The Taj Mahal – an exhausted monument to an exhausting country

The Taj Mahal is the must-see monument on the list of most travellers to India – regarded as the world’s most beautiful building.

There is no doubt that it was breathtaking the first time I saw the building. We were lucky enough to book a room at one of the only hotels with views of the Taj and when we ascended the stairs to a rooftop bar area to see the building for the first time it was an incredible moment. Loud pop music blared from the streets below out of a truck armed with massive speakers, people dancing behind, a warm breeze wafted past and there was the Taj, like some kind of resting deity.

20160525tajmahal-12

It was one of our few kind memories of India, a moment of redemption. On top of the houses between us and the Taj, dozens of children were flying kites, using them to chase pigeons around the buildings. The moment was one of innocence, something we felt had been lacking from our previous interactions with the country.

Later that night we enjoyed a good meal from the hotel buffet, only for Chancey to wake up mid morning with a very upset stomach – Indian food poisoning had finally struck and at the most inconvenient time. Even at five star hotel buffets you need to keep your guard up it would seem. But credit to Chancey, she powered through and we went downstairs to meet our drive and head to the Taj.

Petrol vehicles are limited around the Taj so the driver needed to stop at a set of gates and then we were to find our way there. As is the standard for India, men materialise around tourists and we made a bee line for what appeared to be the official ticket building. The men kept saying ‘Today is free!’ but we were so weary and exhausted of the bullshit lines that were spun at every opportunity by every other con artist in the country that we ignored them. But we arrived at a very empty ticket office and were informed that yes indeed, today was World Heritage Day, so we were able to go into the Taj Mahal for free. I don’t know what kind of chaotic scene that ticket office would have been on a day where you are required to pay entry, it was a very small room and didn’t seem befitting of such a grand monument.

Returning outside we climbed aboard one of the electric buses used to ferry tourists from the petrol vehicle exclusion zone to the outside of the Taj. Arriving there we had to split up as separate lines were used for men and women. While I was standing in the line a man behind me said that I would not be able to take my bag into the Taj and that I should leave it at a shop nearby. Quickly casting my eye on people who had already moved through the queue and seeing plenty of bags I said, “No, it’s okay.” And sure enough it was. The constant trickery and bullshit is the most exhausting thing about India, and the country would have a lot more tourists feeling comfortable about visiting if this negative experience wasn’t so engrained.

I met up with Chancey again on the other side and we began our progression towards the Taj. It was a little bit more relaxed inside, until we arrived at the first opportunity to take a photo of the building itself.

20160525tajmahal

Looks amazing right? That reflection, those postcard looks. But right behind me in this photo is a group of about 50 people all trying to get the exact same shot. Many of them have pushy guides – one such guide was taking an age to get photos of his two customers, shooing people out of the way. Eventually I gave up being polite – as India seems to force upon you – and went to take my own photo, ignoring his protests – “I am taking a photo!” Yeah, well so are the 50 other people here mate…

We moved onwards past each of the ponds that lead up to the Taj. The grounds and gardens are beautiful and there are quite a few areas where you can get away from the crowds, albeit briefly. Walking closer to the Taj there were actually plenty more ponds that offer the same reflection photo – proof that the crowds rarely know where the best photos are.

20160525tajmahal-5

Monkeys are a common sight in India and they were playing around in the water in front of the Taj. This photo is looking back towards the archway you walk through to reach the main garden area (see the crowds of people on the podiums getting photos where Princess Diana sat). The monkeys were very cute, playing a game where they would try to leap from the edge of the pool on to the little poles in the middle. Of course you need to watch your shit, they know how to open water bottles and love to take them.

20160525tajmahal-4

More of the Taj on the walk towards its base. Something you may have noticed in the previous photos was that there is scaffolding around three of the four poles on the corners. This is to clean them from all the pollution which has stained the marble a light brown.

This photo offers a comparison between a cleaned tower and the building itself, which is also set to undergo cleaning soon. While I was a bit disappointed the scaffolding didn’t make for great photos, at least we could see the building. Look closely in the above photo and you can see the difference between the cleaned section on the right and the stained building on the left. Oh and surprise monkeys in the bottom left corner.

20160525tajmahal-10

Behind the Taj Mahal is the Yamuna river. I’ve been reading that there are actually some concerns about the foundations of the Taj Mahal rotting as the water level falls and that the building may collapse one day. I’m sure that plans will be put into place before that happens, but then again when you are talking about a country that has a space program before it has toilets for most of its population, you never know.

20160525tajmahal-11

There are redeeming vignettes of the Taj if you look for them. It was nice to sit near the greenery, away from the crowds around the ponds and enjoy the view of what is an iconic building. It’s not the Taj’s fault that its surrounds have become polluted and chaotic – it remains majestic and regal.

Leave a Reply