Long before we stepped through the Darwaza-i-Rauza, the grand gateway that leads to the Taj Mahal, we had lost much of our eagerness to catch a glimpse of the iconic building. Everything up to that moment had been one colossal let-down after another.
The missus and I had driven up to Agra from New Delhi confident, even cocky perhaps, of our ability to navigate our way using the new GPS navigation system in the car. The device had worked like a charm back home in Delhi, leading us to the very doorstep of cinemas.
So when the device drew up the shortest possible route to the Taj from a relative’s home just outside Agra city, we didn’t think for a moment to confirm the veracity of the route with locals. Surely no one would call a road The Strand unless it facilitated speedy traffic!
Homage: (clockwise from above) Visitors line up at the mausoleum; the clean urinals. Sidin Vadukut / Mint. The Taj Mahal somehow stands resolute. Harikrishna Katragadda / Mint
No one, we learnt, but the city planners of Agra.
The Strand turned out to be a filthy strip of tar just an inch wider than our Maruti Suzuki Baleno. It went through what looked like a little village with kamikaze poultry and ruminant cattle. At one point, the car got stuck on top of an alpine speed bump. We had to grit our teeth and squeeze our eyes shut while the car screeched and grated its way over it.
The Strand went on for a couple of kilometres before we somehow landed on a National Highway that wasn’t very much wider.
Half-an-hour later, we swung into the chaotic parking lot outside the Taj where an attendant charged us Rs50 even though the notice board behind him said the parking charge was Rs25. He explained impatiently that the charges had been revised; the board had the old rates.
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We’d been warned of the profusion of touts at the venue but nothing prepared us for the cloud that descended on us, selling trinkets and offering deep discount guide services: “Full explanation. Only Rs50. No? Rs30? No? Rs10?” One enterprising gentleman even offered to “safely” keep our iPods, books (other than guidebooks) and food items because they weren’t allowed inside (he was right, of course. But we would learn that the hard way).
Rabindranath Tagore once called the Taj a teardrop on the cheek of eternity. To which must be added: “wrapped in a thin veil of horse dung”. We chose to walk down the kilometre or so to the ticket booths instead of taking a cart, a cyclerickshaw or an eco-friendly electric bus.
Our trip had taken place during the long Republic Day weekend and there was a line of visitors waiting to enter through the metal detectors and mandatory frisking station.
Hardly anyone made it into the Taj on his or her first attempt. Nothing except mobile phones, digital cameras, video cameras, bottled water and guidebooks was allowed past the metal detectors. But since this wasn’t clearly mentioned anywhere, many tourists were turned back by the guards. Then, after blundering around for a few minutes, they marched all the way back to the cloakroom (where attendants had pasted a handmade poster announcing a Rs10 charge over a government board that said the cloakroom was free).
Enterprising families had left children and clueless elderly people by the side of the metal detectors, “reserving place” and choking traffic. When they came back from the cloakroom, they jostled back into the front of the line. A member of the paramilitary screamed into a loudspeaker, asking people to fall in line and women to use the exclusive women’s line. No one listened. He gave up after a while and sat back grumbling in his dugout.
Just when we thought nothing could further sour our trip, a young boy, without a care in the world, walked out through a side lane, and then down the entire length of the line, past all the tourists lined up to see a wonder of the world, pushing a cart heaped to the top with dried cow-dung cakes the size of dinner plates.
Yet all this was expected. We had been advised beforehand that once we stepped into Archaeological Survey of India domain—just beyond the metal detectors—all filth would cease to be and we could enjoy the Taj and associated monuments in peace. But by then our spirits were muted.
And then we saw the Taj Mahal. Across lush, green Mughal lawns swarming with tourists, it loomed.
The conditions weren’t ideal to see the Taj’s milky domes and minarets. It was a cloudy day, the sun nowhere in sight and the sky, a faded mother of pearl.
Still the monument glowed. And for once the real thing was even better than all the hype, all the pictures, all the videos and all the documentaries. After a few moments in quiet appreciation, we took a few photos and then took the short walk, through the gardens, to the Taj itself.
The caretakers had demarcated footpaths with white ropes. The crowd paid no heed whatsoever. Families and children stepped over the ropes, leapt over fences and lounged on lawns clearly closed to the public.
It was all very overwhelming. But at least there was no filth apart from several water bottles flung into the bushes. Things had improved.
And then we saw a lady in a shimmering yellow sequin-studded sari suddenly emerge from behind a bush, quickly drape one end of the sari over her head and shuffle away. There was a large wet puddle behind the bush where she had just relieved herself in the Mughal lawns in front of the Taj.
After standing in another line to get inside the monument we took one of the less crowded, longer paths around the lawns to go back. Mistake. This route turned out to be Urination Alley. Several men stood leaning against trees while little children, egged on by their mothers, squatted by the edge of the walkways. We didn’t wait to look at the Taj reflected in their pools of water.
What made this doubly painful was that the Taj Mahal complex houses one of the cleanest public toilets I’ve seen anywhere in the world. To the left of the Darwaza, as you exit, is a wonderful toilet run by Sulabh Shauchalaya. Very clean urinals have been built into the old architecture without disturbing the original pillars. The builders have even used ceramic tiles with artwork similar to the work you see on the Taj.
While foreigners can use the toilets for free, Indians have to pay Rs2. It is well worth a visit when you go to the Taj next time.
By the time we were back in the car park, it was beginning to darken and there were tiny flies swarming around the dung. As we drove out, we tried to chat about how gorgeous the Taj was—a feeble attempt to leave in a good mood. It didn’t really work. One has to be insular to leave the Taj with any pride.
Later a friend put it in perspective, “The fact that the Taj Mahal still stands is the real wonder of the world.”