Before you track me down, drag me into the streets and beat me to a pulp, hear me out.
Yes, the Taj Mahal is beautiful.
Yes, it is elegant.
But where is its soul?
I am yet to see an advertised tour of Northern India that does not include a visit to the Taj Mahal at Agra. Such is its reputation that it has become an almost compulsory inclusion – one of those Bucket List items or a must-see. I couldn’t help but wonder what all the fuss was about.
Driving into Agra in early December last year, all roads and certainly all signs, seemed to lead to the Taj Mahal. The traffic choked and slowed to a crawl the closer we got, almost in direct inverse proportion to the number of ticky tacky souvenir and over-priced water stalls that lined the road.
Our dusty little van squeezed in between the luxury coaches who were ejecting slightly older, but eminently better-dressed tourists in comparison to ourselves. The onslaught of enthusiastic tour guides and souvenir touts hit us straight away, but why buy a souvenir before you even have a memory of the real thing?
We managed push our way past them and merge into the expectant crowds.
The Indian government has obviously spent a lot of money to bring this tourist attraction up to par. The congested road gives way to pedestrian-only areas and it is a huge relief to leave some of the noise and air pollution behind. I say ‘some’ because I don’t think you can completely avoid either in India.
The entrance fee to the Taj was the most expensive I experienced in all my tour of India. Supply and demand obviously drives this and I suspect it wouldn’t deter many visitors, especially if you have travelled a long way to get there. The fee includes the unfashionable but practical, disposable fabric shoe covers and a bottle of water. Our guide had warned us to leave our own water bottles back at the hotel, plus all food, chewing gum, lipsticks, lip gloss etc. Anything that could be spilled, dropped, smeared or written with.
I was diligent in going through my satchel to remove all offending items, but I didn’t bank on meeting the most pedantic and pernickety security guard in all of India! He took offence at my small tin of mints and my notebook! I am usually quite a calm individual, but I was getting a bit hot under the collar, and felt quite violated as he went through my wallet (??) and an emergency stash of Immodium I was carrying! Just bureaucracy gone mad! I grabbed back the ‘offending items’ and heatedly explained that I would take them back to our guide for safekeeping, as she was waiting at the entrance gate for this very reason. Not the best start to the visit.
Crisis averted, I took a few deep breaths and stepped into the swarming crowds as they eddied towards the inner entrance to the grounds of the Taj Mahal itself.
The construction of the Taj Mahal commenced in 1631AD by, (wait for it…he requires his very own new lines and white space):
Al-Sultan al-‘Azam wal Khaqan al-Mukarram, Abu’l-Muzaffar Shahab ud-din Muhammad, Sahib-i-Qiran-i-Sani, Shah Jahan I Padshah Ghazi Zillu’llah [Firdaus-Ashiyani]
for the love of his life, the Mughal Empress Mumtaz Mahal.
The Sultan found “her in appearance and character elect among all the women of the time. Mumtaz Mahal had a very deep and loving marriage with Shah Jahan. Even during her lifetime, poets would extol her beauty, gracefulness and compassion. Mumtaz Mahal was Shah Jahan’s trusted companion, travelling with him all over the Mughal Empire. His trust in her was so great that he even gave her his imperial seal. Mumtaz was portrayed as the perfect wife with no aspirations to political power.” Source.
Now that is some reputation and write up!
Over the past few years the building has been undergoing a thorough cleaning process to remove hundreds of years of grime and pollution. I was concerned that the complex would be a mass of scaffolding and hoarding, but lucky for me, the restoration work was focussed on one side of the building only.
Like everyone else, I paused at the entrance to take in the scale and magnificence of the building framed in the doorway. And it IS magnificent with graceful lines and an elegant aura. If buildings can have auras?
But, that was it…
It was all smooth lines and cool marble. It has absolutely no soul.
Yes, I am probably sounding incredibly ignorant and sacrilegious, but it was just too perfect. Too cool, calm and collected for my liking.
I like buildings that have seen life. They have been loved and lived in, worn a little around the edges, with stories of their own to tell. The Taj Mahal has none of that. There is little-to-no interpretative information, no audio guide or tours to generate understanding and appreciation of what it is and what it means to the Indian people.
That left me with the feeling that it is just another pretty building that people feel they have to see and be seen in. Selfie sticks abound and it is a game of dodge to get a clear line of sight without 52 people taking a selfie and obscuring your shot.
Don’t get me wrong. I am glad I visited the Taj Mahal to see what all the fuss was about, however coming towards the end of my tour of India, I had seen so many other forts and palaces that just cried out to be explored and adored.
My apologies for being such a bad tourist!
Have you had a similar experience? Where something hasn’t lived up to the hype?
What: Entrance fees are about AUD$20.00 per person, which includes disposable shoe covers which you must wear when you want to get up close to the main building.
Where: Agra, Uttar Pradesh, India.
When: It is open from Sunrise to Sunset. Closed on Fridays.
Why: To see what all the fuss is about.
How: Every public and private transport option is available.
Who: Architecture fans, tourists, India-ophiles, the devout.
Related Posts: To find out about another beautiful building, but one with a totally different purpose and feel, have a look at my post about the Mehrangarh Fort.
Related Blogs: This blogger is slightly more effusive about the Taj than I am, but each to their own.
Read About It: For an in depth understanding of the Taj Mahal, have a look at Ebba Koch’s Complete Taj Mahal, available from Book Depository