This week I’m back to travel blogging. I’d like to tell you about one of the most amazing experiences from my three months in Asia — visiting the Taj Mahal.
Of course, I’d seen the Taj Mahal in photos many times over. But seeing it in person, actually being there, took my breath away. It left such a deep impression that the only way I can convey the experience is through a story…
(And my own photos. Click to enlarge.)
You wake to darkness, well before dawn. The rickshaw driver you hired yesterday, a small imp of a man named Shabbu, told you that dawn was the best time to go. So here you are, getting dressed in the dark and stumbling downstairs in the pitch-black guesthouse because the power is out, again. It’s February and cold. You’re wearing all your clothes.
Shabbu drives you through streets empty of traffic, but not of people. Early-rising locals drift through the predawn mists, wrapped in odds and ends of shawls. There is an echoing absence of sound, of the constant honking you’ve grown to expect in your short time in India. It looks like the apocalypse.
Shabbu lets you out near the great walls that surround the gardens. You cannot see the Taj Mahal beyond, only the lineup, other foreigners waiting. The line is long and dawn is coming. You start to worry about missing the moment of greatest beauty.
Finally you reach the head of the line. There is a security patdown — segregated by gender — and then a scanner for your bags. You have your small laptop with you, unwilling to leave it in your room at the guesthouse. They explain you can’t bring it in. Only the camera. There are lockers down the road. You’re turned away.
You panic. Stress turns to tears. But you go, as you must. The lockers are guarded, after a fashion, and you leave the bag because there is nothing else to be done.
Back at the gates, the lineup has dissipated, everyone already inside. You push through, cross the outer courtyard, pass through the immense gatehouse, and catch your first sight of the Taj Mahal.
And nothing else matters.
It emerges from the dawn mist, pearly pink and ethereal, almost shimmering.
You lose all your words.
You’ve rented an audioguide but you can’t listen, eventually turning it off. All you can do is drift closer, speechless, eyes fixed on the most perfect, beautiful, glorious building you’ve ever seen.
There are other people around, other buildings in the complex, reflecting pools along the long straight path from the gatehouse, but they don’t matter.
It takes you a long time to reach the Taj Mahal. You keep stopping to gaze, to take pictures. Finally you reach the base of the marble pedestal upon which it sits. You don slippers they give you to protect the marble.
(Indian visitors ascend the pedestal a different way. Slippers aren’t included in their — much cheaper — entrance fee, and they must pay separately if they wish to go up. This is a little alienating, this segregation, though it makes sense that they’re charged so much less. Westerners are unbelievably wealthy in comparison.)
Up close, the building is even more beautiful. The curve of the arches is perfection itself, but now you can see that each arch is lined with Arabic writing inlaid in the very marble. You can’t imagine the level of skill required. The arches soar higher than you expected, but the building itself is smaller.
You enter the building.
It’s immediately clear that this is a tomb. The interior is a small octagonal room, full of hushed echoes. At the very centre, protected by a marble screen, sits the cenotaph or “empty tomb” of Mumtaz Mahal, the woman beloved of the emperor Shah Jahan, for whom all this was built.
Beside her cenotaph sits the emperor’s — the only thing that disturbs the precise symmetry of the garden and the building. (In the tradition of the Mughal Empire, their bodies lie in an underground crypt where they will not be seen.)
Outside once more, you circle the building on the marble pedestal.
It is symmetrical, identical in all four directions, down to the slender minarets on each corner of the pedestal. On the far side you discover the Yamuna River, still hazy with morning mist.
You linger still, because now you discover something else. The Taj Mahal changes as the light shifts. You circle it watching the shadows in the arches, watching the marble change to golden yellow and then pure white as the sun rises overhead.
The dawn crowd has dissipated and the tour buses on day trips from Delhi are arriving by the time you finally tear yourself away. You walk away slowly, still half dreaming, glancing repeatedly over your shoulder to catch a few last precious glimpses.
You will never forget.
If you liked this post, you can find more tales and photos from my travels here.