April 8, 2015

Wah Taj: Making Notes On Re-visiting India's Most Iconic Monument


I first visited the Taj Mahal exactly and coincidentally seven years ago. I was trying to pursue a writing residency at an arts-organization in Delhi and while I ended up falling ill and not really accomplishing much writing, I made some wonderful friends and initiated my explorations in and around Delhi, unknowing that I would eventually come to call it home one day.

These explorations also included an excursion to Agra and Fatehpur Sikri, both places which I had been wanting to visit for ages. For many years, whenever I happened to mention that I was from India, I was invariably asked along these lines: Have you ever visited the Taj Mahal? No? But you're Indian and you still haven't been there yet? If I was asked the same question now, I would probably reply, India is much more than just the Taj and no, it doesn't make me more or less of an Indian if I haven't visited it. However, back then, I always felt a bit embarrassed that I had yet to experience one of India's arguably most iconic monument, as if the failure to do so questioned my Indian-ness, as if I wasn't Indian enough.
It didn't help that when I arrived at the Taj with my friend, the guards at the entrance refused to believe I was Indian and in fact, asked me three questions to prove my Indian identity. Our tour-guide had already beforehand hinted at the possibility of me having to declare my Indian credentials and even told me the three questions. I still doubted that it would happen and when it did, I felt irritable and bewildered. I can't remember the other two questions that the guards asked me but I do recollect the question about the name of the then Chief Minister of Delhi. I knew that anyway and authoritatively told him, Sheila Dixit. Still, as I was finally permitted entrance and we walked towards the Main Gate, I felt a weird displacement and which, perhaps, in hindsight, may have contributed towards the gradual erosion of Indian-ness I have increasingly experienced over the years.

Gateway: one of the doors studding the Taj facade
All that vanished from my mind when we encountered our first glimpse of the Taj through the magnificent sandstone portal; it was akin to seeing Amitabh Bachchan in flesh after only having seen him in cinema and photographs over the years. And yet, as we wandered through the garden, around the platform and inside the crowded tomb interior, I felt, well, a little disappointed. I wondered if it was because I had expected too much from it. I am generally wary of subscribing to hype, whether its about books, films, personalities, stores, Aamir Khan's movies, cupcake bakeries (yes, I am looking at you, Magnolia) or even one of the world's most beautiful monuments. In fact, I instinctively develop a resistance to anything the moment it is hyped, preferring to experience it once the hoopla has faded away. Whatever the reasons, I afterwards told everyone who cared to listen that I preferred Humayun's Tomb, whose mausoleum architectural style was in fact what influenced that of Taj Mahal and which I would discover later during my Delhi wanderings - and  that it was Akbar's doomed fossilised city in sandstone, Fatehpur Sikri which truly captured my soul during that Agra visit.

All this was many years ago though - and when we landed in Delhi last October, I found myself wanting to see the Taj again. I got the opportunity when we went to Agra on a spontaneous trip last weekend; my husband had yet to see the Taj and as I proprietorially talked about it on our car journey there, he joked, it sounds as if you personally constructed it. We stopped en route at Mathura, the birthplace of Lord Krishna only to learn that all the temples there were closed due to the lunar eclipse that day. We instead indulged in some of the most delicious samosas I have ever eaten at a roadside stall; afterwards, lugging our samosa-filled bellies, we sped to Agra, the full moon in the sky initially appearing as if someone had taken a bite out of it.

The Taj is open five nights a month around or on full moon day but only a limited number of visitors are allowed inside it and that too if they have booked in advance. We thought of getting a glimpse from a roof-top hotel restaurant which had advertised the Taj's visibility from its location. Only during the day, the manager informed us when we reached there. We sat by the window, ate exquisitely spiced Awadhi biryani, and tried to abstract the Taj from the area of fleshy black darkness where the Manager told us the Taj stood.

The next morning, we first paid respects to the greatest of Mughal emperors and Shah Jahan's father, Akbar the Great's tomb at Sikandra. In contrast to the vast, sprawling complex and the impressively ornamented tomb facade, the tomb itself is an extremely spare, unadorned affair, something which Akbar himself had wished and accordingly designed so. There was nothing else in the tomb chamber apart from a few yellow and pink flowers and a handful of rupee notes and coins lying upon the tomb. Pigeons roosted and cooed in the intricate fret-work windows set high up in the walls. Say something, our guide suddenly spoke up. We said our names aloud; they first vibrated before reverberating, our names and voices co-mingling with each other.

Waves of Arches: Akbar the Great's tomb, Sikandra

Ever since we had arrived at the tomb, the guide had been telling us that even walls have ears in the tomb. We politely listened to him, half disbelieving until he took us to a canopy of arches and asked the either of us to stand and face the corners of the arches' pillars - and speak. Even though my husband was some distance away, I clearly heard his voice travelling through the matrix of stone - and he heard my delighted laughter seconds later. These cleverly designed and constructed walls certainly could hear...if only they could have spoken! I thought of all the stories they must have to share and we, yearning to hear. Outside, deer and black buck brunched on the rain-nourished lawns; I smelt the fragrance of roses meters away from the rose-garden. Inside, Akbar reposed within his bare beautiful chamber.

The sky was spitting rain when we approached the Taj in our car. As we parked, a passerby told me to put my lipstick away as it was amongst the objects banned at the Taj. It turned out it wasn't. When we finally arrived at the Taj, owing to Sunday and the long weekend, it was virtually impossible to navigate walking inside the Main Gate without being pushed or blocking someone's phone camera, dozens of them held aloft in the air. But no amount of people or the heat could ever mar that mirage-like first appearance of the Taj through the arch of the gate. Even though the skies were cloudily moody or perhaps because of it, the Taj appeared distant, a floating illusion-island. 

One of its Many Faces: A shot of a facade

We stood in queues that snaked all around the perimeter of the exterior to enter inside the main tomb interiors, each of us in rich anticipation at fully experiencing the monument, whether it was for the first, second, third time. I spotted that someone had freshly autographed the wall with cherry red lipstick (so much for not banning lipsticks). There were people from all over India and the world. We overheard a woman sounding as if her boyfriend had just proposed to her. A newly married woman with the red and white bangles almost up to her elbows told her husband that she wouldn't go inside the main tomb if it was too crowded; her husband smilingly agreed. Four Buddhist monks in maroon inspected the onyx flowers inscribed upon the exteriors. Inside, the crowd streamed around the island of Shah Jahan and Mumtaz Mahal's tombs; people took selfies in front of them. When we emerged from the main tomb, grateful to freely breathe once more, I noticed that the lipstick vandal was at it again. He wasn't the only one. When you peered closely at the walls, you realised that so many people had previously chiseled and layered the ornamented white marble surface with their initials as well as that of their lovers. In presence of this enormous, breathtaking ode to love, who could resist leaving behind an imprint of their own love, entwining themselves forever with this magnificent intersection of beauty, history, and love? 

Soaring: one of the four minarets
This time, as I drank in the Taj, I forgot about all the hype surrounding it or even what I thought of hype itself. I allowed myself to erase all the innumerable photographs I had seen of it too: I replaced them with the pictures that my memory took of it instead. I leaned over the balustrade to look down at the Yamuna, a truncated version of itself, still slowly, silverly flowing past the Taj. I thought of Shah Jahan in house arrest in the Agra fort during the last eight years of his life. Was he reduced to seeing the Taj from a tiny window, his magnificent monument and memory to his love circumscribed within a square? From the distance, it must have looked even more beautiful, unattainable, and dream-like, much like the memory of whom he had lost. 
When I turned around to face the Taj again, the sun was playing hide and seek with the clouds, drenching the Taj in silhouette.

I read the poetry in stone and smiled.


  1. There you go I finally found your blog Priyanka. This is such a lovely and detailed post with so many nice pictures. I have never visited Taj Mahal myself but being a history fan I have read extensively about it. On my bucket list :) Keep writing and clicking.

    1. So nice to see you here, Bhavna - sincerely appreciate you taking the time out to stop by:)

      Am so glad to hear that you enjoyed reading the post, thank you so much for the kind words.The pictures will probably look familiar as I recycled them from Instagram but I wanted to elaborate a bit more on my relationship and second-time encounter with the Taj and so give further context to the images. I do hope you get a chance to visit it soon and would love to see/read your thoughts about it!


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