"You know Shah Jahan, life and youth, wealth and glory, they all drift away in the flow of time. You strove therefore, to perpetuate only the sorrow of your heart... Let the splendour of diamond, pearl and ruby vanish... Only let this one teardrop, this Taj Mahal, glisten spotlessly bright on the cheek of time, forever and ever."
In order to fully enjoy this phase of the trip, I've completely relinquished all shutterbuggery, leaving it in the able hands of Vincent and the rest.
"You have not seen India until you've seen the Taj Mahal," is the catchphrase which had been repeated to me ad nauseam and I am not certain which bugged me more; the pithy, annoying know-it-all tone which is often used to say it, or the fact that it's not true. Every time I tell anyone planning a North Indian backpacking trip that if their schedules are packed too tightly, they can give Agra (where the Taj's at) a miss, they'll shoot me this incredulous "you nuts?" look and then proceed to reiterate that dumb line like it's some brainwashing cult mantra. Look, I've actually been there and honestly, the Taj seriously didn't do it for me.
Traveling to Agra can be a real time eating detour at the best of time, and at the worst, a maddening experience. First, you have to make your way to the smog-filled capital of Delhi, where every breath you take makes you feel like you're getting cancer. Proceed from there to look for a mean of getting to Agra, which is easy considering the number of tour agencies scattered all over the city like flea powder over a flea-bitten bitch. Finding a deal which is actually reasonable is a much more epic labour, so be prepared to bargain the the trunk off Ganesha's face. After that, the heartache begins.
Going to Agra using the highway on either a bus or a hired minivan can take between 4 to 6 hours one-way, depending on traffic conditions and how big a bastard the guy running the tour agency you booked is. A particularly sleazy one would have your driver spend more time trying to shepherd you to souvenir emporiums and mindbogglingly expensive eateries, than actually bringing you - and allowing you sufficient time - to see the sights. Well, maybe taking the train there could have been a much more pleasant experience but I wouldn't know anything about that.
More on that later, but first,
I just thought that you ought to have a realistic idea of how Agra looks like when you stop pointing your camera at the Taj and turn around to see what's behind you. There's a palpable sensation permeating the streets that seems to be trying to tell you that the city of Agra is grievously diseased and leprous, and the air here, if it's even possible, is worse than Delhi's. As far as vacations spots go, it doesn't get more depressing than Agra.
But that's not the scariest part about the place. The scariest part is, everyone there has the ability to make you feel less than human. Everywhere you go, you have the distinct impression that you look nothing more to them than some stupid, fat cash cow with painfully swollen udders waiting to be milked for all you're worth. From the minute we got off our minivan, we were immediately beset by several pesky knickknack peddlers trying to sell us some really tacky looking mini-snow-globe Taj Mahal keychains exorbitantly priced almost ten times more than they're actually worth and they simply wouldn't take no for an answer. These peddlers then followed and badgered us all-the-fucking-way to the Taj's entrance, that's a whole kilometre's walk. Don't even bother gracing them with a reply. Just ignore them. Zen out and put a faraway smile on your face. Pretend to be engrossed in the sights and sounds (and smells) of Agra. That won't help the least bit in getting them to bugger off but at least, you're calm and somewhat serene by the time you get to see the Taj, which is kind of important. The moment you open your mouth, you're fighting a losing battle against escalating frustration and futility. By the time we actually reached the Taj's entrance, the number of knickknack peddlers following us had tripled. At one point, there were two of them to each of us. What made it even more dismal than it already was, was that all of them were children of the school-going age variety, and you know that they aren't getting much of an education tailing tourists about the place. That's what the sleazy merchants sicking these kids on you wanted you to feel; pity. And you know you aren't having much of a holiday pitying people all the time.
Even if you're really into crappy souvenirs that fall apart five minutes after you've paid for it, don't trouble yourself bargaining because the peddlers themselves will knock down their own prices as they buzz around you like flies. 100 rupees! 70 rupees! Okay boss, I give you 50 rupees! Very good price! Best price! Okay, okay, 30 rupees! Last price 10 rupees, boss! 10 rupees! 10 rupees! 10 rupees for two!
Just shut up, walk on and wait for the price to plateau. All of them goes through the same routine no matter what they are selling.
We hoped to make our way to the Taj early, hoping to catch that magical few hours in the morning when the bluish-white marble monument slowly turned yellow as the sun rose, and at the entrance, I got the first cruel slap of commercial tourism in Agra. The entrance fee was Rs 800 rupees per head, which isn't that much of an outrage till you realise that Indian citizens only need to shell out 20 rupees to get in. If you look like one of the locals, all's fine and dandy but when you look like some misplaced Chinese Communist like me, you can't dodge that. 800 rupees is about ten times what you pay elsewhere in India to get into any historical landmark, tomb or palace. I know it's the Taj Fucking Mahal, okay, but that didn't quite wash away the hurt.
Everybody busied themselves taking pictures and were generally zoning into their private "I-can't-believe-I'm-here" moments as soon as we got in. When the awe wore off a little, everyone, being the Malaysians we are, began camwhoring with one of the Seven Wonders in the World. It's always either these two invariable camera trick poses (a la propping the Torre pedente di Pisa up from its side); holding the Taj on the palm of your hand or pinching the tip. On hindsight, it's pretty stupid to try to make the Taj seem smaller than it really is because, well, it's the size of the thing that truly gets to you,
At one point when most-obliging Vincent was trying to get the generic poses down to pat, some friendly looking local guy offered to do it for us. He played the camera like a maestro, getting all the right angles and trick shots perfectly and there we were, thinking how nice he was to help us out while at the same time, wondering uneasily at the back of our minds why such a pro didn't have a camera of his own.
Or at least, we wondered till the moment he returned the camera and asked for a fee.
Congratulations. You just got conned right in front of one of the Seven Wonders of the World.
The fact that its only 20 rupees for the local rabble to get into Taj meant that it's very affordable for this unscrupulous breed of tourist milkers to turn a profit. They'd pretend to be tourists themselves, get in and then proceed to play the helpful bystander to anyone looking like they need some help with the camera. You'd think twice about asking anyone in the place to help you take a picture of you and your sweetheart because before you know it, he'd drag you through his entire repertoire of cheesy Taj Mahal photographic clichés and then guilt you out of a few bucks. Whether you pay him or not is not important because by that time, all the Wonder has already been knocked out of the Taj. Being conned, no matter how slightly, can potentially ruin your day. You realise, for the first time, that the entire garden of the Taj Mahal is crawling with these sleaze bags who, like the kids outside, visualise you as one giant walking stack of US dollar bills. And if they can get in, who knows who else got in? Very probably, several pickpockets had already got their eyes trained on you from the time you entered the grounds. You'll find yourself reflexively checking your wallet to see if its still there every five minutes.
For the record, we were gutted for 50 rupees. But we're still at the beginning here.
I'm one of those persistently cheerful vacationer who tries to shrug off every annoyance that comes my way so I really tried to immerse myself with the experience and all. Inside the mausoleum, there were two sarcophagi. A small one in the centre, and a larger one to its left - the most obvious asymmetrical feature of the entire Taj.
I tapped on the shoulder of a knowledgeable looking guy and asked which of the two belonged to Mumtaz Mahal, the woman who had the Taj built in her loving memory, and to Shah Jahan, the man who loved her enough to build it. That guy obligingly told me (Mumtaz's in the middle). But he didn't stop there. Oh no.
He launched into a full lecture about how the tombs were really located below the false sarcophagi in a plain chamber below because it was forbidden in Islam to adorn one's resting place (though how Shah Jahan figured being buried beneath one of the most achingly beautiful monuments in the world circumvented that is beyond my ken). Then he told me about the lamp hanging overhead. And explained to me how the floral and arabic pietra dura adorning the Taj are really gemstones encrusted into the marble. And he told me about the marble. And about how the Jali screens surrounding the cenotaphs were really cut out from single blocks of marble. And he tested the echo in the dome by shouting and inviting me to try it, though I bet that's not very high on the list of things to do in places where dead people are interred. He just wouldn't quit or let me get away, and he actually physically dragged me around by my arm!
"Shit," I thought to myself. He's going to ask me to pay him and sure enough, he did not disappoint. I paid him 20 rupees, leaving both him and I unhappy about the whole affair. You can't fucking ask where the toilet's at in the Taj Mahal without being charged for it, okay.
Me, coming out of the Taj Mahal in disappointment. It's freaking genius of Pei Min in capturing how my experience at the Taj was. Oh, and I finally got a haircut, by the way.
The reason anyone visits the Taj Mahal is to experience the grandiose melancholy of the Mughal Emperor's and his grief for the lost of his consort, his most trusted adviser, his best friend, and most of all, his Love. Without this powerful sentiment for which the tomb stands, the Taj Mahal is just a glorified block of marble - a very pretty block of marble, I'll give you that, but just a block of marble nonetheless. How then can you truly feel its magic when every single minute you spend there, you're being surrounded by people who defile its very meaning - people trying to earn money off a man's overwhelming sorrow for his wife's death? These people did not fail in breaking the illusion every time and it really brought out the cynic in me. I simply couldn't help but to see the Taj Mahal for what it is in this day and age; a pile of white, cold and hard cash. Whatever the Taj is trying to say to you through the centuries it endured, it's lost in the static of commerce and the mire of sleaze which now surrounds it - smothering it, destroying it.
I'm just sensitive that way. I consider myself a pretty discerning traveler and tourist, and above all else, I treasure the emotions invoked in me when I stand in the midst of history and the ages past and the experience of going to any city on the whole - and on the whole, I can say that Agra and the Taj Mahal is the worst experience I've had on this entire backpacking trip. When I was in the city of Udaipur, I could truly feel the living wonderment of the beauty of its many fairytale palaces and the serenity of its romantic lakes. When I was in Chittor, I could marvel at the indomitable spirit of the Rajput and the hideous strength of the stronghold of Chittorgarh. In Jodhpur, the monstrous Mehrangarh beckoned the child in me to explore its immensity (or maybe it was just the opium) while at Jaisalmer, its golden palace and living fort under siege by irreversible water damage and the efforts made to save it really made me feel that it was genuinely beloved and that its loss would be truly heartfelt. That's what all the other places I've just mentioned had in common; the people living there are proud of their heritage, proud of what they have to show the world. There is no such pride in Agra.
So no - seeing the Taj Mahal does not equate to seeing India. Maybe the postcard version of India, but I can assure you that you that if you've only seen the Taj Mahal, you truly have not seen India at all. I have had an infinitely better time in all the other places I've been to and that's really what's important in a vacation, right? Having a good time? Let us not forget that.
Just so you know the only place left in the city where the purity of the Taj Mahal can truly be appreciated is from the Agra Fort,
In his later years after the construction of the Taj Mahal, Shah Jahan took ill and his son, Aurangzeb, led a rebellion and publicly executed his brother and the heir apparent. Even after Shah Jahan recovered from his illness, Aurangzeb deemed Shah Jahan unfit to rule and placed him under house arrest,
The view from his prison?
He was locked in that room till he died 8 years later, and every single day of that 8 years, all he could do was look out sorrowfully out at the magnificent tomb he built of of his Love for - and his loss of - his beloved wife. That is what it really stands for; Loss. As Tagore beautifully put in words lesser men could only gape mutely at; it's one man's teardrop on the cheek of time.
It's sad that the only place a person can really see the Taj Mahal is not in the Taj Mahal itself.
One of the most exasperating things about my trip to Agra is the tour we booked ourselves into. We barely spent more than two hours in the Taj Mahal because our minivan driver kept calling us to make us leave because he was worried that we would miss seeing the other places in Agra, and we were compelled to obey because extending the time would mean that we have to pay extra. It turned out that the only thing he was worrying about was that we won't have enough time to visit all the souvenir emporiums he was collecting commission from. Even the restaurant he took us to for lunch were pricey beyond all reason, and the food was quite honestly bad, or so I've heard. I wouldn't know because I was so pissed that I simply walked out of there to look for eats outside on my own.
Finally, we told the driver that we have had enough of Agra, of its world's pushiest souvenir salesmen and its crappy souvenir shops and insisted that he take us back to Delhi as quickly as he could. He did a "I-don't-speaka-da-inglis-verrah-gud" number on us and took us to the grandmother of all souvenir emporiums located at the side of the highway. He parked the minivan there, turned off the A/C, insisted that he needed to get something to eat and disappeared for a full hour. Having no air-conditioning out in the middle of the parking lot in the sweltering Agra heat, we had no choice but to go in. The stuff for sale there were at least twice that of anywhere else we've seen and the dishes in the cafe there were priced more like jewelry than food. These guys really took the phrase "highway robbery" by its most literal sense and brought it to a whole new level. We simply had nothing to do but stare at cute American girls until the driver decided to reappear - and he had the cheek to ask us why we didn't go in to get something to eat too. Fuck, I don't think his entire week's salary could even buy him a decent half-meal in that thieves' den.
It was many long hours later before we got to Delhi because of the evening rush, and even then, the drama did not end. The driver told us that the amount we're paying the tour agency only covered the rental of the minivan and its fuel, and that we had to pay him for driving us around. By then, I was simply too tired to wave my middle finger in his face but still, we just wouldn't relent this time. We have had enough of relenting for a whole damn day.
Anyway, before I wrap up this crazy long post, here's a miscellany of pictures of my day there before it turned completely to shit,
Ever wondered what's behind the Taj?
Jumping in the Agra Fort.
Me, sitting on the King's throne in the Diwan-i-Am, the Hall of Public Audience.
k0k s3n w4i