April 12, 2016
Former United States President William Jefferson Clinton after visiting the Taj Mahal in the year 2000 had exclaimed that there are two kinds of people in the world: "Those who have seen the Taj and love it and those who have not seen the Taj and love it." I am afraid, subject to Hillary Rodham being trumped by Donald (the American state of affairsat the time of writing), when the former pays a visit to India as the US President and makes a stopover at the Taj Mahal along with better-half Mr Clinton as the first Gentleman of USA, Bill would alter his earlier statement saying the world could now be divided into three parts: "Those who were lucky to see the Taj Mahal more than once, those who have seen it once and those who have not made it at all." Before that could happen, I had the fortune of rejoicing in the splendour of the Taj the second time, the first time as a bachelor and in the second instance with my family. This piece of writing is all about the experiences of my first visit undertaken over thirty years ago vis-a-vis to the one at the end of year 2015.
All roads from Agra in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh lead to the Taj!
Thirty Years ago…
I was in College pursuing my second year Bachelors of Commerce (BCom) degree. Around August 1985, our Hindi lecturer Gopal Rao came up with a concept of arranging a North Indian Tour for our class.
It was during the Dussehra holidays of October 1985 that we embarked on this journey of visiting North India that covered Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh and Delhi but excluded Kashmir at the last minute due to the prevailing security situation there then. The journey by train was two-fold: Mangaluru to Meerut in Uttar Pradesh by metre gauge and a change of train at Meerut that ran on broad gauge to Nizamuddin, near Delhi.
On the fifth day of our seven day tour, the day to travel to Agra to see the Taj had dawned.
We, the twenty-three of us were put up at the YHAI (Youth Hostels Association of India), Nyaya Marg in Chanakyapuri in New Delhi. On that chilly morning once our bus passed Delhi enroute to Agra heading to the Taj, with nothing much to see on either side of the road. From outer Delhi, barren land with brownish-red mud stretching miles and miles with a few hutments dotting the landscape was the overall view. Hundreds of colourful clothes and linensof different sizes put out for drying in the sun that swayed from equally colourful ropes made up the rest of the sight all the way to over 200 kms journey to the Taj, but for which our journey would have been less colourful. As we neared the Taj, we came across a few shops and small roadside restaurants. As the bus moved on the hassle free roads with an average speed, I for one was fervently hoping against hope that I might get a glimpse of the Taj, at least the tip of its domes/minarets from some direction so that I could let out an exciting yell, which remained only a wish. Later I learnt, apart from a few viewing points and vantage locations of selected hotels the magnificent edifice could not be noticed from any angle in the town.
After nearly 4 hours of travelling south of Delhi reaching our destination, our bus dropped us right in front of the huge red sandstone main gateway of the Taj, the white marble edifice still obscured from our view. It was a Friday and entry was free and thus a bit crowded as well. It is still a suspense until we pass at least three-fourth of the Main Gateway when finally the white marble structure slowly begins to reveal itself from the opposite side through the Gateway Arch. Walking through the red sandstone structure without any security check, my heart skipped a beat of the beauty that was about to unfold, of the embodiment of love - the Taj Mahal! It was a very special moment for all of us, young boys, when it finally unveiled in front of our eyes.
My first visit to the Taj Mahal in October 1985 was full of 'Kodak Moments'
Shabbily dressed men both outside and inside the Taj premises with a carton full of colourful Kodak camera rolls suspended by a strand from their necks appeared from nowhere selling them to prospective customers enabling them to capture the 'Kodak Moment'. Digital era had not yet set in!
It was a beautiful monument of love that in reality was much larger than I thought; hitherto I had only heard of, read about, watched advertisements in print/television and picturised in movies. And here I was, right in front of it, sensing its beauty, feeling its texture and exclaiming its awe and wonder. The stone design within the stone was simply breathtaking. I stood there transfixed as I let the moment sink in. The visit to the Taj covering a few structures on either side was a beauty words could not express.
However, I also remember this visit to the Taj for a reason other than being an embodiment of love. Rewinding - visiting old Delhi, the same evening of the first day of our tour, we went on a purchase spree since the products up for grabs there were known to be comparatively cheaper than elsewhere in India. I for one went berserk buying a variety of shoes including a pair of my favourite brand 'Nike'. Travelling to visit the Taj - What could have been better than wearing the cute white 'Nike' athletic shoes with that distinct logo studded in black for this momentous trip?
I also remember my first visit to the Taj for reasons other than it being an 'embodiment of love'!
Once in, walking past the reflecting pool and getting to the opposite side and before entering the gigantic edifice, we left our footwear at the broad enclosure beneath a couple of steps and had to go bare feet as by doing so the marble floors would be protected from getting dirty. Thence, we had a tour of the wonderful structure, taking some breathtaking pictures from different viewpoints, having a look and feel of the main chambers that housed the dummy tombs of Mumtaz Mahal and Shah Jahan and after a good couple of hours it was time, to pay a visit to the nearby Agra Fort, Fatehpur Sikri and then back to our accommodation in New Delhi. What was a beautiful day turned sour when I discovered my brand new ‘Nike’ shoes had disappeared! Returning to the place where we left our footwear, they were nowhere to be seen in the lot… it was so obvious they were stolen. Crestfallen, I thought of putting someone else's and simply walking away but my conscious did not allow me to and thus it was my misfortune of being barefoot for the rest of the day. What an uncomfortable feeling!
But for this, the good memories of the Taj remained and got refreshed with my second visit in December 2015.
Three Decades Later …
My second visit to the Taj was an 'all family affair'
At the end of December 2015, we flew from Bengaluru to New Delhi and that was my third visit to the Indian capital. Flying from Bengaluru is much cheaper as compared to flying from Mangaluru as Bengaluru provides low budget airline options and flexibility of timings. Onward, we took Air Asia flight and returned by Indigo Airlines.
Our driver from Himachal Pradesh who sported a Veerappan type moustache picked us up from our hotel in Daryaganj. The journey from New Delhi to Agra on our way to see the Taj was a marked contrast to my previous visit. Outer Delhi has majestically developed. The miles of barren muddy land that made up the landscape after outer Delhi has disappeared. Colourful washed clothes and linens that were put to dry and were seen swaying were a thing of the past as most of the area was crammed with buildings on either side, quite close to the road. After a smooth 165 km two-hour journey to Agra from Delhi through the six-lane Yamuna Expressway, we came across a few hurdles to reach the Taj Mahal thence. With long traffic jams, it took another two hours to reach the Monument after we entered the city getting into a single carriageway. Our guide Ashgar Ali boarded our 14 seater in downtown Agra about a km away from the Taj. Entry right upto the Main red-stone-huge gateway of the Taj did no longer exist. A road had been built for over half a kilometre with another Arch Entrance that connected to the main road from where one could walk, ride a camel/horse or hop into one of those golf cars for a price to cover the short ride to the Gateway.
Entry to the Taj was a two-tier pricing system, with a significantly lower entrance fee for Indian citizens and a more expensive one for foreigners. The adult tariff for foreigners was Rs 750 and for Indian citizens Rs 20 and children aged 15 and below were free under both categories. We came under the foreign bracket as we are citizens of Australia. Our guide took us through the VIP Gate and thus we were quick to get into the main grounds. While getting in from here, a sense of feeling enveloped me that I might have placed my foot over the footsteps of the greats who had visited Taj before. Unlike my previous visit where there was no manned security and body scanning, we had to undergo an intense security this time passing through the security arch and getting patted down. Only a few specific items were allowed to be carried in. A bottle of mineral water and shoe covers were provided for free.
The colour of the translucent marble keeps on changing as the intensity of the sun varies
Photographers with digital cameras swamped and we had one booked asmany vantage points to capture pictures of the Taj were their exclusive property. A few photos in different angles were taken, printed and a CD was provided before we departed. Our smart phones captured the rest.
Old deep-rooted memories good or bad never die. I intensely looked at the very spot, I had left my pair of 'Nike' shoes over 30 years ago and reminisced its disappearance for I had hardly walked with it. I once again forgave the individual who stole it. I have no malice towards the one who had taken them - hopefully he/shewould have fed his/her family for a few days after selling the shoes or he/she might have enjoyed wearing those, which could be beyond his/her means! Whether that person being a local was still loitering around the vicinity crossed my mind. It was wishful thinking! Times have changed for the better though, with these days you have to merely place a shoe cover on your shoes or you can place your shoes in the pigeon holes for a fee which was looked after and off you go to see the Mausoleum without any worry.
The Taj looks faded having turned a bit creamish from what it appeared 30 years ago. I did see cracks, the marble plaster outin some places and a few holes on the World Heritage Building. On the brighter side, it has a much needed rest on Fridays where the viewing is closed for the public with the complex being open only for prayers at the mosque for 4 hours in the noon. The main chamber houses the false sarcophagi of Mumtaz Mahal and Shah Jahan; the actual graves are at a lower level. People went crazy as they entered this tiny dark space, circling it and simultaneously letting out a hoot that generated into a short echo as if to arouse the royals buried below. Out of the four minarets that balance the platform, one each on either side was being treated to restore its original colour as a special plaster was being applied to the surface and then carefully removed in a systematic manner so that the paste drew off the discolouration thus emanating the original marble glow. The other two minarets had already gone through the process and were glittering to the core.
Oh Taj! Truly you are an embodiment of love,
And you are indeedfull of splendour and wow!
To the commissioner, architects and artisans - I humbly bow
Honoured am I, to visit you twice somehow!
In over thirty years – the 42-acre magnificent complex which includes a mosque and a guest house, with the tomb as the centrepiece set by formal gardens bounded on three sides by a crenellated wall have endured, though the Taj and the surrounding edifices have lost a bit of sheen. Pollution has increased as trees have been cut to make way for new roads. The trees that protected the city from the worst effects of regular dust storms now blow over the Taj unimpeded. The areas surrounding the Taj Mahal has undergone a massive changeover as the 363 yearold marble Mausoleum draws about 7-8 million visitors annually from within the country and overseas, from the common man to the elite.
I am glad this 'Architectural Marvel' was built in an era where the Emperors/Kings were the undisputed rulers and no one dared to question their decisions. Mogul Emperor Shah Jahan, who was grief-stricken by the death of his wife Mumtaz Mahal in childbirth, could commission this without any interference. If it were for today’s so called democratic model, there would be a hue and cry and the Venture of such a nature would have never seen the light of the day. We are indebted to Emperor Shah Jahan for his decision to build the Monument and gratified that it has captured the contemporary world’s skyline and universally accepted as the most beautiful and perfect structure. He would not have had a cue what this Memorial has meant to the second largest country on this Planet in terms of population and what a crowd puller it has been! He wanted it to be a place of peace and tranquillity, but the 17th century monument sees an influx of nearly 12,000 visitors a day.
When I first visited the Taj in 1985, I was more or less certain that I would come here again during my lifetime… and whenever that would be, had a desire to bask in the glory of full moonlight where the real splendour lies and that wish is yet to be fulfilled. My first trip to see the ‘the Crown of Palaces’ was by a combination of rail and road, second trip was by air and road and the next one perhaps could be totally by air - by flight to an airport near the Marble Mausoleum with helicopters taking off from there for an aerial night view in crystal moonlight with the sprawling Complex housing a helipad. Continuing with that experience, I dream to check-in into a high-tower hotel that provides a glimpse of the Taj from our hotel window 24 hours of the day and dine in the hotel’s revolving restaurant getting a 360 degree Taj view. That would be a dream come true! Meanwhile, I am content that I have made it twice to the world's most spectacular monument that epitomizes love at par!
The reflection of the 'most beautiful resting place' bifurcating the sun-glasses of Emily Haw
My sister-in-law Sunitha D’Silva and her family based in Bengaluru accompanied us for this trip and we caught up with our friends Valerian/Karen Menezes and family based in Melbourne in New Delhi. Our other Melburnian friends Emily Haw and Jennifer Cain could not accompany us to the Taj as planned since they got delayed and were held up in Rajasthan.
I will leave you with the pictures of the Taj and its Complex – 'One of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World' that have been compiled from three areas – from our visit, from our friends' visit the same time as ours and from the visit of another good friend Vicki Mitanis sometime ago.
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