If you’ve ever lived near a world-famous tourist destination, then perhaps you can understand how I feel about the Taj Mahal.
On the one hand, it’s one of my favorite places ever; on the other, it was something of a chore. It was a Sight Not To Be Missed and so we never did – over and over and over again. I must have paid my respects to the long dead emperor and his empress at least a dozen times before my father tactfully began booking tour guides for any out-of-towner guest we had staying with us, which was all the time.
But that came much, much later when I was a teenager and my father had finally surrendered heart and soul to his workaholic genes. In the beginning, things were different:
I couldn’t have been more than four or five years old when Ma and Daddy took me to see the Taj for the first time. Our family had just moved back to Delhi and my parents had always adored it. What I remember of that outing is not so much the building, but the build up to it.
I didn’t know what a ‘Taj’ was and frankly, I didn’t really care. What I did know was that I loved a road trip and when you travel with my parents, a trip to the supermarket is a major occasion that requires all sorts of preparation, so the proposed journey to the Taj, situated hours away in Agra, was deeply thrilling.
This was our routine:
The day before the scheduled visit (we never made/make “long distance” spontaneous trips – I don’t think my dad’s nervous system can handle it), my mother would start telling us what to eat and what not to eat. She didn’t want any car sickness or runny tummies on the trip, thank you very much.
Then she’d tell us when to go to bed. Which was anytime after seven o’clock. When we’d protest, she’d roll her eyes expressively and say, “We have to get up early tomorrow so we can be on time!”
This was true. Unless we wanted our father to die of aggravation we’d have to be out of the house by seven in the morning. Ostensibly, this was so that we could beat the heat. But in retrospect, I seem to remember that we never deviated from this schedule even in the dead of winter so I have my doubts.
Of course, when the time came, Ma would be lolling in bed the same as us while my dad ran around like a chicken with its head off yelling at us to get dressed stat, but that’s another story.
We’d have just enough time to brush our teeth, maybe jump into the shower, swallow a couple of sips of tea/milk and then be on our way. We’d (Ma, my brother and I) always forget something or the other and that would provide my father with much satisfaction.
He NEVER forgot anything. No matter what, he’d take his two bottles of water (one hot, one cold, both filtered then boiled), his wallet, his reading glasses, a newspaper to hand to my mother in case the sun got too hot, etc.
Our inferiority in the planning department thus established, we’d stop at this restaurant on the way for breakfast. I can’t remember the name of it but it served some of the best soft scrambled eggs ever. We always stopped there. Always. My dad had been stopping there since the day he first went to the Taj in the 1950s. Eggs eaten early in the morning always make me sick, but those never did.
Finally, a couple of hours later, we’d reach the big sandstone edifice that guards the first glimpse of the Taj.
They say you never forget your first glimpse of it. I must be the exception because I really can’t remember anything about it. What comes to my mind when I think of the Taj are other things: memories gathered through the years of my childhood.
The feel of the marble blistering my feet in the heat of the summer; the smell of the incense wafting up from that mysterious underground crypt that I was always too chicken to enter; the smooth time worn edges of vicious gouges made by desperately greedy knives.
The glittering white of the marble under a wintry noonday sun; the sound of my bare feet slap-slap-slapping against the floor; twirling round and round inside the main chamber until I fell down dizzy, then watching the room flow around me like magic until my scandalized mother rushed over, pulled me up and spanked me for the twin crimes of drawing attention to myself and lying down on the ‘dirty floor where God only knows how many feet have trampled today’.
My mom can be such a downer.
Then there’s the fort at Fatehpur Sikri: my father telling me the story of its birth; the tour of Shahjehan’s relatively tiny, claustrophobic bedroom; resting my little elbow in a darkened hollow patch on the window sill, which, legend has it, was worn there by the emperor’s own elbow as he stared out at the magnificent tomb of his wife.
The scary kung-foo monkeys that roamed with complete impunity over the fort, aiming karate kicks at offending tourists; an uncle jumping some three feet into the air and to side to escape a vicious monkey kick; carefully touristy pictures shot with cringe-inducing 80s hair and attendant unfortunate fashion. And of course, gorging myself on freshly made angoori pedas – I’m glad I never got to see them actually make the stuff.
Things have changed. I hate to be one of those people who sit around and say, “Well, back in my day…” but it’s hard not to when I think of the last time I went there, which must have been about eight years ago.
The crowd was about fifty times larger than I remembered – and given that I was there in the middle of summer, that really took me by surprise. But that’s not a bad thing in and of itself. The Taj deserves every one of those visitors. It belongs to all of us, not just Indians but people around the world. A vision such as that can never be completely owned by one entity, we can at best be its guardians.
But the tragedy is that, like with all other great institutions in India, the people in charge of the Taj seemed to have no idea what to do with it.
Outside the ticket counter, the lines stretched on and on with people just milling about for the most part. Every so often some guy would walk up and mutter something about how he had a ticket to sell and maybe we should buy it because the line was sure to move at a snail’s pace and we might just be standing there for the next few hours.
There were separate lines for Indians and non-Indians (read white folks) and the non-Indians had to pay through their nose to get in. While I understand the logic of the exchange rate, I have to wonder how an Indian would react if he went to, say, Disneyworld and was told he’d have to pay roughly five times more than the Americans. There’s also the fact that a lot of the western tourists in India are of the backpacker variety rather than the affluent repeat-visitor variety (but that’s a whole another rant) and the last thing you want is for some Joe Schmo to get out his laptop and write a damning review that says, “Hey the Taj was great but I got robbed on the ticket.”
Inside the main chamber, they were charging visitors an extra amount to enter the underground crypt. Even here, sharp eyed men in dusty clothes tried to make a quick buck. The ticket taker watched the whole thing with supreme indifference.
Of course it is entirely possible that things had always been like this. That one time when I saw the downside of the Taj experience was the only time I’d ever gone there as my own person rather than my father’s daughter so perhaps I just grew up with a false impression of the whole process.
But the fact remains that for all our talk of how well we treat our guests, we still have a lot to learn about the tourism business. Forget the non Indian traveler, I don’t know what kind of challenges a trip to the Taj would present to a non-Hindi speaker. In the 21st century there are so many ways to maximize the tourist experience – is it too much to ask that we make a bit of effort and join the global effort to better appreciate our heritage while it still exists?
And yet, in the middle of all this ineptitude and avarice and fears of environmental damage, the Taj Mahal remains the Taj Mahal – serene and blinding in all her glory, the way she’s stood even when she lay mostly forgotten. A testament to man’s mastery over time and tribulation.
Vote for her here. Time runs out on 7. 7. 07.
Note: DesiGirl, appalled by the Indian government’s apathy to the Seven Wonders of the World campaign, started a “nontag” on the Taj Mahal i.e. those who’d like to blog on the subject are more than welcome to take it up. (No pressure… except you’re a rotten piece of scum if you don’t! 😛 ) Here’s what she has to say.