Our pilgrimage to the Taj Mahal (Laura & Matt)
Feb 20, 2007
I had heard nothing but bad things about Agra: the touts are relentless, the thieves are waiting around every corner and the crowds are unbearable. A tourist mecca hell. Needless to say, as excited as I was about seeing the Taj Mahal, I entered this phase of our trip with some trepidation.
After relaxing in Khajuraho we felt prepared to deal with what Agra could dish out. We arrive at the Agra train station wearing our toughest attitudes and with our packs done up a bit tighter than usual. What we find is the usual pre-paid taxi stand and a regular rickshaw driver with the coolest pink vinyl seated rickshaw - my pink princess mobile! He takes us to just near our hotel (the city has blocked off vehicular traffic within a few blocks of the Taj to help reduce the effects of air pollution on the marble; a hopeless endeavor I am sorry to state).
We walk to our hotel past store owners hoping to convince us to come in, but this placed is certainly no worse than anywhere else we have been (in fact, by the time we leave, we find ourselves quite relaxed and refreshed). Our guest house has a small restaurant in a courtyard of trees and flowers and two resident dogs to keep us company - a German Shepherd and a Chihuahua.
There is much to see in Agra besides the Taj Mahal so first we venture out by rickshaw (in the pink princess mobile) to see Akbar's Mausoleum and the Baby Taj. Both are spectacular constructions surrounded by peaceful gardens where we enjoy viewing deer, chipmunks, monkeys and birds. The ornate marble carvings prepare us for the grander display we will feast our eyes on tomorrow morning at sunrise at the Taj.
I have had several travelers warn us of rain in Agra. They travel all the way there only to barely see the Taj through thick sheets of grey rain and cloud. We cross our fingers and head to bed early for our 5:30am start tomorrow.
We awake to the sound of chanting from the nearby mosque and as we quietly dress, the unmistakable sound of hard rain pounds on our roof. OH NO! I sit on the bed dejected, but then notice it is stopping. We head out and purchase our $20 (each!) tickets and pass through the security gates. Matt is sent back to put his small contraband flashlight in the storage locker. We are not sure why, but we don't question the guard with the gun. We head in to the inner courtyard, then through the high-arched entryway until we see it looming before us. In the early morning light it is a just a shadow yet it still shows its immensity and grandeur. There are only a few hardy souls out at this hour and we huddle together whispering in awe and excitement. Then we feel it, just a few drops at first and then more. We take refuge in the entryway as the rain falls and the increasing morning light shines on the big dark cloud above us. I will not let this ruin my experience. More and more people join the huddle and the cameras click furiously. Then the rain stops and the clouds clear and the most amazing morning opens up before us. We explore the grounds and then approach the building itself entering the inner room that holds the tombs. We marvel at the gem-encrusted marble inlay and the sheer magnitude of the construction.
According our guidebook: the Taj Mahal has been described as the most extravagant monument to love ever built. It was built by an emperor for his deceased wife who died in childbirth attempting to deliver their 14th child (wow - this woman deserves an extravagant monument!). Her death devastated him and he turned grey overnight from his grief. Then for the next 22 years he had 20,000 labourers as well as specialists from Europe help him build the Taj Mahal. It was completed in 1653 - a marble beauty covered in semi-precious stones. It is believed that the cost back then was 3 million rupees ($70millionUSD today).
In order to protect the monument, new industrial developments in the city of Agra were banned in 1994 and only non-polluting vehicles are allowed in the immediate vicinity of the building. Let's hope this is enough to preserve this national treasure.
I stand before the Taj Mahal in the soft grey light of dawn, camera in hand, awaiting a moment. We all are, the gathering crowd of slightly rumpled tourists waiting here to witness the coming day. We all hold cameras eagerly. I fiddle with some settings, snap a photo. A man slides into my spot when I'm finished. A few camera flashes go off. It is getting lighter: the silhouette before us gains shape and clarity as night falls into dawn. We are all busy snapping photos, posing, asking each other to take our photos, trading cameras eagerly. Most of us miss it completely: dawn comes and in our anxious excitement, we have forgotten to savour it.
Such is the irony of standing before a monument as beautiful, as memorable, as the Taj Mahal: in the rush to take photos, you can overlook the experience. As the crowds increased and the tour buses descended with their clusters of people wearing identical hats or t-shirts, it seemed that the rush for photos became close to a panic. I am thankful for the people I watched jostling for prime photo places for the lesson.
We wandered with our shoe covers along the white marble of the raised area around the Taj, marveling at the columns that seem to tower overhead like so many fingers of a massive outstretched hand. The light against the marble surfaces was the brilliant yellow of the rising sun as it shone through trees and over the mists of the river. The geometry of the place is, of course, quite incredible: it is perfect symmetry and scale. It occurs to me that a mathematician may have interesting insights on the relationship of various dimensions of the towering structure. What looks like a marbled texture on the building, up close, is carved flowers in the surface of the marble. Inlaid jemstones (pietra dura) decorate the outside and, even more ornately, the inner chamber. In the center of the inner chamber, a large pigeon roosts atop a cable suspended over what was once the tombs (which have since been moved below out of public sight). I whisper to Laura that that must be the supreme king of all pigeons in this, his grand palace.
Despite the beauty, our appetites still demand breakfast. We return to the tranquility of our guesthouse for some food before meeting our rickshaw driver to see a few sights.
We travel to Agra fort, built in the 1500s and still partially occupied by the military. It is massive with incredible fortified walls and some ornate interior buildings, but I suppose any destination would be a disappointment after seeing the Taj. We enjoy walking around, but the fort is not in as good condition, nor is it as interesting, as the one in Hyderabad that we visited. After a walk through, we leave. Our next stop is Mehtab Bagh, a park across the river from the Taj Mahal. We take some quick photos with water buffaloes and cows in the foreground and can imagine what the building might have looked like when it was first built and was surrounded by countryside. That said, I am impressed with how much green space seems to surround the building: Mehtab Bagh is large and quite beautiful, and our guesthouse -- which is pretty much right beside the Taj -- has a large nature park beside it.
On our way back to the hotel, the rickshaw driver starts his pitch for going shopping. He admits it is good for him, it pays for his gas, plays upon the pseudo-relationship he has built with us over the last day. I wonder if it is worth a short visit in exchange for a free ride to the train the next day. I agree, though I know deep down it is a bad idea. Shortly, I have visited one shop -- been told I wasn't there long enough for him to get his money -- then shuttled to another as Laura gets progressively more irritated. I go in; Laura waits in the rickshaw and glowers. By the end of the experience, Laura is ready to throttle the rickshaw driver and is writing in his recommendation book (he asked us to sign it) that he talks too much and took us to stores we didn't want to go to. I'm done with him and, more importantly, have reinforced a truism that I can't believe faltered in my mind for a moment: autorickshaw drivers will overcharge, pressure, mislead, and lie to you if they can profit from it, if only a little. I loathe them.
We return to the Taj for sunset. There are more photos, of course. But it is the sensation of walking across the white marble in bare feet, the smooth warm surface bright in the late afternoon sun, that is most memorable. That and the moment when Laura and I stood together in the golden orange light of sunset, hands against the slightly cool marble of the magnificent building, and said goodbye to the Taj Mahal.
We catch a morning train the next day to Delhi, happy that our rickshaw driver of the day before isn't around to take us. In the train station we meet Dan and Emily, a couple from San Francisco. We're in different cars but will meet in the Delhi train station. Our train puts Agra behind us as it rattles toward Delhi. We're not sure what to expect from the huge capital city. It will be India at its most intense, its most in-your-face craziness. We brace ourselves as the train carries us through rapidly changing landscapes -- desert, ramshackle huts, small towns, little cities -- toward Delhi.