It is, quite simply, the world’s most beautiful building. Described by Rudyard Kipling as “the embodiment of all things pure”, the Taj Mahal was built by Emperor Shah Jahan in the 17th century as a monument to his favourite wife, Mumtaz Mahal. Having been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1983, it’s today northern India’s premier attraction. Since Kipling’s time, the Taj has attracted a wealth of other celebrated visitors, from Beatles and US presidents to princesses and sports stars. Here are 11 of the most famous.
11. George Harrison
When 23-year-old Beatles guitarist George Harrison visited the Taj Mahal in 1966, he didn’t just pose in front of the marble mausoleum – he took what’s probably among the first celebrity selfies. Travelling across India with his wife Pattie – and his trusty fisheye lens – the rock star was then learning to play the sitar under the watchful eyes of Ravi Shankar. Incidentally, the Harrisons also stayed at Mumbai’s namesake Taj Mahal Palace hotel – under the pseudonyms Mr and Mrs Sam Wells.
10. Jackie Kennedy
In spring 1962, 32-year-old Jackie Kennedy visited India and Pakistan on a goodwill trip. By then, she was arguably the planet’s most famous female – her husband had been in the White House for just over a year, while she was well on the way to becoming an international fashion icon. Few things are as glamorous as a Taj Mahal backdrop – especially when it’s as quiet as this – so it’s something of a surprise than Cecil Stoughton’s shot of the former First Lady, taken on the 15th of March, isn’t better known.
9. Russell Brand
He’s not exactly the settling-down type, but back in December 2009 the Taj Mahal may have inspired self-styled revolutionary Russell Brand to change his ways. On a Christmas break to India with his then-girlfriend Katy Perry, the comedian and activist felt suitably inspired to propose. Shortly after the pop star said yes, the happy couple celebrated by visiting the Taj, from where Perry tweeted the above image with the caption: “He built this for me…”
8. Bill Clinton
“There are,” according to Bill Clinton, “two kinds of people in the world. Those who have seen the Taj Mahal and love it and those who have not seen the Taj and love it.” The former US president was speaking shortly after an official visit to Agra in March 2000, when he was accompanied by his daughter, Chelsea. In Clinton’s autobiography My Life, published four years later, he described the Taj as “perhaps the world’s most beautiful structure”.
7. Sharon Stone
When Basic Instinct star Sharon Stone travelled to India for the first time at the end of 2013, the Taj naturally featured highly on her to-do list. Arriving with a group of close friends – without a paparazzo or bodyguard in sight – her visit was refreshingly low key. She was hardly rushed from pillar to post, either – camera in tow, the movie star took her time snapping away at stonework, her chums and fellow visitors on a glorious November day.
6. Oprah Winfrey
America’s queen of chat made her first-ever visit to India in January 2012. Stopping off in Mumbai and the Jaipur Literature Festival, Oprah also made a beeline for Agra and the Taj Mahal. Accompanied by tens of journalists and a camera crew, her hour-long visit wasn’t exactly discreet – it was, though, a life-long ambition fulfilled. Having learned about the Taj at school, the talk show host had always wanted to visit the monument in person. After doing so, she said – somewhat bizarrely – that her “life has been a Taj Mahal.”
5. Arnold Schwarzenegger
Terminator star Arnold Schwarzenegger travelled to India in 2012 to attend an environmental conference. Unfortunately, his visit to Agra fell on a Friday – the one day of the week the Taj Mahal closes to tourists. The former governor of California was, according to his tour guide, a little disappointed – but that didn’t stop him from taking photos on his phone outside the boundary wall. “I’ll be back,” he almost certainly told his entourage after getting so tantalisingly close.
4. Sir Ben Kingsley
It’s been more than three decades since his Oscar-winning performance as Mohandas Gandhi, but Sir Ben Kingsley may soon return to cinemas as another key figure in India’s history: Shah Jahan, the emperor who built the Taj Mahal. Doing so would be the culmination of Sir Ben’s long love affair with this most iconic of structures – one he’s described as “an indelible monument to passion and love”. The actor is pictured in front of the Taj with his wife Daniela Lavender in 2009.
3. Karl Pilkington
Not many people have seen Karl Pilkington smile, but the Idiot Abroad managed a broad grin – not that this image shows it – while posing in front of the Taj Mahal in 2010. Predictably, his enthusiasm didn’t last long. “Queuing up to sit down on a chair that Princess Diana sat on? Load of nonsense.” In his later travel diaries, Karl pondered the reasons behind the Taj’s construction. “It seems to me like it was something the man had always wanted to build but his wife didn’t let him,” he wrote. “So when she died he used it as an excuse to build his dream.”
2. Boris Becker
Three-time Wimbledon champion Boris Becker tweeted about his “amazing day” at the Taj Mahal in December 2012. Accompanied by his wife Lilly Kerssenberg, the tennis ace had been in Delhi two weeks previously to talk sport at a leadership summit. During the trip, Becker was challenged to a doubles game – which he won 8-6 – by Bhupinder Singh Hooda, the then-chief minister of Haryana. Despite his busy schedule, the sports star couldn’t resist a visit to the Taj – a trip that, if his tweets are anything to go by, was probably his India highlight.
1. Princess Diana
In February 1992 Diana, the Princess of Wales, accompanied her husband Prince Charles on a state visit to India. The Taj was an obvious inclusion on the royal couple’s itinerary, though Diana was destined to see the country’s most famous monument alone. The event was captured by photographer Martin Keene, whose iconic image of the sitting princess – on a bench today nicknamed ‘Lady Di’s chair’ – is arguably the most symbolic photo ever taken at the Taj.