Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Taj Mahal - Love it or Hate it?

I AM AN INDIAN !!" I said in an impatient tone.

"Do you have any proof" asked the man behind the counter.

I fished out my driver's license and showed it to him. He stared at the license and back at me for a good 30 seconds before conceding that it was indeed me and that I was Indian. To avoid any such confusions, I had worn a salwar that day and spoke in Hindi, but almost everywhere people questioned my nationality. I understand that the ticket collectors are trying to fish out Indian looking foreigners, but there were 5 other instances that week when people asked me where I was from. It is ironic that people always recognized me as an Indian in the US, but I am having to prove it in my own country!

Shaking my head, I paid the Rs.20 fee to enter the Taj Mahal. My American colleague, Ken had to pay Rs 750, almost 40 times more than me!! "Aaah, the advantages of being a citizen" he said to me.

"We will take the eastern entrance which is for foreigners" said our guide. I almost jumped to declare that I was not a foreigner, before he added "It has the least amount of crowd".

The entrance to the Taj Mahal is quite stunning. I love this red sandstone structure with marble decorations.

It is always a little tricky when you go to places that are famous. Expectations are enormous and you feel compelled to like it just because millions of others have liked it before you. I had read conflicting reports on the Taj Mahal. One set extols the beauty while the other laments the poor maintenance and degradation of the monument. I decided to keep expectations very low. In fact, I was quite convinced that I won't be impressed. I almost skipped Agra because of that, but my friend Jayanti said "It is the Taj. You HAVE to see it at least once".

The drive from Delhi to Agra took more than 4 hours with the customary stop at McDonald's for a coffee break where we had an interesting encounter with the waiter.

"Coffee Please"

"You want black coffee?" asked the waiter.

"No, I want coffee with milk " said Ken

"OK, You want a cappuccino?" asked the waiter

"No, I want regular coffee with milk" said Ken

"So, you want a cappuccino?" asked the waiter.

I just love the circular arguments that go nowhere. Ken burst out laughing and took the cappuccino.

After a lunch break at the hotel, we reached the Taj Mahal in the afternoon. Personal vehicles are not allowed within a 2 km radius of the entrance. People are transported in battery operated buses, which I thought was a nice way to get rid of parking and pollution problems. Also, in the last few years, the government had a number of polluting industries move outside a 21 km radius of the monument. These measures seem to have worked. There was no visible pollution in the area.

I walked in and took in the full view of the Taj Mahal. My jaw dropped and I heard myself saying "WOW....Is this for real"? Standing there, in the middle of green gardens and surrounded by red sandstone structures, the pure white structure looked surreal. For somebody who was not expecting to be impressed, I was clearly in awe of this unique structure. It did not feel real! We walked all around the compound looking at side structures, but my eyes kept going back to the Taj to make sure it was still there.

Friends had told me that in spite of the hype, the first time you see the Taj, it takes your breath away. They were not exaggerating!

"That's a LOT of marble", said Ken. Indeed it was. Thousands of tons of marble was brought all the way from Makrana in Rajasthan. In those days, it is said to have cost 5 million.

I walked around, taking the customary pictures with the reflection in the pool. Our guide explained that cypress trees signify immortality according to Persian philosophy. The elaborately laid out tombs and gardens are supposed to be their interpretations of paradise.

There were thousands of visitors, but I never felt crowded. Walking around the gardens, I felt like there was enough space for everybody to enjoy the monument. A security guard walked past me and I said hello.

"You from which country?" he asked. Here we go again!! I spoke to him in Hindi and he was surprised "आप India से हो? वैसे तो लगते नहीं हो!" and then he added "आप बहुत लम्बे हो"!!

I asked him about the bullet proof jacket he was wearing. He said "Mumbai (26/11) के बाद, compulsory बना दिया! 40 kgs है और पुरा दिन पेहेन्ना है " When I joked about his old fashioned gun, he got a little upset " नहीं madam, yeh AK-47 hai. एक दम powerful gun है ". He posed for a photo and went his way. I walked to the mosque on the side of the Taj. Another beautiful structure.

Behind the Taj, the Yamuna river had very little water. India is in the business of building dams all over the place, so dry river beds are a very common sight these days.

The entire time I was in the compound, I was in awe of the monument. Even when we were heading out, I would turn back every other minute to have yet another look at it.

As much as I loved the Taj Mahal, I was shocked at how poor Agra was. The few streets that we drove on were narrow, dirty and crowded. It looked like there was not much to see, other than Agra Fort and Akbar's tomb. Agra fort was nice, but I was more impressed with Akbar's tomb. I will post pictures in upcoming blog posts. Dinner at Peshawari (ITC Hotel) was great. Chicken Kasturi Kabab and Fish Kabab were great, but their slow-cooked, creamy Dal Bukhara was the best I ever had. The Rasmalai was so good that I could have licked off the bowl clean!!

In the last few years of traveling, I have realized that there are no absolutes in traveling. You might find a place stunning, but others might not and vice-versa. Experiences vary depending on the weather, crowd, company, expectations and attitude. What was your impression of the Taj? Leave a comment and let me know.

This post is part of the Show your World meme. For more stories from the rest of the world, click the image.