The vanishing Taj Mahal

The Taj Mahal just before sunrise

When we decided to go to India for winter break, one place I was sure I wanted to see was the Taj Mahal. I suppose it’s a bit of a cliché, but I enjoy beauty, and, from photos, it had always seemed to be one of the most ethereal human-built places on earth. Also, it served as an anchor for our trip, since India is a huge country with lots of incredible places to visit. I’m sure I could have just thrown a few darts at a map and not been disappointed, but I prefer to be a little more systematic in my planning, especially since we had just over two weeks to see what we could see.

So, after a few nights in Delhi, Devin and I headed for Agra, where we would spend three nights before traveling down to Kerala for a week of warmth near the beach. I had bought our Taj Mahal tickets online for the morning of December 26, and I had done a lot of reading on the logistics of visiting the site because I knew it would be one of the peak travel seasons in India, and I wanted to make sure I knew what I was doing.

Our tickets were for the early shift to try to be there at sunrise, which was around 6:30 am. Our hotel, the Taj Resorts, was a ten-minute walk from the east gate entry to the Taj Mahal grounds, so we bundled up and headed down in the early dawn cold. There were a few other people walking or riding in the same direction; cars aren’t permitted within 500 meters of the site to reduce the destruction from pollution, so people can ride down in electric vehicles or horse- or even camel-drawn carts from the parking lot that’s a bit further away than our hotel.

As we got closer to the gate, the touts from the shops lining the street started coming out to get our attention. Most of the shops weren’t open yet, but they were soliciting pledges for visits after we’d seen the Taj Mahal and were heading back to our hotel. I was learning on this trip that Devin dislikes being approached by strangers even more than I do, though for me, several years of living in tourism-prone countries like Egypt and Ethiopia had given me the ability to handle a lot. One of the touts was helpful, though, because with everything I’d read, nothing mentioned that you needed to stop off at a counter around the corner from the ticket counter (which we were zipping past) to pick up the shoe covers and bottle of water you were allowed to bring into the monument grounds. After extracting a promise from us to visit his shop on our way back to the hotel, he went off to chase down some other tourists.

One thing I could easily sense from this and similar exchanges was how much tourism in India had suffered because of pandemic restrictions. People seemed desperate to sell their wares. While I can’t compare my experience to pre-pandemic times, the shopkeepers I talked to all said that they’d barely had any sales for two years, and they weren’t close to recovering from their losses. So I was definitely sympathetic, though that didn’t give me more money to spend or more space in my luggage. Nor did it make me any happier that so much global tourism is about acquiring things from other countries and so much social interaction with local people happens (for many tourists) in the context of shopping. I have a longer, more thoughtful post in the works about this aspect of tourism; it came up a lot on our travels in India, except for our stay in Alleppey, Kerala, which was remarkably tout-free.

So, next stop was the line at security. If you plan to visit the Taj Mahal, read up on the security procedures ahead of time. It was easy to spot the people who hadn’t. Some of the more notable security measures are that you aren’t allowed to bring in knapsacks or other bags larger than a small purse, and no outside water bottles, beverage containers, food (or as the website put it, “edibles,” which has a whole other meaning in the US and made us laugh) are allowed on the grounds. We even saw chewing gum and cough drops being confiscated.

Even early in the morning with relatively few people there, security was a mess. You had to run your small bag through an X-ray machine, then go through a metal detector and get frisked yourself (separate lines for men and women), and then wait until one of the security guards got around to your bag to open every pouch inside it in a diligent quest for “edibles.” Getting through it unscathed felt like a significant accomplishment. We were now worthy to view the Taj Mahal.

Past security, we walked towards the Jilaukhana or forecourt and the Great Gate, upon which the West and now-closed South Gates also converged. On our way, we saw a sign that explained why security was so focused on “edibles.” There was a succinct sign: “Please Keep Distance from Monkeys.” A more detailed sign expounded with dire warnings such as “Don’t make direct eye contact with monkeys” and “Don’t feed the monkeys and throw eatables here and there, throw them in dustbin with lids.” Now it all made sense. The monkeys of Taj Mahal are a fearsome lot, and one could expect to be attacked any minute from provocations like eye contact and even (as the sign also said) taking pictures.

Alerted to the cautions necessary to avoid monkey encounters, we proceeded through the Great Gate serving as the entrance to the Mugal Garden. Through the gate we caught sight of the Taj Mahal in the mist (and smog) above the end of the long, narrow reflecting pool running the length of the garden. Perhaps it was the time of day we were there, but the pool wasn’t very reflective. We just saw stained blue paint on the sides and bottom. The monument itself was obscured enough by smog that I had a hard time getting it to show up in my DSLR viewscreen when I tried to take the obligatory photo of Devin with the monument in the background. As we walked closer, it became much clearer, and I was hoping that once the sun had fully risen, we’d have the glorious view I’d seen in photographs. We walked completely around the domed building, looking at the Mahmaan Khana which mirrored the mosque to the west of the mausoleum.

I had paid extra for the mausoleum entrance, so we were able to go inside, but no photos are allowed within. (I was hoping to later find a book that had interior photographs, because the delicate carving and inlay work inside the mausoleum are gorgeous beyond words, and my memory isn’t the best anymore, but I didn’t see one.) We donned our blue shoe covers and entered through the tall, calligraphy-adorned archway, itself containing delicate floral carvings in the white marble leading us toward the door. Stepping inside, I marveled at the lacelike carved lattice screens that surrounded the cenotaphs of Mumtaz Mahal and her husband Shah Jahan, and the intricate, twining parchin kari (pietra dura) inlays of carnelian, turquoise, black onyx, agate, lapis lazuli, and other semi-precious stones in blooming vines outlining lilies, poppies, and other flowers. The detail was extraordinary; craftsmen had used differing shades of stone to render depth to each leaf and bloom.

There was a steady stream of people moving through, and kept moving by guards; it was difficult to pull over and examine anything more closely, but we managed to sometimes. Then someone decided to test the acoustics of the mausoleum’s domes interior and began howling, the noise indeed amplified by the dome. This went on for a while as others felt the need to join in.  After that, we just wanted to get out. We continued to shuffle with the other visitors through the chamber, and then down the halls that led back to the outside world.

I could write much more, but there are thousands of descriptions of the monument by people who write far better (and worse) than I do. And some real magic had started while we were inside. I had hoped that once we were back out, the sun would have risen sufficiently that we would get a clearer view of the monument and the garden leading up to it. Instead, everything was disappearing. The river behind the monument had vanished; only the closest mud banks were visible. We continued around to the front of the building, as the mosque to its north was enveloped by the thick fog rolling in. We watched as one of the four minarets disappeared from the bottom up; for a moment, it gave the appearance of floating in mid-air. By the time we were ready to move on in our tour, the Taj Mahal’s onion-shaped dome was completely gone, and much of the rest was fading quickly into the white. The Great Gate at the other end of the complex had vanished as well, as had the reflecting pool and the garden. We walked through the dense fog to the east wall of the complex, and then back across to the west wall, towards the museum. As we walked between the barely visible trees, we joked that this was when the zombies would emerge from the fog.

Away from the central axis of the garden, there weren’t many people, and the setting was quite tranquil. As we walked along the western wall, we saw our first monkey of the day. After reading the warning signs near the entrance, I was half expecting an aggressive attack. Instead, the monkey walked straight past us and hopped up onto the wall. As we waited outside the museum for it to open, we saw a few more monkeys sitting on a ledge above the museum entrance, as their babies clambered up and down above them. They didn’t pay much attention to us, no doubt because they knew we didn’t have any food. Honestly, after all the build-up of the warnings, I felt a bit let down. I told Devin about the monkeys on the campus at the University of Dar es Salaam in Tanzania, one of whom dropped down and snatched a sandwich out of my hand when I was having lunch at the cafeteria. But the monkeys we were watching were still cold in the early morning chill and would probably be more active later in the day.

As we headed back to the hotel after about 20 minutes in the museum (it’s not very big), we still couldn’t see much. People were arriving and taking selfies and photos towards where they knew the Taj Mahal to be. I was glad we’d gone early. It would be so disappointing to travel all that way to see something only to have it be virtually impossible to see. The fog did eventually lift, though; we got a view of the Taj Mahal later in the afternoon from the walls of the Agra Fort. Then, it was only slightly obscured by the usual air pollution.

Looking back towards the Taj Mahal as we were leaving

One thought on “The vanishing Taj Mahal

  1. The Taj is so glorious and it’s story so sad and complicated. As for monkeys, I think there’s a thread somewhere for monkey stories 🙂 if you make it back to the elephanta caves in Mumbai they’ll give you a run for your money…. Or rather Fanta, Coke, etc …

    Liked by 1 person

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