It’s useless to talk about the Taj.
You want to. You want to sit in front of it and write a poem that never ends, to rival the majesty of the Taj itself.
You want to recite grand couplets, frightening elderly tourists and assorted birds.
You want to explore every inch and take so many photographs that you can create a life-size replica with them all.
You want to learn a new language just so you have more words to describe the grandeur.
Useless. The only word that works, is “indescribable”. I understand. It’s an insipid, dull, cop-out of a word, but it’s honest.
As we walk through the massive sandstone gate, we are greeted with the Taj garden, the fountains, and a short distance away, a dense wall of fog – milky and impenetrable. We stand around, aimlessly, debating whether to proceed or wait, because there’s nothing quite breathtaking like the Taj from a distance. But it doesn’t look like the weather gods will be kind
But it happens. A whisper runs through the crowd like a pleasant shiver on a cool morning. “Look, the fog is lifting”!
So it is. First a single minaret appears. Then another. The massive silhouette of the dome comes next, and slowly, like a gigantic deity making its presence felt before assembled believers, the Taj appears. Marble and mist works to create what can only be called magic.
In a way, the Taj Mahal experience is somewhat anti-climactic. It has to be. As intricate as the filigree is, as detailed as the carvings are, as historically significant as the inner sanctum is, nothing quite compares to the first time you see, from the red sandstone gate. That something so symmetrical, so aesthetically perfect can even exist beggars belief. The eyes seek imperfections, flaws, and finding none, conclude that it must not be real. It is the creation of some otherworldly entity, some artisan – god who crafted the structure at his workman’s table and placed it here, finished and complete, for the world to marvel at.
While nothing surpasses the initial, almost shocking beauty of the Taj when you see it for the first time, what’s also interesting is just how imposing it is. No photograph, poster or cheap snow globe prepares you for the massive scale. The structure is over twenty storeys high, the base itself close to ten storeys. Four minarets, each leaning slightly towards the outside so they fall away if they collapse, are also over fifteen storeys each. A sprawling terrace surrounds the inner chamber, and two red sandstone structures flank the marble mausoleum, providing architectural balance.
Of course, it’s also the Taj Mahal, and where there’s the Taj Mahal, there are tourists. It’s early-ish, so there aren’t too many of them milling around; but among those present, it’s obvious a significant percentage is here less to marvel at one of the wonders of the world and more to make as much noise as possible while waggling their cheap, chrome-coloured dick-replacement tools they call selfie-sticks.
Ah, the selfie-sticks. Those fucking things. They are all hideous, they are all tacky, they are all covered in fake pink fur that looks like someone skinned a care bear, and they are everywhere, jostling for space and poking me in the neck, because people can’t be bothered to extend their arms when they take their seven hundredth holiday selfie with some historical megastructure/waterfall/cliffside view/big-ass fortress door barely visible in the one-eighth of an inch space they have left in the background, like god intended. You know, the ones they force their relatives to grin and fucking bear it as they scroll through once and the NEVER see them again? Screw you, and your tacky little preying-mantis cosplay.
Speaking of selfies, there’s a special section in hell, a warmer, spikier, section, for people who take flash photographs in places where they are expressly requested not to. The central chamber of the Taj is a dark, sombre place. It’s where the empress and emperor are laid to rest. It’s the end of one of the most epic stories in history. It is a powerful and significant symbol of our culture and history. The diffused glow of a single lamp couched within an intricate lampshade is the only illumination in the room.
So of course, the assorted jackasses in the crowd are letting off with their flashes like their yearly orgasms depended on it. What purpose this serves, and what they are going to do with their horribly blurry and grainy four-megapixel super-close up images only they and the unholy deity they serve know. But since it’s harmful, uncouth, and they have been politely asked not to do it, of course they have to. Because fuck history and fuck protecting heritage – I need to photograph the corner of the tomb or the terrorists win.
We complain to the guard stationed there. He gapes at us, communicating in the unspoken, universal language of government workers everywhere – “And you expect me to do what about it?” I should be surprised but by then, I had spent a day in UP, so not really. That would hardly be our last encounter with the utter lawlessness of the state.
We stumble out the door, brave the selfie-stick jungle and blinking, walk out into the sunlit courtyard. At this point, we discover, one among our group is lost. The father is no longer with us, in a very physical sense.
This is troubling. In the age of mobile phones, of course we have neglected to decide on a location to wait should we get separated. And now, through some very interesting circumstances, there is no way to contact the father.
See, a few days ago, the father, lured by a telecom provider’s promise of infinity calls and infinity data for free, had signed up. Of course, all his saved numbers were in the old SIM he chose to discard. And of course, he never bothered to save our numbers, nor we his. The only person who is likely to be of help is the mater, who chose this particular morning to feel under the weather and not accompany us. Repeated calls go unanswered, because when there is a choice between sleeping and answering telephone calls, zzzzzzzzzzz. Long story short, now there are three and a half people aimlessly wandering the courtyard, alternately yelling for him and blaming each other.
We finally find him next to one of the entrances (seriously, the place has like 57 different gates), staring at his phone. He’s in a hurry, as are we. We are supposed to be already on our way to Agra Fort.
The giant, red bricked fort is very much the second most popular highlight of the city, but as we made our way towards it on this Sunday, the first of January, we realise that second biggest didn’t mean unpopular.
Thousands have descended on the five hundred year old attraction, taking advantage of the fantastic weather and the double-holiday, intent on making double the usual amount of noise. Also, I wouldn’t be surprised if a full ten percent of the crowd isn’t “guides” – persons with dubious accreditation and even more dubious grasp of history, but the ability to stick to you like leech and suck joy and positivity out of you with incessant badgering. We faced a bit of a guide problem at the Taj Mahal as well, but if that was a skirmish, this was full on the Beaches of Normandy.
We don’t need a guide, but briefly consider getting one because they promise to get the tickets for us. The queue is immense, and constantly being interrupted to on the whims of “locals”, including the aforementioned guides, who are above mundane concepts like order and basic decency. We create a bit of a ruckus by blocking queue jumpers, which leads to a youngish woman to (aghast at the idea of having to queue for tickets) request us to buy tickets for her because she isn’t carrying identification.
“That’s not required” we inform her
“Oh….Ummm, I have a kid with me,soooo”
“Well, we have a kid with us too”
“Uh…we’re in a lot of hurry?” she whines, going through her mental rolodex of excuses. At this point we have reached the booth and proceed to ignore her while we purchase our tickets. We emerge from the crowd clutching the itty bits of paper like they are the decapitated heads of our sworn enemies. Sorry about the imagery, but this IS a fort, and we’re kind of in the mood.
Agra Fort is majestic, grand, and incredibly disappointing to anyone who wants more than a cursory look at the place and it’s history. What is the point of allowing people to visit but sealing off the most interesting bits? The Shish Mahal – locked. The bathing rooms, with their “mysterious arrangement of copper and earthen pipes”-locked. The gallows where the poor saps who tried to get a peek of the royal ladies were executed – locked.
So what we are left with are the admittedly beautiful gardens and balconies. The views are breathtaking, but so’s the one from my friend’s tenth-floor roof. I’m not about to pay her fifty bucks each time I pop in!
The place is big (not the first time you will hear this during the trip). The red sandstone walls that encircle what was essentially a city are gigantic, rearing their heads hundreds of feet into the sky. The fort is known most famously as the home of Shah Jahan after he was imprisoned by his son Aurangzeb. However, it has changed hands many times throughout it’s history. The Mughals, the Suris, the Marathas and the British have all left their architectural stamp on it.
One glaring example of this is the beautiful but oddly-located tomb of John Colvin, Lieutenant-Governor of the North-West Provinces, smack in the middle of the Diwan-i-Aam. Apparently the man was inconsiderate enough to die of cholera right in the middle of the revolt of 1857 – an inconvenient time, you will agree, so the British who were then garrisoned there just dug a hole in the middle of the courtyard and dropped him in. Sure, they could have picked a more appropriate location, but I am guessing they had other worries. Anyway, I’m kind of glad they did, because for some reason I found the incongruity of it interesting, as evinced by the fact that I just spent a paragraph on him.
So that was our second day, highlighted one big tomb, and a small one, and a whole lot of marble and sandstone. We went back to our filthy hotel, which amazingly had not become any cleaner, and went to bed as quickly as we could. Yes, there is much to admire in Agra, but I was glad that come tomorrow morning, I’d be leaving the crowds, the filth, the casual violence, the aggression behind. Tomorrow, it would be onward to Jaipur.