Monday, January 14, 2008

Adventures at Taj Mahal

The Taj Mahal was one of the last places I visited in India. Before taking this trip, it was the only image that I associated with India, probably because all the tourist ads use it. After being in India for a couple of weeks I realized that the Taj is quite extraordinary, even in the context of India.

We decided to start the day early by watching the sunrise at the Taj. When we got to the gate, we found out that entrance fee was 20 rs for Indians, and 750 rs for foreigners. We asked if we could step out to have breakfast after seeing the sunrise, then go back in and explore some more. We were told that we could perhaps step out for a chai, but definitely not long enough for breakfast. How the guards would be able to calculate the time difference between our having a chai and a full breakfast, I was not sure. Gut feeling said skipping breakfast would not be good, so we decided to be different from the everyday Taj Mahal tourist and try to see the Taj sunrise from outside Taj Mahal.

Taj Mahal and it's gardens is encased by a stone wall with huge gates. We walked along the Eastern wall on our quest for an unusual view of the Taj sunrise. There was no one on the road. All the tourists were inside the wall, catching the regular (but probably quite spectacular) Taj sunrise and probably being hungry. Along the way we saw a colony of monkeys having breakfast on the side of the road. They paid little attention to us walking by. At the end of the road was the Yamuna river where we were greeted by two guards with rifles. There was a small lawn behind Taj Mahal, fenced in by barbed wire.

It was cold and foggy this morning. There was a thick fog rolling just above the river at a slightly faster rate than the river itself. A boat man was on the river, slowly pushing his boat from shore with a pole. I attempted to use the video function on the camera to pan the river and the Taj, but the zoom was frozen by the cold, and I got only partial view.

It suddenly dawned on us that in order to see the Taj Mahl against the sunrise, we needed to be on the West side of the Taj Mahal. We saw a narrow path along the river that would lead us directly to where we want to go. However, the guards informed us we were not allowed to take this path. So instead of getting to our desired vantage point in two minutes via the direct path, we had to go back the way we came, walk by the monkeys who had since finished their breakfast and began their morning exercises, go all the way around the enclosed Taj grounds through various neighborhoods, accidentally walking into people's driveways, running into some parked camels, a few cows, a menacing dog, etc. Finally a man brushing his teeth outside his house saw how lost we were, and without our asking, pointed us in the right direction. After more twists and turns, and almost being run down by four galloping camels, we finally got on the road along the West wall of the Taj Mahal. A man came by and asked us if we wanted to see the best view of the sun rising on the Taj Mahal. Indeed, this is what we were looking for! But experience told us to show only mild interest. He said he would willing to show us the way for 400 rs. Ah, beyond our budget, we told him, but took note of the side path he pointed to as we continued walking North toward the river.

On the side of the road was a middle aged business man in a long fancy wool coat, feeding some buttered toast to an extremely emaciated stray dog. The ribs on this dog looked like they were about to come out of his skin, but he was looking extremely happy to be receiving such a feast. As we got closer, the man saw us, looked embarrassed, and walked away from the dog who was busy finishing his toast. I didn't understand why the man should feel embarrassed. I never quite figured out the relationship between Indian people and their dogs. It's clear dogs are not considered holy like cows. Nor do they seem to be considered dear pets or best friends of humans like they are here in the US. In my 20 days there, I only saw one child playing with a dog. The rest of the time, there seemed to be very little interaction between humans and dogs. But there were many dogs running around, so someone must feed them.

The wall around the Taj Mahal is impressive, built with red stone. I tried many times to photograph it using different angles to show its grandeur, but somehow in pictures it looked quite flat and ordinary. Finally I found a good angle that included a gate, but it did not show just how big those red stone slabs were. What I needed was for someone to walk through that gate, I thought, as I looked through the view finder of the camera. Just then, another dog showed up at the gate. I yelled out, Hold it! Wait! Stop right there! Let me take this picture! Much to my delight, the dog granted my request.

We got to the river, where we saw the Taj against the sunrise. There is something very quieting about watching the glow of the sun rise behind a huge white marble mausoleum. A man stood by the river, praying and making offerings to the river. In the river there was a wreath of marigolds, someone else's prayers and hopes perhaps. After taking some photos, we decided to go back and explore the 400 rs view. The man who offered to guide us was no longer around, but we took the path he pointed to, which led us to a garden. Here I was chided by my companions for my third missed Pentax moment of the trip, a camera shy peacock strolling through the rose gardens next to the Taj Mahal. But I'm sure the image of it in your mind right now is far better than anything I would have taken.

Some steps along the West wall of the rose garden led us to a nursery, with rows of hedges and flowers. The guard there came by and told us these flowers and hedges were grown for the beautifully manicured garden grounds around the Taj Mahal. So in the end we got quite a few special views of the Taj sunrise.

After breakfast, we went inside the gate.

By now it was very crowded. There were three or four rows of photographers and videographers, amateurs as well as professionals judging from the wide array of imaging equipment, all crowded just in front of the long pond in front of the Taj Mahal. On their faces were frozen expressions of eagerness and of wonder as they fixed their gazes and their lenses upon the superstar of monuments, speaking in hushed tones. It was odd, almost as if they were afraid to disturb their subject. Within a few moments, the professionals started to pack up their equipment, and the crowd started to dissipate. The fountains in the pond had been turned on, no more reflection.

Oy, I thought to myself, the fourth missed Pentax moment.

One of the reasons the splendor of Taj Mahal is so much more impressive in person is because it is huge, much bigger than pictures can show. In order to take a photo of the entire structure, you have to be standing very far away. If you're standing close enough to be seeing the details, you can only take one small section of it in the photo and no one can tell where you are. When I see a picture of people standing at the Taj, I can't help but measure the size of the body compared to the size of the monument built to commemorate its passing.

According to the story, Shah Jahan's beautiful wife Mumtaz Mahal died giving birth to their child, and this was his way of remembering her. They are both buried inside this mausoleum. On the entrance of the tomb there is huge thuluth script quoting passages from the Qur'an. It has not faded in hundreds of years because it is depicted with stone inlay. The flowers carved onto the marble panels look quite familiar to me, like tulips, daffodils, and inside the tomb more tulips and iris. But the stalk and leaves of the plants don't really match the flowers I know, so I'm not sure what these flowers are and why they accompany Mumtaz. Most sources about these carvings just say, plant motif.

Inside the tomb it was crowded with tourists and very dark, so I could not see too much of the details or colors of the carvings. In the center is Mumtaz. I wondered how she would feel if she knew that everyday people from all over the world would be visiting her grave? Next to her is Shah Jahan who died many years later. Scholars talk about Shah Jahan's obsession with symmetry in the building of Taj Mahal. I wondered if he would be upset by the fact that his grave throws this symmetry off? At the end of his life Shah Jahan was imprisoned by his son in the Agra Fort where it is said he had a view of the Taj.

On a sunny day the reflection from the white marble outside can be blinding. Much thought has been given into how to preserve the white. The city is trying to reduce air pollution by limiting factories around the Taj, and by having special fuel efficient auto rickshaws. Visitors to the mausoleum are asked to either remove their shoes, or put on white paper shoe coverings. An hour at the Taj can give you an impressive tan with all the reflective surfaces. Of course, wearing a bikini to a mausoleum is probably out of the question. It is very soothing and peaceful to sit on the white marble floor and watch the 10 or 12 hawk like birds play flying games around the big dome and it's towers. I can't imagine that they were there to feed on anything living on the white slippery marble domes. They would all fly up at once and go round and round the big dome, then rest again. Maybe the contour of the domes create amusement park like air currents.

Our visit to the Taj ended with my fifth and last missed Pentax moment of the trip, a monkey chase on the white marble grounds of the mausoleum. This looked more like a life or death chase than fun and games. Both monkeys were very red with their fur all standing on end, teeth flaring. I never knew monkeys could run so fast. They covered the length of the white marble grounds and disappeared into the garden before I could pull out the camera.

1 comment:

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