Tuesday, 17 January 2017

Ah, Taj!

The line snaked forward into the distance.  Mostly men. Behind me a group of Tamil speakers chattered away in Sheba’s father’s tongue.  Every so often, a man would come up to me, show his blue official tourist guide ID card and inform me that I was in the wrong line.

“You need guide sir?” “Foreigners not in this line sir” “I will take you quickly, this line takes 2 hours. With Guide only 5 minutes.”

We were in Agra for a quick 2 day visit.  Our wonderful daughter completed 16 years on the 16th – and so we came up on Saturday night to meet our dear friends Arbind and Putul – with the added bonus that their daughter Urvashi was finishing off her Christmas holidays with them – and their son Rishav was given a 2 day break from his 12th standard exam and medical entrance exam preparation.’

Arbind serves with the defence forces and is stationed in Agra.  He has experienced almost 3 decades of the military life – 3 years in one place… and then off to another!  We visited the family when they were posted in Meghalaya.  But this visit was spur of the moment.  A phone call.  A big yes from Arbind.  Tickets booked, and off we went up to Agra.   But since I don’t look like most of my 1.2 billion other countrymen (and women) – with only Tom and Jamie Alter being the exceptions that come to mind – we decided not to go through the hassle of getting the special permission that I would need in order to stay with them. 

Instead, we sort of invited ourselves to stay with dear aunty Chinnamma Baby - whose home hosts the meeting hall where Arbind and Putul worship on Sunday (and other days of the week too).  Chinnamma's son Charlie was on tour in Tamil Nadu - but when I mentioned that we were looking for a place to stay he instantly told me to stay with his mother.  So on a frigid dark night the four of us from Lalitpur showed up and were taken in by our sprightly 82 year old host.  And for the next 48 hours she doted on us - along with Arbind and Putul who flitted in and out with good things to eat from their home on the base 2 kms away.

After worshipping with the saints on Sunday morning, and enjoying a meal with aunty, we stepped out into the winter sun to see what is to be seen in Agra...

Sunday afternoon - and that too on Makar Sankranti - the festival of spring - may not be the best time to see the Taj as we found out.  Half of Agra seemed to have taken the same decision we did and the line was almost half a kilometer long.

Turns out that it was the line for Indian men.  The rest had other express lines.  Our ladies wandered off ahead and were soon into the promised land.  I clutched my Indian general ticket - well worth the Rs. 40 - and my adhaar card and brushed off tourist guide after tourist guide who came up and told me that I was in the wrong queue.  That I needed to pay Rs. 1000 and that I would be in through the gates in 5 minutes.  And slowly, at the snail's pace that things take in these latitudes, we inched forward.  The time was well spent talking with Arbind.  After all - the Taj was a backdrop to the joy of being together after so long, and many tales were told (in between the inevitable tour guide or helpful chappy chipping in that I was in the 'wrong line.'

When we finally did get to the gate (not 2 hours as direly told, but a good 45 mins later) we found ourselves walking through the places where the mughals ruled.  The vast Taj complex has walls within walls.

And the gate is itself worthy of coming a far way to see - Mughal architecture at its grandest:

But we were not here for the gate, imposing as it may be.  In we went, drawn by what lay beyond.

In the darkness of the hall we could see something glimmering - but before that apparition, a small scrum of folks were holding up their mobiles to take the treasured shot of the Taj silhouetted by the classical arch (I of course joined in the fun):

And then we were in.  Joining the thousands who had gone before us, we were there out in the winter sun again, and right in front of us was the Taj Mahal itself.

Well now.  You just want to take a shot.  The photographers were buzzing around like flies - but hey - we do have a camera which you can make phone calls with!  So pose time it was - and the two next gen Eichers reluctantly joined the oldies for the obligatory pose.  Ah yes.  Those lovely smiles. Enough to melt Shah Jehan's heart way back in the large mausoleum he built for his 4th wife (and where he was also laid to rest after exiting stage right).

 Now when the old man is not in the picture - then something more natural emerges.  Urvashi and Asha were able to show some pearly whites in front of the best known white building in the world (baring perhaps Rashtrapati Trump-ji's Washington haveli).

We were of course mainly in town to talk with each other - and the Sunday afternoon was mainly spent in conversation between old friends - a family which is very much our own and whom we have seen grow from strength to strength over the years.

But the Taj did have us in her charms.

I was taken by the glimpses of her through the wooded parts of the gardens (something that I don't remember from our previous visit on our honeymoon on a frigid December morning a good 17 years ago).
We ducked into a lovely little museum which was housed in one of the one on the water palaces (Mughal ingenuity had rivulets of water cooling what is an infernally hot place in Summer).  You can hardly believe that it is possible to paint with such precision and such intricate detail - but then you are looking into a Mughal miniature just cms away from your nose and you have to ooh and aah.

The fact that all of this was created by the powerful - and largely for the powerful kept coming back, but today it is the aam admi who is able to wander around and look and click selfies to their hearts' content.  A small victory of sorts in a world where the richest 8 people (read: men) are said to own as much as the poorerst half the world.

But for sheer size and beauty, I still think that whatever its tangled history, this must be pretty much the most beautiful building we can think of.  Just look at her:

Having been inside once already - and not wanting to wait another hour before we can enter into the mausoleum, we enjoyed the Taj from without.

With the sun staring to head down to the horizon, it was time for us to make our way back as well.  But you just can't stop taking shots when you have the Taj around.  You see beauty everwhere"

And even as we left the grounds, there were still folks coming in.  Young and old. Rich and poor.  Local people, and others who have come from around the world.

And the scrum at the entry gate continues, even as we were making our way out into the twilight, there were still more people coming in to see the Taj.

Ah, Taj!  You wonder.

1 comment:

  1. Wah Taj. I was flooded with my visit to Taj , barefoot on the scorched marble, in college days. Thanks for sharing !

    Hah our news feed is filled with Rashtrapati Trump-ji's kaarname from week1. Still life marches on !