My butler’s turban cuts a stylish swath, its long scarlet tail swaying as he holds open the door of the Lord Curzon Suite. I follow him through the rose-scented sitting room, padding swiftly across an emerald-green silk carpet, pausing to glimpse a four-poster king bed, a hint of a marble tub just beyond. It’s glorious furnishing foreplay, a tempting tease before the big reveal. Then, framed in a French door, her milky white splendour shimmers bare in the heat of the midday sun. The Taj Mahal: just 2,000ft from my bed.
The closest, most lavish vantage over Agra’s key attraction is to be had from rooms of the Oberoi Amarvilas, all of which offer uninterrupted views. Erecting a hotel on such hallowed ground in 2001 was one in a line of corporate coups for the group: in 1957, when Mohan Singh Oberoi successfully negotiated with the Maharaja of Jaipur to convert Rambagh Palace into a hotel, the Maharani was, by her own admission, “speechless and wretched”. A Maharani’s loss, our gain.
Awe-inspiring: the Taj Mahal as seen from the Oberoi Amarvilas’ Kohinoor Suite
No small homage to Mughal majesty here. Instead, in the foreground verdant terraced gardens, pools and curves mimic its famous neighbour. Of the six top-floor suites, the Cambridges recently forwent the largest, Kohinoor, in favour of the splendid Robert Burns, with its two-person Taj-viewing tub tucked at a corridor’s end. Mine, the Lord Curzon, is a nod to his sweeping restoration of what he called “the gem of man’s handiwork”, undertaken while he was Viceroy.
Over the tinkle of an icy gin and tonic in the bar, Puneet Dan, the Micato India tour director who accompanies me on a bespoke tour of India’s Golden Triangle, introduces me to Dr PBS Sengar, former director of the Archeological Survey of India, the government body responsible for maintaining the country’s historical sites. Graciously, Dr Sengar has agreed to give me a private behind-the-scenes tour of his life’s work at the Taj, an entity he found “out of the world” on his first visit at the age of 17.
The Oberoi Amarvilas
This sort of exclusive is – I am to discover – the standard modus operandi for Micato, whose India and Africa tours have been providing rarified access and exclusive travel experiences for more than 50 years. The doctor bears great tidings. To our surprise and considerable relief,the current mammoth cleaning project – fuller’s earth mudpacks, distilled water and elbow grease to counter the effects of wind and industrial pollution – is ahead of schedule. Nary a stick of scaffolding would obscure the building.
“Every monument has its own story,” he says. “The Taj took 22 years to build, 22,000 labourers and many hundreds of elephants.We have the most perfect building, with not one speck of asymmetry – except one.” A pause. “Come, we’ll look for ourselves.”
It’s a rather surreal four-minute journey to the entrance gate, riding a stretch golf cart, dodging the odd dozing cow,to alight at our destination.
The mausoleum’s exquisitely detailed facade CREDIT: GETTY IMAGES
“Begin here and walk precisely down this line,” Dr Sengar tells me. I do as he says, to proceed, eyes forward, beneath the domed chamber of the gate. “See, how it is expanding and it is coming towards you.” Indeed it is. In full four-colour spectrum the tomb slowly emerges, an imposing marble meringue. First as a slice, then as a whole, then as we walk, step by step, two by two, its minarets reveal themselves, sentries to symmetry.
We amble up the eastern edge of the garden, toward the red sandstone guest house that flanks the tomb. Away from the crowds, Dr Sengar pulls aside a “closed” rope and as we step into the shaded portico, he draws attention to engraved scratches in the floor – calculations and measurements left by unknown mathematicians. Beneath a scalloped arch, he shares a secret spot through which to photograph the iconic dome. Remarkably, with up to 40,000 visitors on a busy weekend, we don’t see another soul.
Taking shelter in the shade CREDIT: GETTY IMAGES
“With no cladding, it would last a thousand years,” he explains. “With the magnificent marble and limestone cladding that was used, it will last forever.” Alas, its decoration did not. Over the centuries, precious stones of mother-of-pearl, lapis lazuli and emeralds have been chiselled off and stolen. I try to imagine a constellation of gems glimmering in the pink Indian twilight.
“It may be difficult to make up for this unfortunate shortcoming,” says Puneet Dan, back at the Amarvilas. “But let us try.” And try, he does.
The sun sets over the Taj Mahal CREDIT: GETTY IMAGES
“Emeralds, we have them,” says GG Mathur, as I dip my head to slip into a necklace of nine marble-size emeralds and two rubies. The doyen of Agra’s Kohinoor Jewellers, five-generation purveyor of jewels to the Maharajas, is bringing out magic crimson-silk boxes, one after another. This set from the Mughal period is part of his priceless personal collection, and not for sale – though the boutique is aglitter with a king’s ransom that is. As a pre-screened invited guest, I am also guided by his son, Milind Mathur, through their renowned tapestry collection, one piece recently returned from loan at the New York’s Metropolitan Museum. A final visit to the jewellery showroom has Mathur Senior conjuring the stuff of green dreams. The finale, a $3 million emerald set, is destined, he hopes, for a kind woman in Hong Kong. “We want them to go to happy people,” he adds gently.
Ah, if happiness were all it took. Though on that score, Puneet Dan is enriching me from minute to minute. In the coming days, we would dine at Jaipur’s Rambagh Palace in solitary splendour, glittering tables of the grand Suvarna Mahal Room heaving with 22ct-gold place settings and a princely feast. And at the CityPalace, we would veer deftly through a door marked “Private” into the personal sitting room of the Maharaja of Jaipur. Over a glass of bubbly, we ruminated over the richest princely state in the land: the long Lalique dining table, the solid silver throne, the impressive collection of polo cups won by the last reigning Maharaja. Invitations to take tea with the current prince, just 19 and a keen polo player himself, are also arranged, though scheduling anything during The Season is understandably tricky.
Modern marvel: The Oberoi Amarvilas Agra
First-time visitors to India may wonder how anything at all is managed here, this tumult of rickshaws and river laundry, the moveable rainbows of saris and spices. In short, all credit to Dan, who in a self-deprecating way declares himself “in charge of loose ends and miracles”.
Alas, there is one thing he can’t fix, that imperfection of the perfect invoked so casually over gin and tonic and curried nuts. “Ironically, the only asymmetry in the Taj,” he admits with a hint of tragedy, “is the grave itself.” Alongside Mumtaz Mahal, the Persian princess who died giving birth to her 14th child, Shah Jahan now lies askew – a husband forever a few feet off the mark.
Micato India’s classic itineraries start at 11 nights from £11,000pp; bespoke itineraries start at 14 days for£17,000pp. Oberoi offers stays at Amarvilas from £575pp.