Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Chasing A Taj Mahal Dream 2 - Loving Like No Other

It would be an early day fraught with anticipation. I took my LP to my hotel’s rooftop restaurant to read up over omelet, chicken strips and fried rice. While waiting for food, I gazed at the Taj Ganji skyline: there was a man deep in his early morning reverie; a school of macaque monkeys; the uneven rises of buildings swathed in vivid colors, and the majestic Taj Mahal and Agra Fort from a distance. The scenery had perked me up like a potent coffee brew. Minutes later, I took decisive steps as I made my way to the ultimate symbol of devotion, the Taj Mahal. I had been daydreaming of a leisurely walk towards this world wonder, and this experience culminates exactly like walking into a dream.

At half past 7, I found the mausoleum walls from the East Gate. The Taj Mahal is open daily except Fridays from 6 AM to 7 PM. Not long after, I was queuing for my entrance ticket which was a hefty 750 rupees ($16.50). I had to proceed to the cloak room after securing my ticket as they had to check out my backpack. Several items were removed from inside including a chocolate bar, an iPod, a phone charger (which I forgot to leave inside my room). They were quite thorough with their inspection. Once cleared, I was ready to move away when they insisted on a “donation”. Somehow they forgot the sign that read “free of charge” beside the cloak room counter. Didn't 750 rupees suffice? I handed, once again, 5 rupees, but they shook their head. After parting with 10 rupees, I finally stepped into the East Gate of the Taj Mahal.

Early morning reverie.

Taj Ganj from my rooftop restaurant.

Lonely Planet preparation over breakfast.

Walk to the Taj Mahal.

Furry friends are seen at several rooftops. They are an endemic presence in Agra.

Ticket booth - 750 rupees for foreigners (broken down to: 250 entrance, 500 toll tax). Video cameras will require an additional 25 rupees. Locals pay 20 rupees. However, use of toilet inside the Taj complex is free of charge for foreigners while locals pay 2 rupees. Yipee! LOL

East Gate entrance

The walk towards the courtyard.

One of the gates, these sandstone buildings are gateways to portions of the complex.

In and out of the gate; this one leads to and faces the Taj Mahal.

I was conscious of the beating of my heart. Despite another thorough security check at the gate (that looked like those Mughal gates from Jama Masjid Mosque in Old Delhi), I almost couldn’t contain my excitement. Once inside, you're ushered into a 4-cornered courtyard - not quite the Taj just yet. At 7:30 AM, there was already a steady stream of crowd going through another gate directly leading to the famous structure; a gateway to the main complex. I stepped into the arched doorway and gasped as I saw what should rightfully be one of man’s most distinctive architectural achievements.

The Taj Mahal glistens in its white glory; its onion-shaped dome is framed by huge pishtaqs (vaulted archways); 4 chattris beside the dome; 4 minarets (used during its heyday by muezzins to call the Islamic faithful to prayer); and a pedestal plinth providing the base of the mausoleum. I was in awe of its grandeur and for a while, it felt like a dream. Despite a steady stream of tourists around me, I oddly realized that this singular moment belonged to me. Though the charbagh (garden) has been modified into an English lawn instead of the precise design of mughal gardens, this hasn't diminished the structure’s magical spell. I sat on a tiled elevation facing the Taj oblivious to the merriment and congestion around me and for a full 10 minutes savored this fleeting moment.

I was transported into an epochal period of valiant nawabs and ambitious explorers. Did they love as deeply and as fearlessly? How do I love thee. Let me count the ways. In India, it isn’t implied in vocal posturings but manifested by offering the most precious objects they could get their hands on - in slabs of white marbles from Makrana, Rajasthan; Punjabi jaspers (an opaque crystalline quartz), Tibetan turquoise, Afghanistan lapis lazuli (a semi-precious stone with an intense blue color), Sri Lankan sapphires, Saudi Arabian carnelians, a labor force of 20,000, and 21 years of construction that roughly cost 32 million rupees ($701,000) between 1632 to 1653.

Shah Jahan, the 5th Mughal Emperor (after Babur, Humayun, Akbar, and Jahangir) took his bereavement to artistic heights by commissioning a lavish mausoleum for his dearly departed Mumtaz Mahal, the emperor’s third wife who died while giving birth to their 14th child (Gahaura Begum).

The mausoleum wasn't just a structural homage to a wife he loved a thousand times more than his other wives. It was a symbol of love, a source of solace, and place of redemption for the broken hearted and the down trodden. Shah Jahan described the Taj in his own words:

“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;

The sun and moon shed tears from their eyes.

In this world, this edifice has been made; To display thereby the creator’s glory.”

Nothing epitomizes the universal concept of second chances better than how emperor Shah Jahan perceived the Taj Mahal to be. With its ethereal beauty, it’s easy to fathom why he thought so.

The main iwan (arched entrance).

Shoe rack beside the raised platform.

Cover up.

Colorful saris on display as Indian women make their way up the platform. This platform leads to the main iwan of the mausoleum (entrance shown below). I was told that these garments aren't actually saris, but a "shalwarkameez" - a three-piece ensemble made up of "shalwar" (pajama), "kameez" (blouse) and "urna" (shawl). Don't you just love details like these. I've been traveling around India (and one of my good friends is Indian) but I've never learned this. Thanks, Peachy! Follow her link from the comment box down below.

I was in a daze walking through the reflecting pool towards the base of the mausoleum. I thought such magnificence is borne out of hyperbole and the romanticized demeanor of sentimental adventurers. I was wrong. Its legendary beauty is all it’s touted to be. I felt privileged to be in its presence.

Upon arrival at the base of the Taj, I saw rows of shoe racks. To climb up the stairs, you have to either remove your shoes or flip-flops or wear these foot gloves over your shoes. The queue to get inside the mausoleum is long (think Eiffel Tower) and requires patience. The funny thing is, the exuberantly decorated tombs of Mumtaz and her king Shah Jahan aren’t even the real thing. The real tombs are located in unadorned crypts down beneath the visible symbolic tombs. Muslim tradition disallows elaborate decoration of graves. If you think you’d have a solemn moment at the artificial crypts, that would be wishful thinking.

Calligraphic art adorns the Taj. These were mostly verses from the Koran since anthropomorphic images (i.e. human forms) are not allowed in mosques and Muslim mausoleums.


My favorite moments were those outside the mausoleum. Nothing beats people-watching; people in several stages of delight. Some 3 million tourists visit the Taj Mahal every year; 200,000 of whom are non-Indians. The immediate and elevated marble base surrounding the mausoleum glistens thus people walk around the complex as they do in the most pristine parks; some of them lie down gazing at the sky.

I went to the back of the Taj (pronounced “Tadz”, not “Tah” the way Ms. Venus Raj does her surname, which is a mystery). I’ve always wondered how it looked from the back. I wasn't disappointed. Yamuna River, the country’s 2nd holiest river after the Ganges, snaked lazily at the back of the Taj Mahal creating a postcard-pretty scenery. Nothing inspires poetry more than natural beauty that’s spilling over.

At exactly 8:45 AM, I received a call from Junaid, my Kashmiri friend. He was checking out if I somehow survived his beloved India. He had been so worried that he made me purchase an Indian sim so he could conveniently verify my whereabouts. I was flattered. Once you've succeeded in bridging an Indian friendship, you shall be regarded as his "brother" for the duration of your charmed lifetime. This is a reflection of the gravity of devotion Indians are capable of, an enviable trait.

I take my hats off to the likes of Shah Jahan, to my friend Junaid, and to the adorable children of India who never fail to offer their sincerest smiles every time I step on their native land.

This is the Eye in the Sky!

Yamuna River (above and below) flows ever so placidly at the back of the Taj Mahal.

Up next: More images from Taj Mahal

Previous post: Chasing A Taj Mahal Dream 1 - From Delhi to Taj Ganj - http://eye-in-the-blue-sky.blogspot.com/2011/08/chasing-taj-mahal-dream-1-from-delhi-to.html

Start this 1st Indian Journey with a Harrowing Border Crossing from Bangladesh - http://eye-in-the-blue-sky.blogspot.com/2011/06/benapole-haridaspur-border-horror-from.html

Train Ride from Kolkata to Delhi - http://eye-in-the-blue-sky.blogspot.com/2011/06/long-ride-from-kolkata-to-delhi.html


Trotter said...

Hi Eye! The Taj is absolutely stunning! One of the most impressive places I've been to...

The present post at Blogtrotter Two shows two wonders in Corsica: the views from Le Goeland Hotel room 15 and the Bocche di Bonifacio! Enjoy and have a wonderful week ahead!

eye in the sky said...

It is such a gorgeous structure, I agree.

klatchiancoffee said...

thank you for these beautiful posts! this is one place i would really like to go but i am just daunted at the moment with the logistics... my test will be the indian square at sing. once i am able to survive the crowd there, i am ready for a trip to india...

eye in the sky said...

I've heard of that Indian community in Sing but I've never visited that area. Sounds interesting.

PEACHY said...

hello there! visiting Taj Mahal is one of my dream destination, but unlike you, i'm scared of travelling alone, imagine a girl experiencing all your travel's roadblock...scary. Just an input, the ladies in the picture are not wearing sari/saree, they are wearing the shalwarkameez, it's a 3 piece ensemble of shalwar or the pajama, kameez or the blouse and an urna or shawl :-)

eye in the sky said...

Hi Peachy:

I love details like that so I hope you don't mind me sharing it in the main post (with attribution, of course).

I had the impression that your work takes you around the Indian sub-continent. I understand your concern re: women travelers. If it's scary to me; I wouldn't expect less from you. But the fact is, I've met and seen so many women traveling on their own these days. I think it's probably a state of mind. I'm sure you can do it, probably even better than some people I know. The world is not all that bad after all.

Give it a go. The Taj is worth the trip.

PEACHY said...

Hi Eye!

Thanks for the encouragement :-)
Even the locals (bangladeshis) experienced this kind of roadblocks in the borders.And my colleagues here advised me to travel only via plane if i'm travelling alone, but my dream travel is via road preferably the train. Inshallah, I will be able to fulfill this dream...

I'm based here in Bangladesh and i've been to Kolkata only because we have a showroom there also. If you have plans of traveling in this side of the world, I will be happy to tag along with you :-)

eye in the sky said...

Thanks, Peachy. I'll keep that in mind. Loved Bangladesh and I'm intent on visiting it again in the near future. I like the Indian subcontinent, with only 2 countries from that side of the world I haven't visited yet.

Last time I was in India was last March/April, heading south from Bangalore to Kerala. It's blessed with rich culture and tradition and the sights are so unique for any traveler.