It’s been 58 months since I moved to India. I visited the Taj Mahal for the first time two weeks ago. All this time, I was waiting for the right opportunity to visit. I noticed among the small expat circle to which I’m connected that those who do not see themselves living in India for very long tend to go to the Taj Mahal not long after moving here. There are others who wait until a special occasion, like when a loved one comes to visit, to make the trek there from Chennai. I had plans to visit with distinguished guests, but there’s a lot to see in India, and it just never came together until now. I had actually begun to wonder if it would ever happen — there were always other places to go. As a way of justifying not having been yet, I said to myself that it’s a lot schlepping to see a single building. Two of Susannah’s dear friends from way back planned a trip to see us and to travel to some other parts of the country, finishing with a rendezvous in Delhi and then together we’d move on to Agra.
The Taj is one of those places that I had seen so often in photographs. I wondered if it could live up to the hype (a friend who has visited often even suggested the day before we left that I lower my expectations). The closer we got to the trip, I also had a surfacing memory of loss related to the Taj Mahal: a friend I’d known from high school was killed when she was in college as the bus she was riding in crashed on the road from Delhi to Agra. Those memories were in the background as we planned for and started off on our visit.
The Taj Mahal website says that as many as 8 million people visit the site each year (with only 800,000 coming from overseas!). I also read that the number of daily visitors is capped at 40,000 — which is Disneyland-level numbers. There aren’t a lot of other reasons to visit Agra — it looks and feels like a relatively small town, even village, that as tens of thousands of people arriving and departing every day. In a country where extremes are the norm, Agra stands apart for its dichotomous daily routines.
We lucked out in our planning as it enabled us to enter the grounds just after sunrise. It was cool, fewer people were there, and the light slowly shifted over the time we were there. The area around the grounds and mausuleom are designed so that the Taj is not visible until you get right up to it. Most people see it for the first time as they walk through a wide door in a tall gate — the antechamber entrance is dark; gradually the people in front of you filter forward and suddenly the source of the brightness coming at you is the light gleaming off of the white dome, towers, and walls of the Taj straight ahead of you. It’s a fun first impression.
I think I walked around the grounds with my mouth open with wonder for the first half an hour after arriving. The photos over the years — and how many have I seen of the Taj Mahal, hundreds, perhaps? — don’t do the place justice. Those images felt like they were as accurate as the shadows on the wall in Plato’s Cave. Once I could speak again, I think I said more than once that I couldn’t believe what I was looking at. Everyone around me was taking photos, which was no surprise. Thinking about it now, I wonder how many photos get taken there each day — could it be a million photos a day? That would only be 25 photos per person if 40,000 people actually visit in a day. Whatever the number, I can’t imagine that looking at all of those images taken on a single day would come close to capturing the experience of standing there.
The story behind the Taj Mahal is well known. A Mughal ruler, Shah Jahal, commissioned and built this place as a mausoleum to honor his favorite wife, Mumtaz, who died in childbirth. The details of the backstory didn’t sink in for me until I saw it in person — this is a testament to the Shah’s grief. He’s buried here, too, but I wonder if he felt any significant relief from his loss once it was finished. I did not expect to make the connection to my friend’s death from 22 years ago, but I had many memories of her in the week before our visit here. I was surprised that I remembered the moments that reemerged; I was also aware that in spite of the time that had passed, those memories felt like no time had passed at all. I image that the Shah’s sadness could not have been dulled by this massive monument. I wonder if that’s what he wanted.
When you enter the mausoleum itself, no photos are allowed. It’s dim and quiet, but not solemn as you make your way around the loop surrounding the faux-crypt inside (I read that the actual tombs to Mumtaz and the Shah rest below the area where tourists are permitted). As we circumnavigated inside, I found myself humming the tune of “Dear Prudence” — the Beatles’ song. Earlier this year, I read that John Lennon wrote this song at the transcendental meditation center in Rishikesh, India, as Prudence Farrow (Mia Farrow’s sister) was in the middle of a meditation session in her room that lasted two full days.
I wondered, which is the greater honor — to have this magnificent building constructed in honor of your life, or to be the inspiration for a Beatles song?