(warning! this entry is not very well organized, and uncategorizable in tone/style. if you’re up for a rambling experience of the taj, do read on…)
Like every good fairy tale, my visit to the Taj came complete with magical setting, intriguing local characters and an important life lesson. Never let expectations ruin a perfectly good day.
5:15 am and I’m fumbling around my hotel room getting ready for the big day. I’ve had six hours of sleep and several train rides in my not-so-distant memory. On top of all that, it’s dark outside. Which makes my bed seem ever so inviting.
“Why not visit the Taj tomorrow? It’s so much nicer here,” beckons the big soft mattress, “The building’s been around for hundreds of years, surely it’ll be here after just a few more z’s.”
The bed has a rather valid point. But I keep on keepin’ on, motivated by years of anticipation and a very tight schedule. I’ve already gone a day off route to see this legend, and my departure time leaves me only a few moments to catch a glimpse, have a bite, and haggle with a rickshaw driver to get to the train station. Now is the time.
Me and the Taj
For the die hard romantic, the Taj is the world’s greatest architectural testament to love, alluring not only for its shapely curves but for its supremely charming history. Most literature available to the public claims it was built in 1653 exclusively for Shah Jahan’s favorite wife, Mumtaz Mahal, the ultimate symbol of the purity and grandeur of love.
All nostalgia aside, as a happily addicted traveler, going to check one of the wonders of the world always affords huge satisfaction. The virgin white marble has an untouched sheen even today, the lines unparalleled in elegance. It’s known the world over to be the definitive representation of the Mughal aesthetic, a look sprinkled across all corners of the Indian subcontinent.
The Taj Mahal stands 15 feet tall at the center of several acres of sprawling gardens. As the legend goes, its construction was fueled not only by unwavering love, but 20,000 people, 21 years, 1000 elephants and 28 precious and semi-precious stones. How’s that for fairy tale scenery?
I remember seeing documentaries on the Taj when I was younger, hanging out with my Gramps, watching National Geographic, eating cucumber sticks in the hot Hawaiian noon. To a bookworm beach kid, nothing looked more exotic, more mysterious and grand.
But as we all know, life ain’t all Disneyland fairy tales. It’s sometimes more of the Grimm’s variety, where inspired beauty is met with horrific violence, where innocence is tainted by a devious trickster, where happy endings are but a fleeting dream. Like anything put on a pedestal, my image of the Taj was vulnerable to a shaky little fall.
The Real Story
Take away the travel narrator’s enthusiastic euphemisms and analogies to love, and what you have beneath the surface is quite heart wrenching – though equally beautiful. The muse of the Taj was actually the shah’s third wife – one of approximately 13 official ‘loves.’ Whilst giving birth to their fourteenth (yes, fourteenth) child, Mumtaz passed in a rather painful death. Stricken with grief (and packing some serious spending money thanks to his exorbitant taxes), the shah built the Taj as the world’s most beautiful mausoleum, a place where Mumtaz would inspire awe for ages to come.
Upon his great love’s passing, and once creation of the Taj was complete, the shah wrote these words in ceremony:
Should guilty seek asylum here,
Like one pardoned, he becomes free from sin.
Should a sinner make his way to this mansion,
All his past sins are to be washed away.
The sight of this mansion creates sorrowing sighs;
And the sun and the moon shed tears from their eyes.
In this world this edifice has been made;
To display thereby the creator’s glory.
I am of the opinion that any woman, especially one of several wives, who suffers 14 labors for just one man deserves at least a magnificent building or two! The mausoleum’s central focus is the tomb where Mumtaz currently rests in peace – probably much relieved from not having to bare any more babies!
Before entering the Taj’s sacred space, I took a deep breath. Would the site live up to the hype? Would this fairy tale visit be all I had dreamed of? Afterall, I was traveling with a travel partner who was more than just a friend. Romance was sure to follow . . .
As could be expected, even at the first moments of opening, there were tourists with their cameras out, about, and ready to shoot. We all congregated around the prime kodak spots, checking angles, making faces, directing the photographers. The humbling monkey see monkey do phenomenon was in full effect, but it really wasn’t any surprise. Who doesn’t want their photo smack dab in the middle of the Taj Mahal’s garden?
With the glorious marble wonder glowing in the background, we took our turns, most of us patient, everyone with an air of youthful jubilance. So…. here I am…
Not lookin’ too happy am I? Well, all I can say about this shot, ladies and gentleman: be careful with whom you tour an important site on your ‘must see’ list!
Be sure your travel partner is not the type to pick a random pointless fight with you, the moment you enter your fairy tale scene. Ensure the travel buddy is sensitive to your decade long obsession with said wonder. I may go so far as to suggest to run a kind of psychological analysis of them before agreeing to travel together. Something simple like …
True or False
- When faced with an event of significance my first instinct is to run.
- If my travel partner is looking forward to something on our itinerary, I will be sure to complain.
- I often take cultural differences personally and get frustrated with locals.
- I am notably tight with money.
- Never, ever, will I carry your book for you (what are you, a princess?).
If your travel buddy responds “True” to any of these questions, you may have a problem on your hands. Grim, indeed.
So, determined to put my game face on, after seeing the state of this picture, I diffused the internal turmoil and carried on. “I’ll have my own bloody fairy tale,” I thought with determination. So, on to the garden I went, past stray dogs playing, security chasing said dogs, a few more tourists and dedicated gardeners.
When I came across the second photo-op of the scene, I took a deep breath and let the graceful lines of the domes wash over me like rain drops.
When you visit a dream destination, you want the photos to tell the story of your enthusiasm for the place, to express the joy you felt when the meeting came to fruition, and convey the timelessness of the subject itself. So I conjured up some yogi magic to rekindle a good mood. Swallowing my self-consciousness, I busted out with “Natarajasana.”
This is known as the Dancer pose, named for a manifestation of the Lord Shiva, as he dances on the demon Apasmara (symbolizing ignorance), playing the drum of creation, surrounded by the flames of the manifest universe.
<INTERNET FAILING ME – WILL INSERT PICTURE WHEN I GET BACK TO SF>
I held off on the full expression of the pose, not sure how it all looked on camera, but when I came out of it, I felt completely balanced again, even euphoric. It’s amazing what a little asana can do to a bad mood!
The First Lesson in Expectation
Although yoga saved the day, next time I’ll know not to allow the situation to annoy me as it did. All jokes about travel buddies aside, it was my own expectation for the day that led to my ultimate disappointment. As is so often the case, especially with partners!
As we drew closer to the building, its intricate marble work came into focus and I was inspired to do a few more asanas.
Unfortunately, Taj security rolled up and in a most agitated manner asked me to “Stop that! Stop doing those things! You take normal pictures!”
“Normal pictures?” Since when do I take normal pictures??!
What would be the evil gremlins of the tale scurried away and we made our way inside.
Entering the building, it all felt so much smaller than I’d imagined, even claustrophobic at times. The mausoleum probably would have conveyed more of its deliberate and heartfelt past, had there not been a factory line of curious tourists trudging along its perimeter. But with India’s most visited site, this should be no surprise. 2-4 million people visit the Taj annually, all hungry for a peek at the place where the dead lady lay. Thankfully, pictures are prohibited there.
Past the resting hall itself, I took in the long shadows creeping through ornamental window grids. I meandered the narrow halls and small rooms, exploring in near silence. I wanted to know more about the rooms, the design, something, anything. And yet there were no signs explaining the significance of the various architectural elements.
Frustrated and information-less, I realized, having romanticized the Taj for so long, I’d allowed its image to overshadow the reality of its beauty. I broke the first rule of traveling: don’t let the tourist videos tell you the story. It’s rarely spot on.
I let the thought sink in and shuffled through the building, coming out to the opposite side, I opened up to the possibility of awe.
And at that moment, when I’d come full circle and began to see the Taj through what we call in yoga “a beginner’s mind,” the magic finally began. Off in the distance we were blessed to see a glistening winding river, banked by the flora and fauna of a rich and arid land. The sun rose gracefully over the minarets of the east. Small groups of Indian families and large groups of entire villages traversed the marble patio.
Solidification of Lesson #1: Never let expectations get in the way of true experience.
The boldest of the bunch got a few classic photos taken of them … perhaps one of only a handful taken their entire lives.
They asked me to take their photos but for what reason I’m still not entirely sure. They had no cameras themselves, so the novelty of photography must’ve been a draw. They waited to see the images afterward, but for just a moment, sometimes to show other members of their group who’d stood next to me as I took the photos. They didn’t ask for the shots to be sent via email. In fact, they spoke hardly any English at all.
As far as I could tell, it was all for the satisfaction of knowing this moment, this grand moment in their personal history, when they splurged 5 years’ of savings to travel 543 kilometers from some remote village to see, touch, feel and have their picture taken with the great Taj Mahal, would be recorded by some stranger’s truth machine, forever and ever.
Lesson #2: It’s all in the experience. Live in the moment!
Feeling full from the morning’s experience, I tripped about the grounds for a bit and eventually found a comfy little spot on a bench just outside the museum. It’d been a long morning already and I wish I’d brought a picnic blanket. Not that the groundskeepers would’ve allowed it. Security is tight as a tiger getting into the Taj, and anything vaguely resembling food is taken on sight. No food means no litter and they aren’t taking any chances – especially not with Indian people being the most casual litter bugs I’ve ever seen in action!
Why so mysterious, Taj?
After a brief shut eye on the bench, I head over to the museum. Oddly, there were ten pieces on display – with no English explanations. So much for a rich history lesson!
I left the Taj grounds fulfilled, though wanting more at the same time. It was the same kind of luscious anxiety one feels when leaving the company of a lover. There was no shortage of eye candy but I still had very little cultural and sociological framework for the building of the Taj. No one had warned us that the touts outside were our only chance for a guide, or even a guidebook. Once in the palace grounds, no books, maps, placards, guides or even simple signs were provided – even the museum made no reference to the rich tapestry of history related to the building. Decades of tourism surely would have created some demand for more information . . .
On top of that, I wondered why the India Archaeological Society had not created a cafe where people could unwind from the intoxicating effect of the building’s beauty and majesty. If given the chance, I would’ve stayed all day long. But perhaps that is exactly what they were trying to avoid!
My trip to the Taj, though fabulous in its own right, turned out to be more of a Grimm’s style reality check than a sparkle sprinkled dreamscape. There was no romance, nor any enlightening moments of historical illumination. As we left the wonderous grounds, hundreds more tourists lined up to make their way inside. Most were on a mission, to see the ‘must see’ monument of India – but a few still had stars in their eyes. And I hoped it would never die.
Upon further research, I came across a few unusual claims made by a journalist and revisionist historian, P.N. Oak. He claims that beneath the great mausoleum lies an ancient Hindu temple dedicated to the Lord Shiva. The town where the Taj was built, according to Mr. Oak, is one of the areas oldest and most dedicated communities to the god. He sites various inconsistencies in historical accounts of its building, architectural incongruities and linguistic reasoning as evidence. To see his full-fledged claims click here.
Oak’s arguments are interesting for two reasons. One, he represents a growing demographic of right-wing pro-Hindu Indians, eager to ensure the past of his nation not fall victim to the great colonial pen. In the war between historians, the past is an ever-changing entity. Secondly, if his claims were founded in cold hard evidence, that may explain the absence of information within the Taj grounds itself. Perhaps the positioning of the Taj Mahal as just another one of India’s multitude of potpurri architectural examples would somehow detract from its world-renowned reputation as the Mughal building to behold.
Even so, taken on the surface (which is the only way the common tourist is allowed to experience the Taj) its doubtful new evidence surrounding its inevitably rich past would remove our dear building from the list of world wonders.
Once I got over my own limiting expectations, I found it pretty damn wonderful, myself.