Thursday, March 17, 2011

India Part IV - The Taj!!!

Let me first start by explaining something. The Taj Mahal is best described as a diamond in the middle of a piece of (pardon the vulgarity) shit. Now that you have a real visual let us tell you about our day in Agra in and around the Taj. 

Rashid our tour guide and our driver took us straight to the Taj from the train station. Just like the streets of Delhi driving through Agra was quite the same, an unorganized jumbled mess we heck of a lot of motor rickshaws, people, and cows. After a few close calls we shortly arrived to the outskirts of the area surrounding the Taj. Our driver found a spot to park and our guide told us to leave any bags that we had in the car. Our scam watch alarm immediately went off. Luckily we did not have any valuables in it: just water and snacks as well as our guide book. Rashid assured us that it would be safe with the driver. He also said that we would not be able to take them in with us when we enter the Taj grounds. So we decided to leave it and hope that we weren't falling for a scam.
We then got out of the car and began to make our way to one of the three entrances. The main reason we went straight from the station was to avoid the big big crowds. This was a grand idea that worked out wonderfully. We had to walk down a long walkway about a half a mile or so. As we walked we were constantly being asked if we wanted a ride to the Taj by elephant or to buy something, you know little trinkets and such. Luckily Rashid kept these touts to a minimum for us. It was great having someone who spoke the language to help us out.
After a ten minute walk or so we finally made it to the entrance. Rashid had to enter a different entrance, he said that he would see us on the other side. The line was really short at this time and we went through security rather quickly. They did the usual pat down and that was that. Once in, we slowly started to take it all in. We knew that we were about to witness something miraculous  We were just outside the main walk through to the main court of the Taj. Surrounding the Taj is a giant brick wall that blocks any view from the majestic scene we were about see. We were waiting just out side the gated entrance into the main courtyard. when Rashid finally arrived. He then provided us with some good historical information that I really appreciated.

So it was time. We slowly walked through the gateway and there it was. The greatest tribute to love, according to our guide. The Taj Mahal took our breath away from the very moment we laid our eyes on it. As we walked into the main courtyard it felt really surreal. The Taj did not seem to be really in front of us. It was almost too perfect to be true. You see such beautiful places in magazines and in pictures or even Google Earth, but this was it. It was truly a Wonder of the World. Every piece of marble perfectly laid created a building that will remain ah-inspiring through time.
As we walked around, Rashid was not only our tour guide he was also our photographer. We just had one little problem. The battery was fairly low and we did not know if it was going to shut off on us. That did not prevent him from getting some really great shots though. Of course we took the typical picture on the Princess Diana bench as most do. The line for this was non-existent at this point in the day. After a few more shots we walked closer to the building so we could go inside.
In order to even go up to the platform we had to wear little booties on our shoes so not to scuff any of the marble up. Rashid took us inside and explained loads of interesting facts about the history of the building. I of course presented him with several questions. It was just one beautiful moment after the other. I kept wanting to pinch myself. It really was a dream come true. But not only that it was a once in a lifetime experience.

After exiting the mausoleum we were able to see the river that runs behind it. From that vantage point we could see the Agra Fort that we would later go to. We then decided just to stroll around the grounds for about an hour or so to really take in every angle. The Taj is perfectly symmetrical. It looks identical from all four sides. Rashid knew the best places to take photos and we trusted him with our camera at this point. He was truly a godsend.
We never grew tired at just staring at the Taj. I can honestly say that it is the most beautiful building I have ever or will ever see. I couldn't get over its perfection. As we exited we took one last look and said goodbye to it from up close. By now the crowds were starting to really roll in. We were elated to avoid them but a little sad to leave.
Driving through Agra and seeing the poverty and chaos was really puzzling. It is amazing that the Taj Mahal is so calming and pristine and just outside its walls is utter madness and filthiness. It really sums up a lot of India for us. A reality check on one side, this world is far different than ours. On the other side seeing these places and experiencing these moments really affect the way I feel about my own way of life and how I live it. As said earlier, in order to really grasp the environment in which we were in you really have to take my analogy to heart, a diamond in the middle of a piece of shit, I am not exaggerating. India has not been easy traveling and is not for the novice.
After visiting the Taj it could only go down, right? Luckily that would not be our last time seeing it however. From there we went to the Agra Fort where the emperor would be put on house arrest by his own son the successor. We were able to see the emperor's quarters. We were also able to see that from his balcony one can see yet another magnificent view of the Taj. How horrible that must have been to stare at your greatest achievement while being in exile, so to speak.

Rashid also took us to the "Baby Taj", I do not recall the actual name but the nickname explains it all. It was built before the Taj Mahal and was just that, a kind of smaller version. The architecture was definitely different but the concept was similar. The gardens were wonderful to walk around. We also had the chance to really get to know Rashid and just chat for a little while. We learned a lot about Agra and local history.
We later went to lunch. We had a couple of curries that were not impressive. It was one of those touristy places. Of course just like any hired car we were more or less required to go to other tourist trap shops. We had no problem going along with it. Rashid was very open and told us that he would get a commission for everything we bought and warned us that the prices are steeper. I have gotten into a good habit of being able to politely say no to just about anything. Latanya on the other hand sometimes has trouble. But we were able to come away without spending a penny. Later Rashid took us to a cheaper souvenir store to pick up some magnets.
Our final stop was at a lack luster garden area. It was nothing special. In fact it was quite sad looking. Apparently there was a foundation laid out but it looked like construction had started and never really took off. According to our guide it was suppose to be a mirror image of the Taj Mahal and it was going to be made of black marble instead of the white marble that was used for the Taj. It was to be the emperor's mausoleum. From this foundation we were able to see the Taj across the river. It was still grand in all its magnificence. We were again able to get some great pictures. This was a great send off for the most beautiful tribute of love. What a wonderful day and experience.

Rashid then took us back to the train station. We said our goodbyes and got his card. He truly made the experience that much better. If you travel to India please let me know. I would gladly recommend him in a heartbeat.
So long Taj, so long Agra, maybe we will meet again in another life.

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