Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Wah Taj!

Forgive the corny post heading. I could not think of any other. I’m guessing any desi’s reading this are reminded of Zakir Hussain playing the tabla, advertising tea. Well, this is not about tea or Zakir Hussain or tablas or advertisements. It’s about the Taj. The one in Agra.

Fact (as far as I can see): The tree lines avenues and well manicured lawns at the foot of the Taj are a joy. Almost every tree has a little board pinned to it telling you its generic name and its Latin name. Like: Neem; Azadirachta indica. It’s very endearing.

I spent 45 minutes two nights ago trying to upload some beautiful pictures of the Taj (yeah, like we haven’t seen THOSE before) but my every attempt was thwarted. In the end I gave up and did a quick internal acknowledgment that I last posted pictures so long ago that I no longer have any idea what I am doing. So instead I am going to continue the Agra story and try and show off the pictures of the Taj this weekend (do NOT groan).

Every trip to India is filled with purpose and demand - weddings, receptions, birthdays, anniversaries, relatives and friends. This short trip too had its purpose. But before we got the purpose we had 3 days with ‘my people’ in Delhi. As V had never been to see the Taj Mahal despite having lived in Delhi for years, we decided that a fun and useful way to spend our time (instead of lounging in front of the TV with pakora’s and being waited on hand an foot) with my folks would be this road trip. You’ve probably read the post below about the car journey. Now it’s time for the real deal.

So here we are in Agra, up bright and early, wolfing down the buffet for what it’s worth. We drive to the car park nearest the Taj and park there. We tumble out of the car and pretty much into the arms of every tour guide wanting us to hire them. After beating them off with a stick we hop onto the ‘free hai sir’ electricity mini-bus that takes us to the doorstep of the Taj. Well, nearly. Enroute in this chugging thing whose primary purpose I assume is to reduce pollution, both noise and air, we see cars whizzing around. Now just a minute, I thought we were at the closest car park? I now find out that if we hire a room at the Oberoi for Rs.27000/- per night we’d not only get an uninterrupted view of the Taj, we’d also get to park in their car park and just stroll along to the Taj. At that price guests pretty much deserve to be carried there on little stools, followed by an exclusive tour around it on a Segway, don’t you think? Alternately if we worked for, or were guests, of the Armed Forces our vehicle will be allowed past the very flimsy checkpost. I have no complaints. The electric bus is comfy, gets us there in two minutes, does not add much to the global warming footprint and being free certainly beats the room at the Oberoi hands down.

V hires Jeetu just outside the entrance to the Taj, who reliably informs us that one of the ways of making sure that NRI’s do not get past by paying the local rate of Rs.20/- is by being asked questions like “Who is the Prime Minister of India? Who is the President? How many states are there in India? When is Republic Day? And Independence was when?,” etc. Tough entrance this.

Once inside the gates, Jeetu goes on to explain in a mix of very broken English and Hindi the history that makes the Taj. Built over 22 years by Shahjahan in memory of his favourite wife Mumtaz Mahal this grand monument stands on the bank of the River Yamuna and dominates its landscape for miles around. The walk from the main gate up the avenue by the stream of water is mesmerizing. It takes very little observation to see the symmetry in everything, the worship of the straight and perfectly angled lines in design are all too evident. We stop for the obligatory photographs and discourse on how where and why by Jeetu. But mainly I walk around in the lovely winter sunshine which gleams of the whiteness of the Taj making it look like a surreal painting. The restoration which had scaffolding snaking up one side of the Taj is no longer there and the Taj is truly a sight for sore eyes.

My dad has soon given up on Jeetu who is fairly unintelligible to everyone but V, who nods knowingly and soon knows more about Jeetu’s history than Shah Jahan’s. We wander along enjoying the space and trying not to look too surprised that there are not more tourists. The last two times I have been here there have been seas of people to navigate through. This is a pleasant change. Could I be on an exclusive tour and not know it? Where’s my Segway?

We are walking up the solid marble steps to the dias on which the Taj imposingly sits. Up close, and in one sudden step it’s daintiness from a distance is replaced by an imposing grandness, a robust sturdiness that belies it’s finesse. A look inside reveals the very ornate replica’s of Mumtaz’s and Shah Jahan’s tombs. The intricacy is amazing, detailed and delicate, purposeful and loving. The marble (sanghmarmar – I love that word) glows and is cool to the touch. We walk around in silence, some too awed to speak, other just basking in the delight of seeing it again in the company of people they love.

Let me explain. My first ever road trip was to see the Taj, the rest of Agra and Bharatpur Bird Sanctuary (officially named Keoladeo Ghana National Park). In year dot, when we were just youngsters in school, my parents bundled me, the Nik and 3 other children (of my parents very best friends) into their ambassador (that mighty white Indian car) and drove us around for 4 days stopping first to see the Taj and then onto the other places. It was the most exciting holiday I can remember and we had the best family vacation that we could have asked for. Even the bit when our car broke down and we spent the afternoon playing pitthoo and fake practicing driving a tractor outside a garage while my dad and the mechanic twiddled and toiled over the engine. All of it was fun. That vacation left me with a permanent soft spot for the Taj.

Going back with my parents and the Nik (all grown up and driving us to and fro) is very special. Having V there makes it even more so. For one moment, in the shadow of that gleaming monument to love, I feel at absolute peace, like all is perfect in my world, THE world. It is certainly a moment worth the trip.

I know plenty of people who pooh pooh the Taj and are simply not impressed. I am. Unabashedly. In my dictionary there are very few adjectives that adequately describe the Taj. It is to my minds eye a masterpiece, a wonder of the world. Even revisiting it left me astonished, the engineering, the boldness, the design, the detail, they are all a perfect amalgam in this magnificent monument. To have been built when it was is nothing short of a feat.

If you haven’t already, I hope you get the chance to go and see it some day.

Fact (according to Jeetu ji): The foundations of the Taj get their strength from being wet all the time. It was built strategically on the banks of the Yamuna so that the water of the river kept them moist on a continuous basis. Sadly global warming is causing the Yamuna to shrink and the water is receding from the Taj at an unprecedented pace. The worry is that the Taj shall collapse unless its foundations can be watered (like a plant). (Someone is doing something about this although I’m not quite sure what.). The good news is that the 4 minaret at four corners around the Taj were built so that they tilt very slightly outward and in the case of any earthquake situation they will fall outward not injuring the main structure. Although how that will help if the entire thing is collapsing I do not get. Anyway.

Pitthoo: primitive game played with seven stones and a ball by very bored Indian children.


  1. my word- winter must have been an absolutely gorgeous time.

    I don't know anyone who poh poohs the Taj, and I just cannot understand anyone who would

  2. before i saw the taj for the first time (3 years ago) I always thought that people made a big deal about the taj, and that it has been over-used as a symbol of India (there are so many other monuments!!!).
    But the minute I caught a glimpse of it, it was exactly how you described it. Made you feel so awestruck, yet had a calming and peaceful effect on you. I just wanted to look at it all day!

  3. Well written !!
    and nice to read those interesting facts !

  4. I loved the Taj and they tested us by asking us who the chief minister of kerala was:D

  5. I think we actually used Jeetu when Orwell and I went to see the Taj in September 2006. I dont know how someone who said he had a masters in history could know so little about the Taj! I actually think the Taj looks even more beautiful now that they are taking better care of it. 20 years ago when I saw it for the first time it was still gorgeous, but yellowing and neglected.

  6. Lovely write-up. Really - almost felt like I was there with you.

  7. Shakester: Yep, that dappled winter sunshine is ideal for a Taj visit. And sadly plenty of people pooh pooh the Taj - maybe it's just people I know.

    Fireflies: It is such an overused image for India that it makes one think of it as over-rated. It is so NOT. I too could have just sat there and gazed the entire day!

    Amit: Thanks. Although how authentic the second fact is is dependent on our guide Jeetu's dodge story.

    Beks: I'm guessing you knew! Glad you loved it. I do too.

    Akkare: Yes, our Jeetu too had a dodgy history degree. He was terrible though. V is far more patient than I. Yes the Taj is glistening - all that UN Heritage money TLC seems to be working its magic.

    Nee: What a compliment to my writing - never had that before so am a bit stunned. Thank you!

  8. That was lovely and I love the TAJ, i love it.
    I saw it for the first time two years ago and it was just an experience - tons of people had like you said, "pooh poohed' it and really, they are crazy...thanks for the post - it just captures everything about my experience there..

  9. The visit sounds lovely..and that's an interesting test!

  10. Me: I too love the TAJ. Anyone that finds it 'just OK' needs their eyes testing - but each to their own opinions I guess!

    Pea: Yes, who is the CM of Uttarakhand?

  11. hi! thanks for stopping by !! im back in the blogworld!! i miss india!! ill NEVER be satisfied!! lol

  12. What a wonderful post! i have visited the Taj five times now and it always, always takes my breath away! I just don't understand people who don't find it absolutely marvellous. Cretins.

  13. i absolutely loved your blog - it describes the taj so beautifully..and i can just imagine being among the tourists, sharing the same sentiments. :) i hope to go one day

  14. Ek Shahenshah ne banwaake haseen Taj Mahal
    Saari duniya ko mohabbat ki kahani dee hai

    One of my favourite Rafi-lata duets from the movie Leader :) Esply as it's about the Taj. What an incredibly beautiful building it is. Got to take my Pete to see it - he's been to India 3 times now and is quite peeved at not getting anywhere near Delhi/Agra! :D