Everyone tells you to see the Taj Mahal at sunrise because the white marble glows at that hour, and you avoid the busloads of tourists on a daytrip from Delhi.
Well, we didn’t arrive at dawn, but getting there at 8 am wasn’t too shabby. There were no lines to get in – at least, not on the “foreigner” line, where you have the pleasure of spending over 10x more than locals on an admission ticket, though to be fair, Rp 500 to see one of the wonders of the world is a bargain. (I love these wonders of the world lists – it’s like the US News and World Report for random structures – how else does the Hoover Dam end up compared to the Taj Mahal?)
Our guide for the day left much to be desired. His determination to “impress” us relied on repeated lines like: “all this [intricate carving and architecture] was done without computers! Without drills!” After a while, the list of things without which the Taj Mahal was built included protractors and rulers. While I am sure the Taj Mahal really is wondrous for its construction in an age before power tools, I have a feeling protractors and rulers were around.
Most annoyingly, if you asked our guide a question that he didn’t know the answer to, he would give some lame-ass explanation instead of a simple “I don’t know.” A sample exchange: Q: Why isn’t the Taj Mahal lit up at night? A: The heat from the lighting would crack the marble.
Didn’t you know that the rest of the world’s monuments are made of special crack-proof marble?
Despite having a guide who just irritated rather than illuminated, I thought the Taj Mahal was a moving place to visit. The symmetry and the gleam of the marble, along with the intricate carvings and graceful Arabic script – I think you could be blind and still feel affected by the calm beauty of the complex.
As for the story that the Taj is the world’s greatest “temple of love” (built by Shah Jahan as a tomb for his favored wife, Mumtaz Mahal), well, I’m sort of into it, and sort of not. I mean, he could have written her a poem or planted a tree in her memory. But instead the guy uses 20,000 laborers (whose hands he allegedly cuts off so they can never duplicate the Taj Mahal for anyone else) to build this stunningly huge and expensive building . . . you have to admit building the Taj is a little like buying a ginormous diamond for your fiancee. Partly a gesture of love, and partly a statement about the buyer’s buying power.
Well, Erica and I agreed that we could have spent all day just gazing at the Taj Mahal, but hunger got the better of us, so we left the Taj just as all the daytrippers from Delhi were arriving. Walking the 1/2 mile from the Taj Mahal ticket gate to the parking area, we were followed, as always, by people trying to sell us trinkets. One especially persistent (there’s always one) boy started out by offering us “good price” on wooden elephant keychains: “5 for Rp 1000 ($20)!” That cracked us up. Playing along with our laughter, the kid followed us during our walk. The closer we got to the parking area, the lower his prices became. I guess his jurisdiction ended at the parking lot, so at the end of our walk, he was offering us the same five keychains for Rp 50 ($1 US). Amazing, amusing and sad all at the same time.
We spent the rest of the day in Agra visiting various other sites – all of which paled in comparison with the Taj, probably because we didn’t know any of the history behind the other places we visited, and our guide was not helpful. So we visited a palace complex known as the Agra Fort, and the only thing I got out of it is that Shah Jahan was imprisoned there by his own son, who was upset by all the money Shah Jahan had blown on building the Taj Mahal. I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to be outraged that the son kept the father under house arrest (it was in a palace, after all), or if I was supposed to sympathize with the son’s desire to stop his father from spending more on a Taj-like tomb for himself.
Of course our guide took us to a few shops – a jewelry store called the “Art Gallery” and another shop specializing in inlaid marbles. If my style ran towards marble furniture, I might have been tempted, but sadly, while I can appreciate the beauty and artistry of carving out precious stones and fitting them, puzzle-piece-style, into carved marble, I have no desire for this stuff in my home. But we needed to kill time in Agra, so we figured no harm going to some of these shops.
Our Shatabdi Express train departed Agra for Delhi at around 8:15 pm. It was a quick, painless 2 1/2 hour ride in “AC Chair Class” (the variety of “classes” on the Indian rail system still confuse me), though the Eurostar it was not. The experience was like riding an old Metro North train, except with weirder passengers. One white guy came by to ask us if we wanted to read his newspaper. We thought he was being nice, so we said sure. Then he tried to charge us Rp 10 for the newspaper, which annoyed us, so we said no, and he then tried to sell us his magazines, claiming he worked for the railway. It was bizarre, particularly because it was obvious (for a number of reasons) that he was a passenger, not a train employee.
We pulled into Delhi train station around 11 pm, and we experienced barely-suppressed panic while trying to find the taxi driver our hotel had sent for us. The train station was madness – it was dark and felt like Penn Station before Thanksgiving. While Erica searched for our driver, Eric and I guarded our luggage while two dozen homeless guys watched us standing around. It was unsettling. Finding our taxi (which cost a pricey Rp 2500, but was a welcome sight that evening), we passed through some depressing cardboard-and-tin slum neighborhoods. I have a feeling that as poor as we thought that neighborhood looked, there’s probably a lot worse in Delhi.
Of course, lazy speed tourists that we are, abject poverty is not something we witnessed except on the fringes of our trip.
Overall, Agra is well worth the trip to see the Taj Mahal, which lived up to its cliched reputation as one of things you have to see before you die. That said, after the Taj, I don’t think lingering in Agra is the way to go.