April 27, 2008

The Taj Mahal

While in Delhi, fellow traveler Stein and I had booked train tickets for a journey to Amritsar in a couple of days. With a day in hand, we decided to go to Agra, home to the Taj Mahal. We joined an organized tour but only used it for the transportation portion of the trip. At sites of interest, we would wander around on our own before meeting up with the rest of the tour group at predetermined times. Sikandra, the final resting place of Emperor Akbar, was our first stop. Magnificently manicured gardens surrounded an elegant but understated tomb made primarily out of red sandstone, providing a preview of what to expect from the Taj Mahal but without the same levels of exquisite workmanship or opulence.

Due to the damaging effects of pollution on the Taj's white marble surface only environmentally safe vehicles are allowed in its immediate vicinity. We took an eco-friendly bus to the gates of the monument to love. It was now time for the physical convergence of two of the world's most magnificent creations on the banks of the Yumana river. This rare event occurred when I entered the Taj Mahal complex. The sun reflected of the marble exterior of the Taj Mahal, the gentle breeze brought temporary relief from the sweltering heat, and the tourists busily snapped photographs as my silhouette was framed by the arch at the entrance to one of the New Seven Wonders. Emperor Shah Jahan commissioned the erection of the legendary mausoleum for his beloved wife Mumtaz Mahal. As with all matters related to love, the Taj Mahal is something to be experienced, not described.

Entry to the Taj is based on a two tiered system with differing admission prices. If you appear to originate from the Indian subcontinent you pay one price and if you appear to come from elsewhere you pay a price approximately twenty times higher. The rationale behind the higher price is that it will either restrict the number of pollution inducing tourists who come to visit or provide funding for the upkeep of the site. On the bright side, people who look like foreigners are provided with a small plastic container of bottled water to quench their thirst and cute booties to protect their feet.

After a late lunch and a demonstration by local craftsmen of their marble inlaying skills, we went to the Agra Fort. A family had gathered together to pose for a picture in one of the fort's many courtyards. Stein was standing near them. The family member taking the picture was gesturing towards him. Stein's pasty complexion made him a novelty for Indians who wanted him to appear in their photographs, so he moved closer to the family. The man motioned again, but this time waving to Stein in the other direction. Stein had made an incorrect assumption and was not welcome in this family photograph. One of the merchants who hawk goods to unsuspecting visitors in front of tourist attractions offered to sell us a whip. Excited at the possibilities, we negotiated the price down to something that seemed reasonable and decided to purchase it if it was still available once we exited the fort. Unfortunately we were beaten to the punch and never got our hands on it.


Rabindranath Tagore: Let the splendor of the diamond, pearl and ruby vanish like the magic shimmer of the rainbow. Only let this one teardrop, the Taj Mahal, glisten spotlessly bright on the cheek of time...