Indian Journey Part XII: The Taj Mahal
The Taj Mahal, one of the “New Seven Wonders of the World“, deserves a whole post to itself. For once, I actually agree with the guide books that say that pictures do not do the Taj Mahal justice. It’s just one of those things that you simply have to see in person to fully appreciate what a remarkable piece of architecture it truly is.
(click on ‘more’ to read the excellent adventure!)
Let me start from the beginning. Our day began very early with a 6am wake-up call, followed by a hurried breakfast in the hotel lounge downstairs where there actually was no breakfast yet. At least the people there were nice enough to let us take some cereal and give us some fresh milk.
So on somewhat empty stomachs we caught up with our driver Kumar at 7am and commenced our 4-hour car ride to Agra, where the Taj Mahal is situated.
Did I mention that Delhi was hot? Severely, body burning, nostril hair charring HOT. As high as 46 to 47 degrees Celsius (for you Fahrenheit people, that’s about 115 degrees). It was nothing I had ever experienced before, even in Australia. Trust me, you don’t want to be out there.
Luckily for us, the car was air conditioned (albeit poorly), but it was still difficult to sleep because Kumar was driving like David Hasselhoff in Knight Rider. The man was in a rush and there was nothing we could do to stop him. Only the horrible traffic slowed him down a bit, but not a whole lot. The man was a genius at creating new lanes out of thin air and cutting in front of other vehicles when there was absolutely no space available.
Despite this miraculous driving, it still took us a full 4 hours to arrive in Agra. Once we got there, Kumar stopped on the side of the road and this friendly looking, head wobbling Indian fellow (forgot his name) got in. He was our local guide (hereafter “the Guide”).
Then the drive to the Taj Mahal itself. The Guide started to tell us a bit about the amazing architectural feat. I knew that it was built as a mausoleum to an emperor’s favourite dead wife, but that was the extent of my knowledge. As we learned, the Taj Mahal was constructed between 1632 and 1653 by more than 20,000 workers, and was a symbol of love from Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan to his third wife Mumtaz Mahal, who died while giving birth to their 14th child (!) in 19 years (!!). She was a busy woman.
We arrived at this cul-de-sac/market place kind of area where we were dropped off at the entrance. No cars were allowed too close to the Taj (I presume the pollution) and we had to make our way there on foot. There were a few rickshaws around, but we opted for the cheaper option.
Did I mention it was hot? Following an agonising walk, we found the long lines at the ticket office. As with most tourist attractions, there were two lines — one for the locals (where the entry fee is 20 rupees), and one for the foreigners (where the entry fee is 750 rupees). As I said in a previous post, this doesn’t bother me at all. 750 rupees compares very favourably to most entry fees in Western countries, and few match up with the grandeur of the Taj. Of course, I knew about this price disparity well in advance, otherwise I may have been a little “WTF? Is my guide trying to rip me off?”
The good thing is that each entry ticket comes with two essentials — a bottle of water and a pair of shoe covers for when you have to walk up the monument itself. It was too hot in the summer to take your shoes off, so they provided the shoe covers instead.
We passed through the metal detectors (there was a kid there trying to steal empty cigarette boxes left behind by people, but was forced to hand them back) and started getting bombarded by people asking if we wanted them to take photos for us. “One dollar!” they would yell in our ears as we walked. I would simply raise my own camera, smile, and do a little “no thanks” head wobble.
The Taj Mahal is all about symmetry. There are red outlying buildings in the surrounding gardens, which are very pretty as well, but we all just wanted to see the Taj. Finally, after passing through a gate, we saw it ahead of us. My jaw definitely dropped open at this stage, though it may have been equally attributable to the heat. Did I mention it was hot?
The Taj Mahal stood in the distance, all beautifully white and extravagant. I had seen many photos of the monument before, but seeing the thing with my own eyes was a different experience.
As we walked up to the Taj, the guide continued to explain the history of the place and about how it was closed on Fridays for restoration work. Also, the 20,000 workers who built the Taj used some very special techniques not known elsewhere around the world, and their descendants still live in Agra today, making decorative items out of the same materials for a living. We would make a visit to one of these places soon.
The main reason why the Taj remains so amazingly stunning after almost 400 years is because of the high quality white marble it is built from. That stuff is heavy duty and doesn’t absorb crap from the elements. Dirt and grime stays on the surface and simply gets washed away by the rain. The monsoon season (which was about to begin shortly) would be the Taj’s annual cleanse.
If you ever look closely at the Taj, you’ll notice all the calligraphy and jewels which appear to be painted on the surface. But no, none of that is paint, or else it would have faded long ago. All that stuff is actual jewels. The workers would carve the patterns out of the hard marble, shape the jewels in exactly the same size as the grooves carved, and stick them in with some ancient super glue. I’m not making any of this up. That’s why all the decorations on the Taj have stood the test of time.
Following a short water and shade stop, we snapped on the shoe covers and went up on the monument itself before heading into the tomb. We’re not allowed to go down there anymore, but there is a replica inside. We were told to watch our belongings in there because it was very crowded and very dark. Both were slight exaggerations, but we made sure we knew where our wallets were at all times. The inside of the Taj is almost as remarkable as the outside. Complex carvings are made from single slabs of marble, and are all perfectly symmetrical. I like to think people back in those days must have had a lot of patience and time on their hands. But thanks to that, we have something as marvellous and enduring as the Taj Mahal to appreciate.
The guide told us that it was originally the intention of Shah Jahan to build an identical monument on the other side of the bank to the Taj Mahal as a mausoleum for himself when he died. This one would be built completely in black marble. Reading this up on Wikipedia it seems this may have been a myth, but in any case the Mughal never got the opportunity as he was imprisoned by his own son and died from illness. He ended up being buried in the Taj Mahal with his wife.
The guide also explained to us that because the Taj is all white and translucent, it is a wonderful conductor of light. This is why the Taj can take on an assortment of colours depending on the time of the day. We were there around about noon, so it was all white, but at various times it can be yellow, orange or pink. If we had stayed there for longer it would have been wonderful to see.
On our long walk back to the car, we started to feel a little strange. The bottle of water we got from the entry fee and our own big bottle were both running empty, and it was getting hotter than ever. We stayed in the shade for a little while and used the bathrooms to splash water on our faces (oh, and get this: the bathrooms are free for foreigners but cost the locals 5 rupees to use!), but it was still way too hot. My wife was in serious danger of suffering a heat stroke as she was feeling nauseated and her hands were going numb. We caught an auto rickshaw ride back to the entrance to save time and Kumar came swerving around the corner in his air conditioned car, but it wasn’t enough. They had to rush us to our next destination, a pre-arranged (by them) Indian restaurant, unsurprisingly with ALL foreigners as patrons. Fortunately, the air conditioning was strong and they had chilled water. It still took about 30 minutes for her to recover.
That was when we decided it was probably best if we took it easy from this point forward.