Rashma hired a driver and we were on our way, a Wednesday late November. We spent considerable time reading through the first part of the manuscript for the book on which we plan to collaborate. On the way we passed Krishna territory: Vrindavan, where Krishna spent his childhood, and Mathura, where he was born. Temple after temple lined the road. There were many shops selling items for the devotees. Krishna was not our destination, however much I love the tales of this flute-playing, mischievous, and loving Hindu god.
I was soon to discover one of my favorite treasures of India: Cafe Coffee Day. Say this name three times and see if it delights your tongue as it does mine! We had a break from the three hour drive. My lunch was cappucino and samosa (we stopped here once more on the return home). Next door was a McDonalds which I refused to set foot in even though they, of course, didn’t serve sandwiches with the holy cow as ingredient. Still I didn’t travel thousands of miles to eat at a place I rarely frequent back home.
As we approached Taj Mahal, the traffic worsened. It seemed to take forever to pass through the last town! I never saw so many cars, motorcycles, rickshaws, indescribable contraptions hauling mysterious items, cows, goats, dogs, and–well, you get the idea. There is no way to imagine the streets of India unless you’ve been there (watch traffic scenes on You Tube for an idea).
At last we reached our destination. Well, it was a parking lot near the Taj. To keep down pollution, one must be taken to the actual site. I braced myself for the pathetic begging children I heard so much about and am glad to say I encountered none. We did encounter, however, aggressive guys begging to be our guides or sell us postcards or necklaces. No, no, no! (The ‘thanks’ part quickly got dropped) We got rickshawed in.
We had to leave most of our belongings behind and also be searched by security. Our big laugh of the day came when a guy came racing toward us with the offer of a wheelchair! Rashma thought that was hilarious and me only 63! (I declined the offer). We made a wise decision to hire a polite, respectful young man as a guide (it was so cheap we doubled our payment at the end). Thank the gods and goddesses we did this for we got to leap the line of crowds waiting for admission. On the way, I paused to notice the mama dog with a fresh litter of puppies–in a small alcove of an outside building serving as entrance to the UNESCO World Heritage Site.
We had wonderful pictures, thanks to our guide’s insider knowledge! (technical difficulties loading this morning. hope to share some in the future). He knew all the tricks: having me climb a bench in front and join fingers of my right hand so the optical illusion showed me bigger than the Taj and lifting it easily! He took several photos of Rashma and me together, her camera and mine. And tricks from windows inside a building nearby, highlighting the ancient monument.
It seemed unreal that I was actually at one of the most famous monuments in the world. Although many consider the Taj a great love story, my cynical gut as a feminist makes me feel nothing but sadness for Mumtaz Mahal, Shah Jahan’s third wife, said to be his favorite. The Taj was built as her final resting place. She died during the birth of their fourteenth child.
Yes, it is an incredible building (it gets the attention but there were other buildings on either end of the courtyard). The white domed marble mausoleum is a masterpiece of any world architecture and the shining example of Mughal architecture. The colorful jewels are, indeed, jewels and not mere line drawings, our guide informed us. I did buy a beautiful round marble jewelry case as a souvenir. And I’m so glad Rashma’s family insisted I travel to the Taj–only three hours from where they live in South Delhi! But my memories will include the bullock hanging her head with the steel guide bar connecting her to the other one. She looked so tired. And what will happen to those puppies born outside the entrance? Will they be considered auspicious since they were born in the aura of the Taj? Call me overly sentimental but I have trouble separating all the pieces of the big picture. I think of the thousands of artisans who spent over twenty years constructing this marvel. I cannot imagine life in 1600s. I am in awe that such a glorious palace still stands. I love ancient but must also pay homage to the lives of all impacted by it.