Agra: The
Home of the
The Taj Mahal at sunset.
Outside of the Agra Fort.
View of the Taj Mahal from Agra Fort.
August 13, 2006

I came to know the name of the city that the Taj Mahal is in probably much differently than most people. Any fellow crossword
puzzle junkie would that know ‘Taj Mahal city’ is a recurring clue (especially if your newspaper is the San Francisco Chronicle).
And that is how I came to know the four little letters that spell ‘Agra’ – the city that I am now in.

Taj Mahal

I am going to share my experience of seeing this in person for the first time (and second, in my case)…

Let’s face it. We have all seen the Taj Mahal in pictures. It is not shocking when you enter and see what it looks like—this is far
from a mystery, after all. What
is amazing is the feeling of seeing the Taj Mahal right in front of you. Before entering, they
search you and your belongings. What you can bring: water, a camera and a wallet. What you can’t bring: matches, lighters, cell
phones, anything that is edible (food, gum, etc.), cigarettes, walkmans/ipods, etc. This is actually a wonderful rule as you don’t
hear people gabbing away on their cells and you don’t smell cigarette smoke all over the place. For this reason, the place is
pristinely clean (no cigarette butts or gum wads) and you only hear people in silence or having conversations with one another.
Also, in order to preserve the white marble, only battery-operated vehicles are allowed to operate within a certain vicinity
from the Taj.

And now for a brief history on this architectural wonder of the world…

Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan built this mausoleum for his wife, Mumtaz Mahal, who died giving birth to their fourteenth child.
He was beyond in love with her (after all, somebody isn’t just going to build a structure like this for
anybody). Mumtaz died in
1631 and construction began later that year. It took 20,000 workers (from India and Central Asia) and 22 years for it to be
completed. From afar, it looks like a grand white marble structure. Up close, you can see the inlay work (known as
pietra dura)
done with thousands of semi-precious stones that create colorful flowers as well as quotations taken from the Quran.

Amongst many others, one thing that makes the Taj so remarkable is the symmetry. All four sides are completely identical.
Completely. All I can say is that this
must have been hard. As a kid, I used to draw hearts when I was doodling away in class
and I always aspired to draw the ‘perfect heart’. I defined this by both sides being the exact same. I do not think I ever
obtained this – and I must have drawn thousands in total. All I can say is to make all four sides of this massive structure alike
was quite a feat. And it did not stop there. Upon entering through the gardens, there is a mosque on the left-hand side of the
Taj. In order to stick with the ‘symmetry’ theme, they built a pseudo-mosque on the right-hand side to balance it out.

The Taj Mahal is so grand that it is hard to believe that it was built primarily to house the body of one person. Inside, directly
below the dome, lies the cenotaph of Mumtaz. This looks like it would hold her body but it is, in fact, a fake tomb (both her
body and Shah Jahan’s body are housed in the basement below). Nevertheless, the ‘tomb’ is beautiful with 43 varieties of semi-
precious stones making up the flowers and designs that are incorporated into the marble. One thing here stands out more than
anything else. It is the ‘tomb’ that lies directly next to Mumtaz’s cenotaph –Shah Jahan’s cenotaph. Why does it stand out?
Simply because since it lies right next to Mumtaz’s, it breaks the symmetry rule that everything else follows.

I actually ended up visiting the Taj Mahal twice – once at sunset and once at sunrise. Even though I had to pay a hefty
entrance fee both times, I thought “Since I am all the way out here, I might as well.” I am glad I did as I came away with a
completely different experience both times…

Upon arriving into Agra, they had set up a tour guide to take me around. I
really don’t like going around places with a guide.
This time was no exception. KD was his name. He provided me with roughly five facts about the Taj (none of which were new
to me). The two main points that he would not stop repeating were: 1) the flowers and Quran versus were done by inlay work
– they were not painted (this is obvious to anybody that stands within a few feet from the building) and 2) the Taj closes at 7:
00pm (as he was making me feel like I was putting him out by staying as the sun was setting). Luckily KD and I parted ways
after his oh-so-informative five-minute history of the Taj Mahal. I would have liked to have just met him back in the parking
lot but he insisted that I meet him at the front of the garden.
Ughhh. I was already done with him and not only did I want to
enjoy this place on my own, I wanted to leave it alone, too. I wandered around and watched the hoards of Indian couples and
families that come here to visit the site. Probably about 90% of the people that I saw were Indian. I know this is going to sound
completely corny (considering this monument was built out of love) but I truly could feel the ‘love in the air’. Just watching the
couples look at each other and lie next to one another on the grass. It then got my mind wandering and I started thinking
about the Hindu religion where most of the couples I was looking at most likely got married through an arranged marriage.
And these are the same people that looked so happy and so into each other. Coming from America, we feel that ‘love’ is
something that is either there or it is not. It can not be forced. Maybe it is because Americans (myself included) want so many
different things out of a person and if they are not the ‘whole package’ that we are looking for, we simply prevent ourselves
from having certain feelings. Most of us would agree that it is impossible to learn to love somebody. Or is it? Watching these
couples all around me, I was beginning to learn that it is.

After I met up with KD who
continued to tell me about the Taj closing at 7:00pm (can you give it a rest?) we went back to
meet up with my driver, Kumar. On the drive to my hotel, KD wanted to take me to a place where they do the inlay work so I
could see it. I declined. I knew
exactly what this was going to be. He then started giving me a guilt trip of “You don’t want to
see the artwork of Agra?” Trying to keep my cool, I said “No.” I was not new to this game. I knew what the drill was going to
be. I would watch some people who wait for the next tourist/group of tourists to come in and then they would put on their
show. After this, I would be led to a showroom-of-sorts of a mass selection of things you could buy ‘at a good price’ where KD
would then be issued a cut of the profits. I informed him I just saw the ‘artwork of Agra’ at its finest at the Taj Mahal. That,
and the fact that I could not part ways with KD soon enough. Luckily, that moment came rather soon as we got to the hotel.
Kumar and I agreed on a time that he could come pick me up to take me into town so that I could get dinner (I would end up
going to an excellent Southern Indian restaurant called ‘Dasaprakash’ to get an oh-so-delicious dosa). The next morning I
would get picked up at 5:45am so that I could go back to the Taj Mahal to see the sunrise…
This morning I would arrive at 6:00am when the Taj Mahal opened. What a different experience it was. Because of the lack of
people (and, let’s face it, the lack of heat), the Taj appeared far more magical. I could walk around without the masses. I could
hear birds chirping. I could be the only person inside the mausoleum to see the details of the ‘tombs’. Coming at this time of
day, the visitors were comprised of 90% foreign tourists (almost in complete contrast to last night). Gone were the visuals of
the brightly-colored saris and the families convening in the gardens. While I was happy to see it at an hour before everybody
else had come, I could not help but think I was missing out on a piece that made it so beautiful last night. For that reason, I
would not regret my decision for a second to come both times.

All in all, the Taj Mahal was a ‘love’ly place to see…

Agra Fort

Before leaving Agra, Kumar (my driver) would take me to the Agra Fort. There is a good chance I would have skipped this if I
was roaming around on my own as I had heard in the past that the Taj is really the only thing worth seeing here. For this
reason, I was not expecting much. I have to say that I was pleasantly surprised. My Lonely Planet came in handy with some of
the information it provided on the different areas. I could have hired a guide but, in all honesty, sometimes it is just too much
work to take in all of the minute details that they give. Plus I wanted to go at my own pace – however slowly or quickly I chose.

The construction of this fort began in 1565 by Shah Jahan’s grandfather, Emperor Akbar. Shah Jahan later added more
buildings including some made out of white marble (which was his favorite material as can be seen at the Taj Mahal). While this
started off as a military structure, Shah Jahan turned it into a palace. When his son seized power, this would actually become
Shah Jahan’s prison for the next eight years (not a very nice son, huh?).

The main thing that came as a shock to me was the view of the Taj Mahal from there. I had no idea! It was beautiful seeing it
sitting there on the side of the river. On that note, at least Shah Jahan would have a view of his masterpiece from the room in
which he was imprisoned…
Back to India.