After a couple of toll roads and a quick pit stop our driver made in order to “pay taxes”, we finally arrived in the town of Agra. At first sight, I was enchanted. It is a testament to the reality of this country’s population, as even here, the streets were congested with tuk-tuks and motorbikes. However, what I didn’t see in Delhi as much, or even at all, were all of the cattle, lazily poking through the trash, or sunbathing under the hot sun, or even wading in the river. At one point, there was even a convoy of cattle being led down the street. The reflection of their shiny black hides would occasionally catch my attention, as we weaved through town, dodging animals, people and other automobiles.
And then, as if it couldn’t get any better, we passed a children’s carnival on the side of the street. With it’s mini Ferris Wheels and makeshift prize tent, the scene was nothing but happiness, which was a delightful juxtaposition, as this is a place where everyday life would be unbearable to most who live in first world countries.
We eventually stop to pick up our Taj Mahal tour guide, before continuing to the grounds. Unfortunately, I don’t remember his name, but he is a very pleasant man. Dressed in trousers, a button down shirt and also an undershirt, I cannot help but wonder how comfortable he is. He was, however, smart enough to carry a cloth so to wipe the occasional sweat away from his forehead. (Something that my friends and I were not mindful enough to do.)
As we pull up to the entrance, the driver informs us that he will be leaving us with the tour guide, since cars are not allowed on the grounds. Our guide was also very clear about not talking to anyone trying to sell us anything. From there, we are taken to a golf cart shuttle. And not surprisingly, he seemed to have an established relationship with the driver and seemed to be expecting us. We are quickly escorted away to the check-in area, where we would pay the entrance fee before going through the usual security measures. At this point, the sun was blazing hot, and all I wanted was to get through the line. Luckily, it was swift, and we were soon at the entrance to the gardens.
Before entering through archway, our tour guide started on his very thorough history of the Taj Mahal. He snapped a few photos of my friends and I in front of the gate, and we followed the crowd ahead. As we approached the entrance, it’s majestic dome peeked above the silhouetted crowd of onlookers. And under the bright Indian sun, its white exterior was almost blinding. But it is a spectacle that you could not stop looking at, once through the entrance. It is beautifully intimidating. It’s masculine minarets are outdone by the gleaming femininity that one can only experience by seeing it first hand. I suppose it’s a combination of the well-manicured grounds, it’s color, and the story behind it, that made me feel like this way. It is simply marvelous.
Once we passed the gates and took the obligatory photos, as best we could with the crowds of people around us, we took a stroll and another quick break to sit down and listen to more history from our guide. He explained how the minarets were built at a slightly outward angle, as to avoid any destruction to the edifice itself, in case of natural disasters like earthquakes, monsoons and what have you. We were also informed that on every full moon, the Taj Mahal stays open late, so that visitors can see it under the moonlight and observe the majesty of the immense number of inlaid gemstones against the translucent white marble. A shimmering reminder of how much love the king had for his favorite wife.
The sun continued to burn brighter and hotter and we quickly headed over to see the inside of the mausoleum. Our guide informed us that the tombs that we were about to see are actually replicas, and that the original tombs are buried deep under the Taj Mahal. This was to ensure that its valuables that the king and his favorite wife were buried with, would remain safe from grave robbers. It was surprisingly cool on the inside, as the marble reflects a lot of heat. Photos were not allowed, but that did not deter some of the tourists from taking them anyway.
It was a little difficult to see the replica tombs, as the crowds of people were constant. However, the rest of the inside of the building was nothing less than impressive. More beautiful gemstone inlays on the cool, white marble, next to flowery carvings, lined the walls around the tomb. And after we walked through a few more rooms, we exited to the back courtyard. The view was that of the Yamuna River which split up two small plains as it twisted past the Taj Mahal. And again, you are stricken with the reality of your surroundings. A painfully beautiful wonder of the world, built entirely out of love and devotion, set amongst the backdrop of a land that is struggling to hold on to what is left of its beauty, and a society that has suffered much pain.
We made our way back to the entrance, only to walk past two “third-sexed” individuals. And until now, I regret not having asked them for a photo, as it would have made a stunning image. But alas, my nerves got the best of me. So we continued on and out of the grounds. As we walked through the gardens, I couldn’t help but notice that there was a very small amount of westerners and people from other countries, which made the experience feel less of a tourist attraction. We made it back to the golf cart, but not before two rickshaw drivers fought for our attention, almost pushing each other out of the way. Our guide led us through the semi-quarrel and we jumped in and cruised back to the car, watching camels lazily shuttle people back and forth.
Before saying goodbye to our wonderful guide, we were told that we would be taken to the house of the family that has been doing the marble inlay work on the Taj Mahal for many years. The house was very near to the grounds. In a few short minutes, we arrived. At first, this seemed like a great idea. We were greeted by a friendly gentleman who invited us in and sat us down in a tiny room at the front of the house. He offered us something to drink and started showing us the process in which the inlay work is done. It was all very intriguing, but of course, there was a catch. As soon as the presentation was done, we were taken to another room full of marble artwork and furniture. From coffee tables, to various-sized figurines, to ashtrays, the room was filled with treasures. But as much as I was disappointed at the time that this part of the tour turned out to be an opportunity for someone to make money, it all makes sense now. People need to make a living, and I didn’t let that take away from my experience. After leaving the marble “emporium”, we were then lead to another part of the building that was filled with textiles, and more souvenirs. Finally, we ended up at a jeweler who had many beautiful pieces. I was not completely convinced in the end, but I did appreciate the efforts. And it all added to my experience, which is the most important part of it all.
After a long day, we were ready to head back to Delhi. It would be another two and a half hour journey back, but we had seen what we came for. As we drove back into the countryside, I was content. I also felt so fortunate to have experienced what I did that day. It isn’t just about seeing one of the wonders of the world. It is seeing a completely different world all together that really makes it worth the trip.
More posts from my trip to India can be seen here.