The Day Taj Mahal Disappeared
A dark misty breath hovers over the city of Agra on a very cold February morning. People clad in sweaters and jackets come out of their homes, look up at a pale sun, and go about their business. The guy standing at the corner of the street rubs his hands vigorously, warming them.
The picture above is taken from the fourth floor of the hotel—a covered roof-top restaurant—at six in the morning, just before we have our breakfast. We are told that the Taj Mahal can be seen from here on a clear day.
Early morning is undoubtedly the best time to visit the Taj Mahal—it’s the coolest time of the day and there isn’t much crowd so that there is no frustrating queue at the security or when entering the building, and one can take pictures peacefully (and without having a dozen strangers in the background).
The Taj Mahal was a mere three-minute walk from our hotel the first time we visited Agra, almost five years ago. This time the hotel is a ten-minute drive away so that our driver picks us up and drops us off at the parking area, a couple of kilometers away from the Taj Mahal’s gate.
Just next to the parking space is a building where visitors can purchase tickets. They also provide lockers for items not allowed inside the Taj Mahal premises, like video cameras, books, knives, food items, crayons, toffees, and flashlights, among other things.
Outside the ticket building stand a group of cycle rickshaw wallas and horse carriage wallas, offering visitors a ride to the gate. A round-trip costs 200 rupees. “It’s a very reasonable price!” they insist.
“No thanks,” we tell them, “We’ll take that battery-operated vehicle instead.”
“But that won’t leave until it’s full. We’ll take you there now!” they insist.
A few minutes later, as we ponder on the 200 rupees fare of the rickshaw, the guy who operates the vehicle comes up and tells us to climb in. There are just three passengers but off we go, at 10 rupees each!
The battery-operated vehicle drops us off a few meters away from the main gate. The blanket of fog gets thicker by the minute so that we can’t even see the gate as we begin walking towards it.
It’s strange walking towards something you can’t see – it’s like walking in a horror movie, except it’s not scary. It’s also like walking through clouds.
Outside the gate the security guy asks for ID after looking at our tickets. Next, a quick pat-down is done, the lady guard complaining how the weather is so cold this morning. Finally, my bag goes through a scanner.
There’s a wheelchair facility at the Taj Mahal complex. Upon entering the second gate, there’s a little space with a wall lined with lockers. Video cameras aren’t allowed past this gate so that visitors need to leave those here.
There’s a very quiet fellow who’ll keep your ID, have you sign a log book, and store your video equipment in the locker.
Almost the same procedure applies when borrowing a wheelchair: give your ID and sign up in the log book. You’ll then be told to go get a wheelchair from the adjacent room yourself.
See that picture above? That’s the gate where one gets the very first glimpse of the Taj Mahal. For first timers, this is the gate where they hold their breathe for that first view.
Today, there is nothing to see except white haze.
“But where is the Taj Mahal?!” I hear a frustrated young boy ask his father.
As we walk past the garden and fountains towards the Taj Mahal, I hear a guide tell a young married couple, “These symbolizes the four flowing rivers of Jannah, the Paradise…”
That’s when I see a white bird and immediately stop to change lenses. I am still within earshot of the guide so I hear him clearly.
“Over there, that red sandstone building,” he says, pointing to his left, “that’s a masjid. Prayers are still being offered there five times a day.”
The couple struggles to see the red building, squinting their eyes. All they see is a white veil of mist.
“And on the other side,” the guide continues, pointing to his right, “is an identical sandstone building that served no other purpose except to balance the architecture, to create a mirror image.”
The couple struggles again to find the building. I’m sure they have realized at this point how they’ve wasted money over a guide.
Seeing the Taj Mahal for the second time today doesn’t exactly take my breath away like how it did few years ago, and that is expected, but the beautiful architecture and the massive size of the structure still amazes me.
Just like the first time I still run my fingers along the wall, feeling each design, curve, and crevice. When I do that, the people around me—and thankfully there is just a handful of tourists—melt away and all I hear is soft whispers of the past.
I imagine Emperor Shah Jahan’s heartbreak when his own son—the rebellious and puritanical Aurangzeb—chastised and imprisoned him for throwing away so much money on a mausoleum.
He remained a prisoner in the huge Agra Fort for eight years, watching the white silhouette of the Taj Mahal from a small window of his rooms, seeking solace from the poignant beauty of the mausoleum he had built for his favorite wife.
In the photograph above, photographers and guides are losing clients because of the persistent thick fog.
Thing is, the emperor didn’t just build the Taj Mahal during his time. Shah Jahan is reputed as an aesthete par excellence. His contribution includes the black marble pavilion at the Shalimar Gardens in Srinagar and a white marble palace in Ajmer. He built a tomb for his father, Jahangir, in Lahore and the massive Red Fort in Delhi. He also built the Jama Masjid, India’s largest masjid to date.
Obviously, his imagination surpassed all Mughal glory with his most famous project: the Taj Mahal.
We have a train to catch in New Delhi and need to be on our way in an hour. The visit feels hurried, and unlike the first time, I do not have the luxury of time to sit on one of the benches in the garden to admire and soak in the surroundings.
Besides, Masood’s mom is with us. She is the main reason why we’re visiting the Taj Mahal. It’s her first time and all, but we all know how moms make a fuss of the time. Tell them once that the train leaves at ten in the morning and they’ll start getting restless by seven.
The Taj is more a vision
Of beauty than a firm reality –
A dream in palpable and solid marble –
A thought, a sentiment of tenderness,
A sigh of an engrossing mortal love,
Caught and imbued with such eternity
As the foundations of the earth can give!