We see it from across the water and it doesn’t look real. Its white marble dome glistens in the midday sun, winks at us from the main reflecting pool and seems to have sprung massively to life from third grade textbooks and half-watched documentaries on the Discovery Channel.
The stiffness in our bones, courtesy of the four hour mini-bus ride from New Delhi to Agra, graduates into just enough ache and pain to remind us that we are not dreaming. That all that separates us from Emperor Shah Jahan’s elegy for his dearly departed third wife is an immaculate Mughal garden and a hasty stop to wrap our shoes in soft material so as not to scuff the 350 year old marble of the Taj Mahal.
I am joined by five other journalists who blink just as rapidly in a dual fluttering against disbelief and double-vision.
We have escaped the Indian handicrafts fair we have been invited to report on to visit a city with almost as many people as there are in Namibia’s entirety and who each seem to have sauntered into the street to stand, sell or simply stare.
Though we know majesty awaits us somewhere in this mire of humanity, what we see of Agra is a slum.
Its faded billboards lead the way through its shabby streets and the greenish brown water that edges its buildings and roads is made of something we prefer not to imagine, though comfortingly there is no smell.
Our mini-bus surges forward.
It races past numerous Coca-Cola signs featuring the same long-haired, light-skinned model that I imagine is a well known woman of adolescent dreams, pale aspiration and relentless refreshment.
If it is all told, there are also cows, monkeys, bicycles, rickshaws and vendors selling everything from pomegranates to cauliflower but most of all there are men. Mustachioed and mellow, they seem to be everywhere and nowhere as they stand idly on roadsides and in doorways engaged in quiet congress.
Perhaps it is this abrupt ascent from Agra’s chaos to the spotless hall of the red sandstone Darwaza-i rauza (The Great Gate) that makes our first glimpse of the astonishingly opulent Taj Mahal seem so surreal.
This feeling of fantasy begins to trickle into reality when our green-shirted and garrulous guide takes me by the shoulders and places me in an opportune spot which causes the Taj Mahal to move slowly towards me as I take ten steps backwards.
“Stand here, lady. Stand here.” he says. “Let me show you the magic.”
His name is Dharmendra Kumar. He owns a small tour guide outfit called Fly India Tours and he busies himself with the task of whispering wonder into our ears while taking larger than life tourist photos of the Taj Mahal reflected in our sunglasses, suspended from our hands and squared around our shoulders like a photo frame.
The walk from the Darwaza-i rauza to the base of the Taj Mahal is a contemplative one. I think of the 20 000 artisans and 22 years it took to build Mumtaz Mahal’s tremendous tomb and I wonder about the might of a love that must be immortalized in marble and has the power to draw over 3 million visitors to its resting place every year.
Like anything as priceless, this love is cosseted.
Armed guards watch us put a protective layer over our shoes and as we enter the tomb hastily stowing away our cameras, which are forbidden inside, they press their whistles to their lips and let out a series of sharp blasts to hurry us around the piercework Jali screen surrounding Shah Jahan and Mumtaz Mahal’s cenotaphs.
It is after a particularly insistent whistle blast that Dharmendra, our guide, jumps into action. Shining a torch light on the red carnelian stone of a lotus flower, he shows us how it glows before pointing out the rich blue of lapis lazuli both worked in the ancient inlay technique of lapidary work.
Though there is still much to be said and seen, Dharmendra looks at us helplessly as another whistle blast rips through the dark tomb and an old man steps suddenly out of the crowd and points at the ceiling.
He seems to have appeared from nowhere and even though we are part of an exclusive tour, he gestures for us to listen as he shouts up into the ceiling.
His brief bark scares a black bird out of its resting place and out the archway and his voice seems to dance across the interior of the dome in a way that makes a simple song out of his scream.
I turn to thank him for his advice on the acoustics but he is gone and in his place a guard looks down on us sternly and I feel Dharmendra’s hand on my shoulder pushing me purposefully forward.
We walk out of the octagonal inner chamber and into more hallways just as cool and beautiful as the last while marveling at the intricate effort that engulfs us.
From the outside the Taj Mahal’s beauty graduates into the realm of the ethereal. Its minarets jut high into the sky and the mausoleum’s walls are an artisan’s vitrine of elaborate flora motifs and arabesques worked flawlessly in stone inlay, paint, stucco and carving; each element adhering strictly to Shah Jahan’s insistence of symmetry.
Standing there in the blinding marble white there is much to see and even more to feel but what can be put into words is the sensation of being desperately dwarfed by the utter size, beauty and the unbridled outpouring of emotion that is Shah Jahan’s dirge for Mumtaz Mahal.
After taking a few photos we make our way towards Darwaza-i rauza. And as each step takes us further from the stone sadness, we do not laugh and we do not talk like we did before.
Instead we glance over our shoulders at intervals, quietly carving the crown palace onto the back of our eyelids to be seen again in sleep…and silences.
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