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!
Fell in love with this post… I’ve seen Taj Mahal exactly like this and also on a clear day. Beautiful:)
Ishita, had this been my first time to see the Taj Mahal I’d been heartbroken! Imagine coming all the way to see this wonder of the world only to have the fog cover it all up.
However, for people who have already seen the monument on a clear day, the fog gives it a very different and interesting perspective.
oh honestly i was shocked when i read the heading … Taj Mahal disappeared?? that was really shocking.. I think the battery operated vehicle seemed much affordable and comfortable ride than rickshaws and victorias. lovedddddd the pictures; esp their editting.. the fog looks more mysterious and romantic and the picture combinations are superb.
Hehe, I suppose that was the intention of the title 😉
Most Western tourists, I noticed, preferred the horse-drawn carriage though. Maybe it gives them the feeling of the old India.
Thank you so much for the compliments! It wasn’t easy to photograph the fog and make it look pretty.
Beautiful post! Incidentally, I’m in Agra today and heading to see the Taj for the sixth time!
Thank you, TK. Sixth time?! Wow. Have fun!
So it’s not only Dubai that was enveloped by fog! Nice post Nadia, I invite you to submit this post to be included in the 2nd edition of the blog carnival I am hosting (to be published on Thursday). Please submit it here: http://blogcarnival.com/bc/submit_16781.html
Hi Grace! Would love to share this post on the blog carnival. Thank you!
i love your foggy photography! Its nice to visit places we have already seen in different settings… How lovely and romantic 🙂
Thank you, Stranger!
Lovely and romantic for tourists like us who were visiting again. But cold and frustrating for first timers – specially those who traveled from the other side of the world and are on a tight schedule so that they can’t even wait for the fog to lift.
You have your new blog up!!! I’m heading over to visit now 🙂
What a nice day to choose to visit the Taj Mahal !!! i love the tittle ” The day Taj Mahal disappeared” n those photograph … they simply awesome … after reading ur post feel like visiting it again. Beautiful !! By the way – where are u heading to ?
Thank you so much, Sharmila! I’m told that January and the first two weeks of February are the “foggy” days in Agra. Don’t visit during this time if it’s your first time though – you won’t be able to appreciate the architecture completely.
We’re currently in Hyderabad enjoying biryani, Irani chai, and Osmania biscuits!
Actually i have been to Agra many times and seen “The” beautiful TajMahal many times too …. visited in April and May. Well … well …. enjoy ur biryani and the chai and the biscuits …. btw Osmania biscuits – what’s so special about it?
Enjoy ur food n stay 🙂
Hi Sharmila! Thank you so much 🙂
Osmania biscuits are soft and milky, and they go so well with chai!
So so sooo beautiful with the fog! Gorgeous!
Oh, it is, ‘liya! It’s like a dream.
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.”
too bad there’s not much can be seen in that thick fog. else it would have been a very beatutiful place. did you find a zombie anywhere there? lol. sorry. it’s just that in the american movies we always see zombies coming out from the fog and scaring people away.
anyway, you did a great job with your camera. you transformed the whitish mood into something cozy and peaceful. I like the last picture best!
p/s: please convey my salams to dear Masood and his mother. I pray everything will go as planned with the operation.
Take care sis!
Haha, sorry to disappoint you, Atie, but there weren’t any zombies around 😉
The last picture is my favorite! It’s the sort of visual that you see in your dreams. That was how I felt while walking though the mist. It felt so surreal. Good thing there are cameras now so that I can look at these pictures and refresh the beautiful memories.
The surgery won’t push through as planned – issues with hypertension as well as swollen knees. We’re asked to wait for a few more months.
Your salaam has been conveyed 🙂
oh, this is a beautiful and excellent post, Nadia – the narrative, the images and the mood. here dear, you are an artist, no arguments. 🙂
enjoy India – the romantic, the pedestrian and the yes, even the grisly part of it. all the best, always… 🙂
Thank you so much, ‘San! You are always too kind and generous with your comments 🙂
I knew it – the fog is the reason why Taj Mahal disappeared! Hehe. Honestly though, i love the pics! It’s the first set of Taj Mahal photos i’ve seen on a foggy day. I wouldn’t mind going there on a foggy day as long as i’m with a special someone teehee
Hi Mica! If it’s your first time, you must visit on a cool, clear morning (whether you’re with that special someone or not) because Taj Mahal’s architecture is what makes it the wonder of the world.