The Taj Mahal is responsible for enticing more than 20,000 visitors a day to Agra on the western edge of Uttar Pradesh. That works out at one visitor every two seconds during opening hours. The marble mausoleum is by far the most popular tourist site in India - and despite the hype and the cliche it is an astounding, mesmerising building. But in addition to India's emblemic edifice, Agra offers other jewelled tombs and architectural marvels along with a maze of ancient bazaars, masses of hooting traffic and some of the most rapacious shopkeepers in the country.
The city owes its fortunes to the Moghul emperors, who established Agra as their capital. Set on the banks of the Yamuna river about 200km south of Delhi, the town developed under the Rajputs as a trading centre with its own small fort. In the 1560s the Muslim Moghuls arrived here. Akbar the Great, the son of Babur and conqueror of most of northern India, elected to make Agra his base rather than Delhi and brilliantly rebuilt and expanded the fort. A century or so later, under Akbar's great-grandson Aurangzeb, the Moghul empire fell into decline and eventually Agra ceased to be a power base. But it continued to function as a business hub and latterly became significant for its industries, principally oil, leather and iron. Concern about the resulting pollution and its effects on India's crown jewel has more recently led to the relocation of a number of factories, but the city's smog is still very visible.
WHEN WAS THE TAJ BUILT?
It was Akbar's grandson, Shah Jahan, who built the Taj Mahal - a huge and majestic tomb for his favourite wife, Arjumand Banu Begum, otherwise known as Mumtaz Mahal or "Paragon of the Palace". She died during an excruciating 30-hour labour while giving birth to her 14th child in 1631. Devastated, Shah Jahan spared no expense in creating her mausoleum, located so that he could see it from his palace quarters on the eastern side of the fort. The Taj was his great labour of love - and the work of some 200,000 men who took 22 years to complete the building, finishing it in 1654. Or at least that's the theory. Celebrations of the Taj Mahal's 350th anniversary last year sparked controversy, with some Indian historians arguing that the building could have been finished up to a decade earlier. Others pointed out that an inscription at the main gate alludes to a completion date of 1648 - meaning the 350th anniversary was seven years ago. Whatever the truth, such arguments seem pedantic when confronted with the glorious reality of the building itself.
From a distance, the Taj Mahal's marble picks up the subtle nuances of the changing light. Close to, the detail of its jewelled inlay work is astounding: each of the small lotus flowers decorating the inner chamber of the tomb is made up of around 350 stones. It is to protect the marble and the exquisite artistry that motorised traffic is banned from the complex surrounding the Taj. Visitors are taken to a large car park about 500 metres from the mausoleum and from there they have the option of walking or paying around 50 rupees (60p) for an electric rickshaw ride or Rs20 (25p) for the human-powered version. For those with a sense of the ridiculous, camel-drawn carts are available.
The Taj Mahal is open 6am-7pm daily except Fridays. The mosque within the monument is still open to worshippers, who have exclusive use of it on the Islamic holy day. The Taj's museum, containing intricately worked miniatures, opens 10am-5pm daily. As with other monuments run by the Archaeological Survey of India, there is a huge disparity between entrance fees for foreign and domestic tourists: overseas visitors pay Rs750 (pounds 9) while Indian nationals are charged just Rs20 (25p).
Since November last year, and with the agreement of India's Supreme Court, visitors are permitted to enter the Taj Mahal during the full moon, as well as two nights before and after. Only 50 people at a time are allowed to spend half an hour at a platform 320 metres away from the monument: timed tickets, costing Rs750 (pounds 9), must be bought at least 24 hours in advance from the ticket booth or, with a mark-up, through local tour operators.The next full moons occur on 24 February and 25 March.
ISN'T IT VERY CROWDED?
Yes, but generally the throng is good-natured: most people, for instance, will try to stand aside to keep out of strangers' photographs, or happily take cheesy group shots for them. The quietest and best time to come is early in the morning - the dawn light is dramatic and the Taj looks particularly stunning in the rosy hue.
Conversely, the biggest crowds come for the sunset. At that time of day beware of the doorway to the inner chamber of the tomb, where there can be a frightening crush of people jostling to get through. When I was there a fight nearly broke out and the one guard on duty was only just able to control the commotion.
I'VE HEARD THAT THE TAJ IS FALLING DOWN
Recently there have been a number of worrying reports about environmental damage to the building. In 2002 evidence of industrial pollution corroding the tomb resulted in a huge clean-up operation. Ingeniously, archaeologists used an ancient recipe for a face pack based on mud and lime to restore the marble - and so far the effects appear to have lasted.
In 2003, construction of a pounds 22m complex of cinemas, shops and restaurants less than 300 metres from the Taj was halted when conservationists grew alarmed that the foundations of the 17th-century building were being affected. And towards the end of last year investigations started after reports from academics suggested that the minarets to the left of the monument were tilting dangerously.
Local guides to the Taj explain that the tomb's foundations were designed to lie alongside the Yamuna but that recently the river has been drying up. Part of the building is sinking as a consequence: the solution, they suggest, is to build a dam beyond the mausoleum to keep the waters at the required level.
WHAT ELSE IS THERE TO SEE?
Dominating the city, Agra's huge fort is almost as jaw-droppingly magnificent as the Taj Mahal. This great complex reflects the grandeur and sheer scale of operations of the Moghul monarchs: from the enormous audience hall and the quarters where 2,000 or more concubines lived, to the outer pavilion below where elephant fights were staged.
The red sandstone ramparts contain a variety of courtyards and palace apartments in the different styles of the emperors, who successively v added to Akbar's construction of 1565-73. Most poignant are the ornate marble premises of Shah Jahan, who for the last eight years of his life was imprisoned here by his son Aurangzeb after he had usurped the throne. Agra Fort is open 6am-5pm daily, foreign tourist admission Rs250 (pounds 3).
The western gate of the fort is now out of use to visitors. Beyond it, and accessible by walking the long way around, is the large, domed Jami Masjid, or Friday Mosque. This was also devised by Shah Jahan, and dedicated to his favourite daughter, Jahanara. In the well-preserved labyrinthine bazaar at the foot of the building, you can get a sense of what life must have been like for ordinary people during the Moghul period.
For an intense flavour of India today, cross the Yamuna river on the city's old, two-level bridge. Trains clatter overhead on the top tier, while on the lower level barely controlled chaos reigns. A selection of the subcontinent's diverse transport converges here: scooters, rickshaws, cow carts, brightly adorned lorries and newly blessed cars - all audibly making their presence known. It is fantastically noisy and colourful.
In quiet dignity on the right bank of the river is Itmad-ud-daulah - the marble tomb of Mirza Ghiyas Beg, who was chief minister to Shah Jahan's father. His daughter became this emperor's most powerful wife; it was she who built the fine mausoleum in 1622. It was the first Moghul building to be constructed completely out of marble and it foreshadowed the Taj Mahal in its elegant inlay work. The tomb is open 6am-5pm daily, foreign tourist admission Rs250 (pounds 3).
Further south, opposite the Taj Mahal, lie the remains of the Mehtab Bagh, an expansive garden once filled with pavilions and fountains. Shah Jahan would come here to gaze on his wife's last resting place - and the area does indeed offer one of the best views of the Taj, its domes and minarets reflected in the waters of the Yamuna below. Legend has it that Shah Jahan had planned to build a mausoleum in black marble for himself here, its design replicating that of his wife's tomb. However archaeologists argue that the site would have been unsuitable and was liable to flooding. As it was, Shah Jahan's unsympathetic son Aurangzeb buried him beside the empress in the Taj Mahal, thereby throwing the perfect symmetry of the tomb out of kilter.
ANYTHING FURTHER AFIELD?
Just 10km north-west of Agra, near the hectic main road from Delhi, is the sublime haven of Akbar's Tomb at Sikandra. For the moment it seems to have escaped the attentions of the tourist hordes. The red sandstone mausoleum, wonderfully decorated with inlaid marble and other stones, stands in peaceful gardens where long-tailed langur monkeys gambol and antelopes graze in the shade of generous trees. The net effect is like walking into an earthly paradise - which was precisely the original intention when the tomb was devised by Akbar himself more than 400 years ago. A visit here is the perfect antidote to the crush at the Taj Mahal. Akbar's Tomb is open 6am-6pm daily, foreign tourist admission Rs110 (pounds 1.35).
Akbar's considerable architectural talents are on more extensive show at Fatehpur Sikri (the City of Victory), 40km west of Agra. It's an arduous drive here over dusty plains - the monotony occasionally lifted by glimpses of the odd camel or the flash of a peacock in a roadside field - but making a day trip is well worth the effort.
Fatehpur Sikri is a dramatic ghost town. It was built between 1570 and 1585 as the new capital of the Moghul empire - Agra having proved unlucky for the emperor, given that all his children born there had died. Within 15 years of its completion, though, the new city was abandoned due to problems with its water supplies.
Today, the magnificent red sandstone palace and court complex still stands largely intact at the top of a ridge. Below it huddles a small modern village, which looks crude by comparison to Akbar's great creation. His architecture of colonnades, cloisters, domes and elegant stone lattice screens is a subtle blend of Hindu and Islamic styles reflecting his policy, and indeed philosophy, of religious tolerance and integration.
At the south-west corner of the palace complex is the large mosque known as Jami Masjid, built in about 1575. The main approach is through a spectacular 54m-high gateway at the top of a sheer flight of steps. Among the tombs around its ample courtyard is the breathtaking shrine of the Sufi saint, Sheikh Salim Chishti, its carvings and white marble latticework giving it an ethereal quality. The Royal Palace opens 6am-5pm daily, foreign tourist admission Rs250 (pounds 3). Entrance to the huge courtyard of the Jami Masjid is free, but note that visitors must be decently clad. Anyone wearing shorts will be required to hire a length of cloth to wrap over their legs.
HOW DO I GET TO AGRA?
The nearest international gateway to Agra is Delhi, from where there are numerous transport options. The Delhi Tourism and Transportation Development Corporation (00 91 11 2336 5358; delhitourism.nic.in) offers one-day bus trips from the Indian capital to the Taj Mahal and Agra Fort) on Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays. These leave at about 7am and return around 10pm, price Rs850 (pounds 10.35). You can pick up the coach at the central tourist office (above) or at the more upmarket hotels in the centre of Delhi. Tour groups are almost invariably also taken to Agra's expensive marble and craft shops. Be warned also that Agra is a difficult four- to five- hour drive from India's capital, so you may prefer to go by rail.
Trains to Agra leave from New Delhi station and Hizrat Nizamuddin station. For first class on a fast service - taking under three hours - you can expect to pay around Rs650 (pounds 8) return. If you plan to travel onwards, there are easy connections from Agra by train to destinations in Rajasthan. For those wishing to explore widely, the best bet is to hire a car for around Rs2,850 (pounds 35) a day.
WHERE CAN I STAY?
The Oberoi Amarvilas (Taj East Gate Road; 00 91 562 223 1515; www.oberoihotels.com) is undoubtedly the smartest hotel in town. Set in a car-free area less than 500 metres from the Taj, it offers staggering views of the majestic mausoleum from each of its 105 bedrooms. Facilities include two restaurants, a tea lounge, spa and steam room, and a colonnaded swimming-pool. Doubles cost from Rs17,640 (pounds 215) without breakfast.
If you don't mind sharing your accommodation with large, organised groups, Clarks Shiraz (54 Taj Road; 00 91 565 222 6121; www.hotelclarksshiraz.com) is an extensive and comfortable mid-range option about a 15-minute drive from the Taj (depending on traffic). The rack rate for a double room is Rs6,090 (pounds 74) with breakfast. But as with many hotels in India, you may be able to get a far more competitive rate through local tour operators such as Oriental Travels (00 91 11 2332 5563), or Delhi Tourism (which, despite the name, is a private company: 00 91 11 5152 2222; www.delhi- tourism-india.com).
Lauries Hotel (Mahatma Gandhi Road; 00 91 562 364536), on the north side of Agra about 2.5km from both the Taj and Agra Fort, is something of an institution. This creaking colonial lodge is full of character - although many rooms are dark and small. It boasts a pool, a hairdresser and a doctor on call. Doubles cost Rs945 (pounds 11.50) without breakfast.
WHERE CAN I FIND OUT MORE?
For further information about Agra try the Government of India Tourist Office, 7 Cork Street, London W1S 3LH (020-7437 3677; brochure line 01233 211999; www.incredibleindia.org).
WHEN LIFE IMITATES ART...
The name of the Taj Mahal has been adopted by hundreds of Indian restaurants. If your flight from Gatwick is delayed, catch a bus into nearby Crawley (pounds 1.10) and dine at the Taj on the High Street. Further- flung Taj Mahal restaurants can be found in Canberra, Prague and Sofia.
A replica of the mausoleum is on offer at Tobu World Square in Ohara, Japan, where it appears alongside other world-famous sights. At Atlantic City in the US, the Trump Taj Mahal is Donald Trump's lavish casino in the east-coast gambling capital.
The strangest use of the brand is probably embodied in Taj Mahal, the legendary African-American blues singer and instrumentalist (above left). He was born Henry St Clair Fredericks in May 1942. By the end of the difficult drive from Delhi to Agra, you may well be humming his greatest hit, "Six Days on the Road".