The previous instalment of this story is Indian Summer: Hidden Tiger.
There is a special place in Hell for those hapless tourists who tell an Indian driver to “hurry up”. Incidentally, that place bears a striking resemblance to the back seat of a certain white Mahindra-Suzuki Swift, hurling through traffic like a meteor wannabe in search of yet another near miss. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
After my second (and still tigerless) safari, it was time to leave Ranthambore and head for India’s most famous monument. It was to be the last day of our grand tour; the next night we would spend in Delhi and then literally head for the hills – and the comparative peace and quiet of Uttarakhand. But now it was time to play tourists once more, and burn onto our retinas and our lenses the greatest of India’s icons and one of the most instantly recognizable human-made edifices on the planet. The Taj Mahal.
Our Rough Guide to India had its own special chapter about Agra. Among the things it recommended, there was a view of the Taj from across the river Yamuna, right before the sunset. It would be, the guide promised, a sight to remember, and I freely admit, it was memorable – but not as memorable as getting there. When we left Ranthambore, a little before noon, I asked Sunil, our driver, if he thought we would make it there before sunset. He said he’ll try. And, by God, he did. Through potholes and traffic jams, swerving wildly around rickshaws and tractors and farm animals, crossing the whole city of Agra on a headlong rush towards the river, then inching along the most crowded bridge I’ve ever seen… and at last, we were there.
Agra is a hectic, crazy town. Not in the large-scale, we’re-as-big-as-your-country Delhi style, but in an almost American, land-of-opportunity way. Tourist traps abound in the city, and why wouldn’t they? The Taj draws more than one million visitors per year. There’s bound to be some gullible folk among them, and it’s not like there’s a lot of return customers. Agra is a check-box, a must-visit for every India first-timer. I don’t regret visiting – but I won’t be doing it again. And that is really the fault of the Taj Mahal itself, I must say. It is an overwhelmingly beautiful place – so much so, in fact, that Agra becomes an afterthought, a shadow, the place you get to if you want to see the Taj. Unfair, but the inhabitants don’t mind. They make a living providing for for
Let me get back to the story before I run out of superlatives. We stopped at a non-descript hotel – the shoddiest so far in our tour – and then, because this was the last night of the trip, we asked Sunil out to dinner. He took us to a restaurant belonging to one of his cousins – a nice place, bit off the main tourist path, but nevertheless delicious. I had the “Chicken Mughal” – a heavy, heavy dish of chicken in a butter and egg yolk sauce, deemed to be the food of the kings. The Mughal sultans must have had livers of steel.
We didn’t stay too late; the wake-up call was set for 6 o’clock the next morning. I longed to see the sunrise shining on the cupola of the Taj, to watch the embedded semi-precious stones light up into the first rays of the sun. Our book described these things in detail, you see. We religiously got rid of the few mosquitoes still roaming around in our room and went to bed.
Alas. The next day arrived with a heavy, white mist that would thoroughly obscure most things not in the immediate vicinity. Of the Taj there was nothing to be seen; not even a silhouette. Only a milky, greyish white, which my camera could not penetrate for more than a few meters. We did find the mausoleum – after all, it was hard to miss – but the fog was to heavy. We wandered about the park, taking in the old trees and the heavy silence, and the occasional squirrel. Of the sun there was no trace. We were reminded, not too subtly, that we were visiting a tomb.
But even though there was no majestic vista, there were still plenty of things to see. We walked around the Taj, marvelling at the whiteness of its marble and the amazing artistry of its precious stone inlays. There were finely wrought filigree marble curtains surrounding the sarcophagi of the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan and of his favourite wife, Mumtaz Mahal. While heavily decorated, the place still retains an air of austere grace. We walk here as aestheticians, as tourists searching for a view, forgetting this is ultimately a place of remembrance and worship. An Islamic tomb, where garish paintings and statues have no place. After seeing the temples of the Hindu, the contrast could not be greater.
By the time we completed a first tour of the gardens, the mist seemed to be thinning. We decided to wait a while, give the sun a chance to chase it away. After all, it was our only day in Agra. Better make it count. And little by little, the silhouette of the most beautiful monument of India began to rise from the mist.
A long, long time ago, on the other side of history, a Mughal emperor pitted Art against Death. And thus Death was defeated.
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I am concluding here my Indian journal. This was the end of the tour, but not the end of our journey. From Delhi we went on to Rishikesh, in Uttarakhand, and attended a true Vedic wedding. We went to an ashram near the holy city of Haridwar and found the real meaning of peace. I took a swim in the Ganges – the clean, cold Ganges, just emerging from the hills of Himalaya – and, according to Hindu tradition, I washed away my sins. I went up to a temple on the top of a “hill” – three thousand meters up – and saw the roof of the world. But these no longer form a story. Rather, they’re moments, anecdotes and flashbacks.
Which is why I stop here. I know that, try as I might, I will never be able to impress upon you the true feeling of India. That, dear reader, is something I hope you will experience for yourself.
Thank you for reading.