The Taj appeared just off the left side of our bus in a misty white fog. It’s elegant profile elusive against a backdrop of the palest grey and almost–but not quite –inside a cloud of fog. We stopped in the left lane of the Highway (India) so our group could soak her in. The traffic fell away, ennui of a four-hour bus ride gone. I’ve waited 42 years, 11 months and four hours to set my gaze on this glorious form. And she is everything.. A few happy moments later, consciousness settles back in and I again hear the bleating horns of traffic and chaos. We will go to the hotel first and “take our lunch” and then set out for the Taj Mahal. Patience is my friend. We gather back on the bus at 4 pm. Our instructions are laid out before us:
- Bring a raincoat. (It’s raining but it matters not. This is the Taj)
- Do not bring any purses / bags (Bag check slows down the line)
- Bundle up. (It’s cold)
- Bring a small amount of money (You might want a very cheap souvenir)
- You will be asked to put on shoe covers once you ascend the platform (Get excited about shoe covers)
- Food, candy, chewing gum are not allowed (Silly, hungry Americans)
- Do not engage the street sellers (Sam is probably still waiting for me to come back and buy a magnet)
- No photographs in the tomb (Yeah, right, that happens)
- You can take the fast track VIP line to enter the tomb. (“But how will they know we are VIPs?” I ask as she took back our tickets. She just looked at me. Oh, right. We’re not from India.)
- Watch out for the pickpockets (Well she was right about that!)
- Let the Taj speak to you. She will push you away when you walk up to her, and lure you back when you walk backwards. (What? Is this a way to make fun of gullible Americans ? Talking art? I may try it this India on as I go back today but yesterday I wasn’t buying it.)
Earlier this week our guide told us that India has more rules than most countries. Based on the Taj code of conduct, I guess it comes from somewhere. We move in the parking lot from our cozy coach (with a restroom-important) to a little green metal bus ca. 1970. It has a name—I’ll ask her today. Sam and all of his entrepreneurial friends crowd around the bus opening our windows and pushing merchandise inside. A few poor souls make eye contact and it’s all downhill from there. George rocks the back of the bus jokingly and I’m sure a riot is about to break out.
Finally Sweet Praveen does return with our tickets and we are off in our little green van. Next we are at the entrance of the South Gate. Men in one line, women in another. But what if…?
We are scanned and wanded and bags are put though the conveyer belt (this is a common practice at every hotel and monument we’ve visited—India has the poorest of the poor but the infrastructure to protect the tightest boundaries). A place of contrasts. Inside the gate (a photograph of the lock is on Facebook) we are still out of view. Praveen runs down the list of rules again and sets us loose to wander and to wonder, to dance with the alluring Taj, to take pictures, to be a VIP in the tomb only to be swept into a sea of what I felt was certainly potential for a non-VIP stampede. We walk through the South Gate and it’s hard not to stand transfixed. But we have to. Amid this sea of India coming to see her. We are there. Sarcasm aside, I was wrong to judge Praveen’s museum education methodology. The Taj absolutely speaks to you. She calls on first sight. “Talk to me”, she says. “Among these masses I am lonely”. And then it is just you and the Taj. It is definitely an architectural hazard. This magnetic work of architectural force will hypnotize you. Be prepared, but you can still never know. You won’t know you are cold or wet or jet lagged. You won’t know the water is leaking into your cowboy boot…until much much later. This Taj Mahal will take you under her spell.
At the first set of stairs going down it’s a madhouse. Everyone is jockeying for the best spot for their portrait with this Queen of India. Strangely, you can’t go to the base of the path of water to take a photograph of the reflection—I guess this is some attempt at crowd control. Guards blow piercing whistles every 15 seconds at some innocent person entranced and unaware of place or time. It happens over and over again. We walk down the left side of the expertly and perfectly symmetrical Mughal gardens (16 squares in the four quadrants of beautifully landscaped native Indian flora). Praveen takes us on a short-cut. This woman speaks Taj. We see the first smaller cemetery where Mumtaz Mahal was laid to rest while the tomb was constructed (it took twenty-two years and 22,000 people). Her husband, Mughal emperor Shah Jahan fulfilled a promise he made to her to construct a tomb in her honor following her untimely death delivering their 14th child. She was his third and most beloved wife. A second tomb was designed for the Shah. It was to be made of black stone and placed on the other side of the Yamuna River. The tombs were planned to be linked by a silver bridge. Following her death, the Shah’s son betrayed his father, the Shah was placed under house arrest and looked longingly at the tomb for eight years before he died. He is buried not to plan next to her in the center of the tomb. This tomb is a letter to love. It is the jewel of India. It is perfect in its ability to draw the breath in awe. This UNESCO World Heritage Site happened because of love. And now we pilgrims of love and light flock here to take in this vision and experience this love for ourselves. What are the other great love letters in the world? This tomb was built as a place where an earthly paradise and a heavenly paradise conjoin. And it is. Until I get to the staircase.
I pull my shoe covers over my very cool Cowboy Boots and climb 22 stairs to mirror the number of years it took to build. (How did they know how long it was going to take?) This view from the top of the platform overwhelms. I want to stop but again, the frenzy of the pilgrims around me and the whistles of the guards pull me from her draw. But, wait, I am a VIP, dammit. Be a VIP. I ignore the rushing lines and just take it all in with my beloved friend and Guru-ji Caron Smith. We hug each other tightly (carefree of the looks) and know this moment is our moment. We study the lace-like carving and we take a lot of pictures (See Facebook)
We boldly step over the first threshold into the outer corridor of the tomb. I watch her—no falling today at the Taj, please. It’s treacherous going from light to dark, slippery marble thresholds, shoe covers, people with no need for personal space. Maybe by watching over Caron I am somehow keeping myself from falling. Then the whistles. Piercing whistles ricocheting against only marble. I wince and think of Caron with her hearing aids.
Inside, we are now chattle. We are not moving fast enough. But I want to see! I want to see the inside of this pearl. I get angry—who can whistle and yell at Sweet Dr. Caron Smith for not moving fast enough!! Totally ridiculous. These guys could learn a thing or two about crowd control. I breathe. Imagine how my father really couldn’t be here. I make sure I see Caron and I walk cautiously around the circle of the tomb. The marble! The highly carved ornamental partition around the two graves is polished beyond imagination. It casts a pearlescent glow. It took twelve years to create as the great structure rose around it. It looks like icing. Remember we are cows, now, not well-intentioned Art Historians passionate about India, are whistled at again and pushed along.
You can’t enter this part of the tomb at the same time you exit (India)—so we are pushed together until the entire circular path fills up and then they switch the entrance to an exit and we will be allowed to pour out. I find my breath. I keep an eye on Caron hoping she sees (and remembers the four inch threshold). I put a virtual forcefield around my pockets. This is not fun. But it’s the Taj. It’s raining at the Taj and I don’t care. Give me full on stampede potential and I’m pretty much ready to get out. Finally it happens. Whistles signal. We move. We push and I remember not to be the compassionate friendly Texan I am but not every part of my 5’10” with cowboy boots and push my way out.
Outside is better. Re-centered we study more inlay, more sculptural carving on the outer walls of the tomb. We enjoy the other visitors (now more than 1 inch away from us so we can see them). We take lots of photographs. It is lovely again. I am grateful to be here in this long awaited, much anticipated place. Nothing else matters. We take our time. I notice none of the Indians have umbrellas. What do they do in monsoons? I guess an umbrella isn’t really much use in a monsoon. As I look at my umbrella: a fancy Dry-Bar giveaway that is probably made for 1 or 2 time use, I think –well not having an umbrella is certainly simpler!
Just as we were leaving, Caron noticed the light change. I love her for this. Yes. The setting sun fills up every droplet of water in this blanket of fog and for just a moment the air is lit in a new way—changing this pearl to the palest of pink. The difference in just five minutes time is astonishing. It wasn’t the sunset I dreamed of at the Taj Mahal. It was better: so alluring, mysterious and only for those looking very very closely. It was only for those listening.
I leave you with this poem by Emily Dickinson—she could have written this at the Taj, but like so many mysteries we will never really know:1053
It was a quiet way
It was a quiet way
He asked if I was his-
I made no answer of the Tongue
But answer of the Eyes
And then He bore me on
Before this mortal noise
With swiftness, as of Chariots
And distance, as of Wheels.
This World did drop away
As Acres from the feet
Of one that leaneth from Balloon
Upon an Ether street.
The Gulf behind was not,
The Continents were new-
Eternity it was before
Eternity was due.
No Seasons were to us
It was not Night nor Morn
But Sunrise stopped upon the place
And fastened it in Dawn.
Today, we scale the Red Fort in Agra. I will be with the Taj again this afternoon. Now, she waits for me.
From the place that Love built,