Claire and I visited the Taj Mahal on Monday morning. It was a departure for us: despite spending nine months in India four years ago, we decided to pass by the country’s most famous site. At the beginning of our journey to Cape Town, I wrote about our decision:
Pictures of the Taj were in every tourism office in India and on the walls of every hotel. Internet cafés used it as a desktop background on their PCs and we heard the story of its inspiration – Shah Jahan’s great love for Mumtaz Mahal, one of his nine wives – regularly. The Taj was, we were told, a tomb, a monument to love and a “teardrop upon the cheek of time”. Built on a platform, its walls, which foreign tourists paid almost 40 times as much as Indians to enter, were inlaid with precious and semi-precious gemstones. It was undeniably beautiful too: pure, feminine, but also intimidating – a building well suited to the memory of a queen. Still, I didn’t want to go to see it, to fight crowds and take photos imitating the hundreds I had already seen. I had made that mistake before in Cairo, where a dying horse and Russian girls in hot pants were a more immediate spectacle than the pyramids, and in Rome, where jostling crowds made the Sistine Chapel mundane.
There were crowds at the Taj Mahal on Monday, just after sunrise, but only where clichéd photos of the building’s reflection were taken, or inside the tomb, where men whooped past Shah Jahan and Mumtaz Mahal’s cenotaphs, to hear their voices echo. There was spectacle too: a couple getting married amongst milling tourists and Japanese women in saris, dressed to match the Indian backdrop. But the Taj has large gardens. People thinned out soon after entering and it was possible to stroll quietly in the building’s shadow, through the mosque to its west and identical pavilion to its east, where audiences with the Great Moghul were held.
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