Upon Visiting the Taj Mahal

Taj Mahal in the morning

The Eiffel Tower, Sagrada Familia, Vatican all make sense within their cities. There are other places – Siem Reap and Angkor, for example – where the city cannot match up to that singular spectacle but is no worse than being simply a little dull by comparison. It is difficult to imagine a bigger disconnect between a city and its chief tourist attraction than Agra and the Taj Mahal. 

Most people visit the Taj on a day trip from relatively (for India) nearby Delhi. In this case you can be whisked from the highway then along the main roads, broad and tree lined, and think the place doesn’t seem so bad. Stay over even one night and you’ll see Agra for what it really is. 

It is the worst parts of Delhi on a smaller scale. It is loud and dirty and polluted. The streets are narrow and broken and littered and you cannot walk ten seconds without being beeped at by a scooter or tuk tuk. The intervals between being approached by beggars and hawkers and shopkeepers are only slightly longer. When night falls and the headlights loom through the clouds of smog which have built up through the day and the shouts are coming from every direction and the horrors of the poverty are only half seen in the shadows then it becomes almost absurdly horrid, a scene of the end times. 

And yet it is instructive to stay that night, because only then can you experience that full disconnect. 

The Taj Mahal is secreted within a giant complex away from all of the unpleasantness. The street through the complex is wide and clean and the shuttle bus you take along it whirrs quietly along. Only the hawkers remain from the outside world and even they are relatively restrained. You get your tickets checked and look at large nice photos of the Taj over the years while tall walls block the nearby building itself. 

The building itself remains tantalisingly hidden as you pass through the outer walls of the inner complex then the rooms built into the walls in which the workmen lived. Then you reach a large ornate red gate in the walls into which the opening verse of the Quran has been inlaid in marble and you finally get your first glimpse of the Taj framed through a pointed doorway ten metres tall. That is, you see it over the heads and passed the raised phones of the first batch of the many, many tourists before advancing through the gate and getting your first unobscured view, albeit again only after finding a spot where nobody is taking or posing for photos. 

The Taj Mahal is at once completely like and unlike the pictures you’ve seen. Everyone already says it’s bigger than you’d expect so that’s no real surprise. The main initial sensation in fact is a sense of unreality at seeing something for yourself which you’ve seen in photos so many hundreds of times before. 

The building itself is impossibly perfect, in its proportions, symmetry, contrast of curves and straight lines, the swirling textures of its marble blocks which are at once inconsistent yet somehow coherent. 

What elevates and perhaps makes it so especially and uniquely striking is the background, or lack thereof. Behind the central structure and the four towers there is absolutely nothing. No wall or tree never mind any other building. There is only the sky which appears enormous and frames the Taj Mahal and gives it that aforementioned unreality but in another way, and elevates the experience beyond the simple technical or aesthetic achievement of the structure itself to some other level; different, greater, timeless. 

Yet, unlike the building itself, the experience isn’t perfect. 

Few if any such places have I wished so strongly for the impossible – to visit without crowds. I went at dawn, as you’re supposed to, and my guide confirmed this was the quiet time. As quiet as it gets in India, I suppose, but not by any other standard. The people aren’t badly behaved by any means. But the simple presence of hundreds of them everywhere you look can’t help but detract from the experience somewhere for which serenity was so clearly a priority, if not all that truly mattered. 

Nor can you escape that unavoidable fact that you have indeed seen this place so very many times before. It’s better in person, of course it is, but not stunningly life-changingly so. 

Objectively the Taj Mahal is one of the world’s most beautiful buildings which obviously justifies its ‘wondrous’ status. It’s a piece of architectural genius on a level rarely if ever attained in human history, and the love story behind the whole twenty two year endeavour gives it, if it needed one, that extra special layer. But as an experience, it’s not of the highest level.

And then you turn your back on it all and return past the old workers’ rooms and take the whirring shuttle bus to the car park where your driver waits, then you’re out again back into the traffic and the noise and the pollution, the cows and the dogs roaming and the dirt and litter and poverty everywhere. 

And that provides your final and strongest dose of unreality. 

Where did I just go, and did I really? It it really there? Can it really be there, here?

My new novel – What Money Can’t Buy – is out now on Amazon. It’s available in both eBook and paperback formats, and you can find it here in the UK, here in the US, or on your own local Amazon site.

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