The first time I saw the Taj Mahal, I cried. Not because she is so beautiful — although she is — but because the sight of her was so familiar. I’d been backpacking through India and seeing the Taj Mahal after so many months on my own was like bumping into an old friend.
This time, so many years later, I cried again. Not because she is still so beautiful (she is) but also for all the years that have gone by in the interim — everything they gave me and everything they’ve taken away. Yet here she is, the Taj Mahal, still waiting.
The first time I saw the Taj Mahal was at dawn. A soft-spoken rickshaw driver delivered me to the South gate direct from the railway station and it felt to me like I had her all to myself. Now the Taj is heaving. She is overrun. Open from sunrise to sunset, she is teeming the whole time. Forget the rickshaw ride: it’s a rigmarole of ticketing, queuing, and electric buses to take you the last 800 metres, a gauntlet of touts swarming you with miniature marble palaces and chess sets before you are permitted to wind through rusting metal detectors and an aggressive pat-down at the East gate.
Once inside, the Taj preens demurely in front of a thousand cameras. I think to myself, as I always do, that it is no longer enough to just be somewhere, to see and feel it — we need our experiences on Facebook, Pinterest, and Shutterfly to make them real.
So it’s different this time, still beautiful and intense, but not as personal. I feel a bit like I’ve flown halfway around the world to an old friend’s wedding. She is consumed with the greeting and feting of other guests. The best she can do is catch my eye across the crowded gardens and express herself mutely: You made it! I love your short hair. I will catch up with you later, I promise.
Do you understand that she’s perfect? Her onyx, agate, and lapis-lazuli inlay. Her intricate marble relief. As it is on one face and minaret, so it is replicated identically on each of the other three aspects.
But don’t ask me: ask one of the countless accredited experts who hunt quietly, in laminated badges, poised to pounce on the most innocent of questions. Don your disposable shoe covers to climb the boards now protecting the marble steps, as if you are visiting the rare diseases ward and not one of the seven wonders of the world. Take no photos in Mumtaz’s tomb, which now — as back then — still smells like a locker room. Keep quiet and move along, move along. Every three seconds a guard blows a piercing whistle to remind you to be silent and keep moving.
So we trickle out, we exclaim at her beauty, we wait for the sun to sink and sink so that the next photo, and then the next, will be even more beautiful as the blush blooms in her centuries-old cheeks.
I feel for the Taj. The same sympathy I’ve felt for many of the world’s most sought-after sights — the Trevi fountain, Notre Dame, the Sphinx. How tough it must be for them to always be at their best, to be on. How the Taj must long for nightfall, when she can step out of her tight shoes, unhook her bra, kick back and just be.
You’ve been visiting Agra. For more of this journey, check out Jaipur, Varanasi, and Delhi.