perfect!

Crowds of visitors at the far end of the Taj Mahal’s reflecting pool during the late afternoon hours.

Realizing that it was nearly impossible to get a clean shot of the Taj Mahal with its reflection in the long fountain pool, and knowing that we were going to come back here the following day at sunrise, I decided to just let my photography guard down and enjoy our guided tour with Shankar. We followed him around one side of the pool as he explained the history of the Taj Mahal, including the story between its creator, the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan, and his wife, for whom he built this magnificent palace after she passed away.

Looking towards the Taj Mahal from a quiet corner of its expansive grounds.

As crazy and hectic as the main entrance area was, the side courtyards of the Taj Mahal were just as quiet and peaceful. I’m glad we didn’t spend too much time at the main entrance area (maybe 5-10 minutes at most), and just walked past the crowd. Not only were we able to actually hear Shankar’s words, but I even managed to get a few decent shots of the structure, without worrying about other people getting in the way.

Charlene wearing protective “scrubs” on her shoes before we entered inside the Taj Mahal itself on our guided tour.

We then made our way to the upper area of the Taj Mahal, where we were required to put some cloth covers over our shoes to preserve the quality of the marbled floors. Here we visited the Muslim mosque on the left-hand side, and got a chance to soak in the Taj Mahal from a different perspective. The wonderful thing about this area, similar to the side courtyards, was that it was pretty much empty of other visitors, so much so that I was able to get a wide shot of the architecture and its pillars (at the 24mm lens end), without anyone walking across my frame.

Looking up at the stunning decorative entrance of the marble mausoleum during our guided tour of the Taj Mahal.

Our last area we visited of the Taj Mahal was inside the building itself. There was no additional fee for this, but as we entered a man began giving an impromptu presentation about a variety of things – the history, decorations on the wall, as well as a bunch of other info that I wasn’t paying attention to. For a second I thought he was working with Shankar, but then I quickly realized that this man was working with/for the Taj Mahal, and doing this for a little “dough” on the side.

He shined a small flashlight at the marbled walls to show the beautiful details, and then proceeded to call out Charlene’s name high up into the ceiling, showing how the audio traveled up along the wall to the other side of the dome. At the very end of his act, he stuck his hand out and bowed to us. I wanted to just high five him and say: “Thanks!” but I actually ended up giving him a few bucks. Safe to say, we totally got suckered in and learned our lesson for future potential “presentations”.

The intricate designs and craftsmanship of the Taj Mahal draws on both Mughal and Persian architectural styles.

We spent about fifteen minutes inside the Taj Mahal, then made our way back outside, just in time to catch the sunset light hitting the exterior. I read online that the color, look, and feel of the Taj Mahal actually changes throughout the day, due to the way the light falls upon it. Sure enough, it appeared like we were looking at a completely different structure around 6:30PM than when we had first arrived around 4:30PM. The Taj Mahal was a bit more golden, and the shadows from its dome and pillars fell off so smoothly.

As we headed around the back and “right” side of the Taj Mahal, I couldn’t help but feel humbled be this magnificent building. Standing right next to it, I felt so insignificant, but at the same time connected with my surroundings. Maybe it was because we finally had a chance to soak it all in, without hordes of other visitors around us. It had been an action-packed and long day – waking up in Varanasi, flying out to Agra, then embarking on our guided tours of the Agra Fort and Taj Mahal. But finally I had a chance to take a deep breath, enjoy those sunset moments with Charlene, and even capture a few golden hour photos of this incredible landmark.

Looking up towards the grand dome and minarets of Agra’s Taj Mahal during our late afternoon guided tour.

From a travel photographer standpoint, I was not yet satisfied with my images of the Taj Mahal…not by a long shot! I knew we were going to visit again at sunrise, but I still wanted something different. I asked Shankar if there was another perspective of the Taj Mahal, maybe from a more intimate and “real” India standing. He said that there was a small road on the East side that wound through a local village to a river. Absolutely perfect. Stay tuned for what the following morning had in store for us.


  • 1: Recording video is prohibited, so leave your GoPro or video camcorder with your driver.
  • 2: Don’t plan on visiting on a Friday since the Taj Mahal will be closed.
  • 3: Expect the Taj Mahal to be quite crowded if you plan on visiting at sunset. Opt for a visit first thing in the morning for a more serene experience.
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