Monday, January 25, 2010

Taj Mahal - Agra, Uttar Pradesh

Jen, Monique and myself boarded a train today to go to Agra to visit the Taj Mahal. Agra's juxtaposition between grandiose beauty and contamination is undeniable. The city itself is nothing more than a series of confusing filthy streets lined with souvenir vendors trying to part you with your money. Just getting out of the train station is an exercise in patience. Once off the train hordes of rickshaw-wallahs attack you with the offers of a ride. For most visitors this is their second stop in India and can be quite overwhelming. Even for the hardened traveler it can be a test.

Other than the Taj Mahal, Agra is most famous for its scams. In the early nineties a scam emerged of tremendous greed and depravity. Certain restaurants in Agra would purposefully poison tourists food, who then would be treated by doctors in private clinics at unnecessary cost to the insurance companies. Although there have been no reported deaths, many fell ill to this heinous scam before the insurance companies got wise and prosecuted those responsible. Another popular scam, so I hear, is for someone to throw shit on your shoes and run away. Standing there in anger, a shoe cleaner will just happen to come by and offer to clean your shoes, at an exorbitant price of course.

The city is just something you tolerate to get to the Taj Mahal. Once you pass through the main gates and are standing in front of the Taj Mahal, all is lost in the sheer beauty and magnitude of the monument.

Even though we arrived at 6:15AM to avoid the crowds, there was easily a couple hundred people there by time they opened the gates at 7:00AM. Although it was a little foggy that morning, it did not dull my amazement of the monument. After a few photos of the Taj from the outside we decided to go in to give the fog a chance to burn off. When we came back out fifteen minutes later, the fog had enveloped the Taj Mahal and one could barely see one of the minarets a mere forty feet away. Standing from the viewing platform, it seemed as though the fog had devoured the Taj with not a trace to be seen.

The girls became cold and didn't want to wait for the fog to dissipate, so they left. Thinking my resolve was much stronger and not wanting to pay the 750 rupees to get in again (by far the most expensive site in India), I decided to wait it out. At the hour mark I too was cold and finally left with fog still blanketing the monument. Later, as we sat in a coffee house killing time till our train left, the fog had completely vanished, clouds parted and the sun came out. Suddenly it was the perfect day we were hoping for. Since the coffee house was right next to the east gate of the Taj and with two hours till our train left, I decided to try my luck at getting back in. With my ever so charming self and slightly saddened blue eyes, I pleaded my case to get back in. Either the guard bought it or tired of me, either way I was back in.

In the sunlight the Taj was even more amazing, as were the crowds now. This is definitely something to be seen in person. One poet described it as "the teardrop on the cheek of eternity." I have no idea what that means, but ya, what he said! The bad news is that pollution is becoming an enormous problem in Agra and is deteriorating the marble. There is even a pollution ticker in the Taj that has the pollution content scrolling across continually. Unfortunately, the politicians are notoriously corrupt in Agra and it doesn't seem like much is being done. A much too frequent story.

Shah Jahan built the Taj Mahal to enshrine the body of his favorite wife, Mumtaz Mahal, after she died giving birth to their fourteenth child. The emperor was devastated upon her death and set out to create a monument in her memory unsurpassed by any other. Eventually Shan Jahan's son grew thirsty for the throne and imprisoned his father at Agra Fort just down the Yamuna River. As lore has it, Shah Jahan lived out the rest of his life gazing wistfully at the Taj Mahal. Upon his death he was carried down the river and placed next to his beloved in his unrivaled tomb.

"The sight of this mansion creates sorrowing sighs;
And the sun and the moon shed tears from their eyes."
Shah Jahan

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