After the mind blowing madness that was Varanasi, we were on an overnight train to Agra. Generally, travelers claim that there aren't many reasons to go to Agra. The people hassle you for your money, it is unbearably hot this time of year, there are more scams to separate tourist buck from tourist wallet than in most other cities, and the accommodation and food is much more expensive than in other places.
The only thing that attracts Indian and foreign tourists in their hordes to this otherwise mediocre city, overshadows anything that it lacks: The magnificent white marble wonder that is the Taj Mahal.
We thought we were very clever and experienced travelers by now who will avoid the crowds by being there when the gates open at 6am. Unfortunately for us, the other 1000 or so people who were already waiting at the gates, sleepy tour guides in tow, seem to have had the same idea.
No umbrella, no food, no tripod, no bag (except the one that holds the camera), no books, no pens, NO SOUTH AFRICAN FLAG. The security check was quite a procedure, and we were not happy being hassled so early in the morning by friendly personnel with a politely firm NO to everything. But once through the main gates, walking up to the second gate that leads to the gardens surrounding the Taj Mahal, we realized again what an amazing privilege it is to see this.
Like most great things in life, the pictures don't do it justice. At first sight, it looks like a green screen on some elaborate movie set. Even the story behind it is very dramatic: Emperor Shah Jahan lost his favourite wife, Mumtaz Mahal, during childbirth to their 14th child in 1631. Construction for her tomb started that same year and wasn't completed by the estimated 20,000 artisans until 1652. Shortly after completion, the Emperor was overthrown by his son, who imprisoned him at Agra Fort from where he could only see his famed monument. The Emperor died there in 1666, and was laid to rest next to his beloved wife without much pomp and ceremony, but in a coffin identical to hers. This second coffin is the only item that seems out of place in this otherwise perfectly symmetrical tomb.
The surrounding gardens with 4 pools to represent rivers, the 2 symmetrical red mosques to the left and right and the tomb with its massive marble dome was designed to represent heaven according to Moslem scriptures. The tomb is also raised onto a platform that ensures that the only thing visible behind it is blue sky, the perfect backdrop for something so stark.
For someone who has only seen distant pictures of the Taj, the biggest surprise was to find out that besides being built in white marble, the entire building was also carved into intricate floral designs, inlaid with semi-precious stones and has enormous bands of calligraphy on all 4 faces, poetry and scripture taken from the Quran.
The inside of the tomb where the lady and her emperor lie, is so stunningly decorated that it is almost unimaginable (since no photography is allowed inside, I got a picture from the net to give you an idea). Both white marble coffins are richly inlaid with colourful stones in a very fine flowery design so that they look like jewelry boxes, all the walls are carved with vases of flowers, and there is a delicately carved white marble screen that surrounds the two coffins.
The Taj Mahal has been inspiring poetry and lyrics for centuries. The India poet Rabindranath Tagore called it "a teardrop on the face of eternity". To me, this is a bit much - something so beautiful doesn't need melodrama.Let's rather call the most tactile expression of love. It has been listed as one of the wonders of the medieval world and it is not without justification. We were once again humbled by our privilege to see this magnificent structure and the city that surrounds it.