If You've Seen One Taj, You've Seen 'Em Mahal

January 5, 2008

Before leaving Delhi we saw one more monument, Safdarjung's Tomb, a marbled Mughal structure built in 1754 set in a garden. Safdarjung was the prime minister for Muhammad Shah who, while not himself incredibly noteworthy, does have a pretty kick ass tomb with water canals and elaborate plaster carvings. But I must admit that I was beginning to tire of so many tombs, despite their loveliness.

We made our way to the train station and found our train car which seemed like a third class rail from the 1960s. In fact, we had booked the best tickets on this train, second-class AC, which is what middle-class Indians generally travel, but the train is by no means clean or modern. Jean and I staked out our area across from a Japanese man who had been living and working in Delhi and, like us, was going to see the Taj Mahal and spend New Year's in Agra. Once I had put the hygienic issues behind me, the train itself was fairly comfortable with seats that pull down into sleepable bedding. I took the top bunk and read for a while on the 3 and a half hour train trip past rural villages filled with grass huts. I mistakenly used the Indian, rather than the Western toilet, which was simply a hole in the bottom of the train instructing passengers to please not do their business while the train was at the station (for obvious reasons).

After arriving in Agra, we made our way to the cab stand where we picked up (or were picked up depending how you look at it) a couple of nice Indian fellows that took us to our hotel and offered to be our guides in Agra. This is fairly standard procedure we learned, especially in the more touristy towns, and can be hit or miss, depending on the quality and integrity of the guide. We got lucky in that Afsar (meaning "officer" in Hindi apparently) was a really nice young man of 21 going to graduate school for political science / economics. He was born and raised in Agra and had a lot of local pride that showed through his guidance of the city as well as his historical knowledge of the sites. Like many Indians, he was very inquisitive about us and we go to know him fairly well.

After dropping us at our hotel, he drove us to the vicinity of the Taj Mahal and expertly orchestrated a rickshaw to drive us there. Afsar picked our driver well and Hero cycled over deftly asking us about ourselves and instructing us the best way to navigate the crowds. When approaching the Taj Mahal, you must go through a large gate obscuring the view, but once through the gate the site of that beautiful marbled structure glowing in the light confirms all of the tourism, legend, hype, hours spent along the journey to get there. It is breathtaking in its majesty, looking like something conceived in a dream or scripture. The experience is dampened somewhat by the vast swarms of tourists and guides racing every which way to take their perfect photographs in which, of course, you yourself must participate. The opposite reflections of the Taj floating in pools of water are nearly as beautiful as the Taj herself. After seeing that, I knew I would never see a more majestic tomb again.

The Mughal Emporer Shah Jihan, of course, built the Taj over 22 years for his favorite wife Mumtaz who died delivering his 14th child. According to Afsar, and I have yet to confirm this, Shah Jihan cut off the thumbs of the 22,000 workers who carved the mausoleum so that another could not ever be built, nor could the skill be passed to their sons. I couldn't help but wonder what he did with all the thumbs. Finger food?