The Taj Mahal
on Sustainable Dignity (India), 01/Aug/2011 15:45, 34 days ago
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Corey writes:Gina and I have been looking for an opportunity to tick off a big box on our“Things to do in India” list: see the Taj Mahal. It’s cliche and touristy but we passed up the opportunity when we were in Delhi at the beginning of our placements and have been watching the months go by. We figured that if we lived in India for two years and never saw the Taj Mahal we’d never live it down. The opportunity finally came again last week when Gina and I traveled to Delhi for a VSO workshop.We arrived at the Agra train station around 1:30 in the afternoon and were able to stash all our bags at the“coat check” in the station for a small fee. This is an Indian railways pro-tip. We then stopped in to the tourist info centre there in the station and got a lot of great information about the correct rickshaw fair to the Taj as well as a map. The Agra station was one of the most tourist-friendly stations I’ve seen in India. I was really glad to be prepared with some information when we stepped out of the station and were hailed by about 20 rickshaw drivers who all proceeded to take part in the negotiation between us and one driver. This was a little hectic for us, which means it’s gotto be overwhelming for most foreigners hoping to tour Agra.Once the negotiations were over the driver took us to a very tasty spot for lunch and then on to the Taj.“Which gate?” he asked. “Hmmm” we thought as we grabbed the tourist map. It turns out there are three different gates to the Taj Mahal. The most popular one is the western gate. As our guide later explained, the southern gate was used by the workers building the monument and still has a market and housing from those days. The eastern gate is used by VIPs like President Obama.We got out of the rickshaw at the western gate and were immediately assaulted by touts and potential guides. Gina and I were prepared for this and had agreed ahead of time that we did want to hire a guide and the maximum price we wanted to spend on one. This kind of preparation, even though it takes 5 minutes, really saves you a lot of stress when you’re in the moment. We said “no” many times to many different guides until there was only one left matching us step for step towards the entrance. This guy had pretty good English and was using all his tricks to get us, mostly by saying ridiculous things like “bee’s knees”, “cat’s pyjamas”, “The Big Apple”, and “supercalifragilisticexpialidocious”. He actually said all of those things. It made us laugh, which of course is an in for any salesman. After about five minutes of negotiating we got him down to our pre-agreed price.After forking over Rs 750 each (a 3,750% increase over the Indian national price) we were whisked into the forecourt area and the entrance. Even from the outside the architecture is stunning, and the architects brilliantly force everyone through a gate that only reveals the Taj Mahal itself at the last minute and in full. The only thing I can compare it to is coming through one of the tunnels and being hit by the skyscrapers and bright lights of downtown Pittsburgh.We then proceeded through the gate to a marble platform that provides the perfect perspective of the Taj. This is *the* picture spot and our guide really earned his keep here by pushing others out of the way and making room for us. One interesting bit we learned here is that the four minarets are actually leaning outwards slightly (like the Tower of Pisa). This makes all four visible at once and it’s also insurance in case of disaster. If an earthquake happens and the bases collapse, the minarets will fall outwards.We then approached the mausoleum and our guide started point out interesting things and giving us information. For example, the black patterns on the walls (inside and outside) are inscriptions from the Koran. For anyone who wants to know more about the Taj you can take this opportunity toread up on Wikipedia.Then Aasif (the guide) took us inside the mausoleum to show us some of the interesting stones inlaid into the marble. There are stones from all over the world, including a dark orange stone that would glow when light hit it. The guide brought a little pen light to show this to us. It was a really cool effect especially because the marble was also a little translucent.It was pretty dark inside the Taj, but Gina’s new camera still took an awesome picture. I still can’t believe this was a low-light shot.At the heart of the Taj Mahal are the tombs of Shah Jahan and his third wife. Everything in the entire Taj Mahal site is symmetrical, including the gardens outside and the two buildings on either side. However, Shah Jahan’s tomb throws the whole thing off. It’s next to his wife’s tomb, left of centre. Why? Apparently the Shah planned to be buried in an identical site directly across the Yamuna river from the Taj Mahal. This building was supposed to be in all black stone (symmetrical to the Taj’s white), butinstead the king ended up next to his beloved for all eternity. More romantic, don’t you think?Gina and I left the building and rested for an hour on a bench in one of the gardens outside, just watching people. We took stock of the experience and both came to the same conclusion: the Taj Mahal is beautiful and a marvel of human ingenuity. It’s a national treasure. But for us, it would not be worth flying to India to see. We didn’t build it up very much in our minds, and we were glad we didn’t. It was not a life-changing experience. We’re just not really temple, monument, historic site kind of people. We enjoy them, and we’llgo if it’s convenient, but that’s just us.