How do you fully comprehend something as grandiose as the Taj Mahal when you're traveling by your little old self? You get on the floor with a bunch of strangers. A reader story.
AGRA, India – Thirty-three kilometers. Thirty-two. Thirty-one. I watch every signpost tick past. The Taj Mahal is waiting for me. Then a night train to Varanasi. I'm standing in the doorway of the overcrowded bus, the gear shaft is shouting out clouds of black smoke, villagers squish past me as they get on and off. And I don't care. This is India (as the locals keep reminding me), and I'm on my way to the Taj.
Horsetails wave as the stone-faced driver charges down the middle of the road, forcing construction crews to tumble out of the way. Seven. Six. Wait, wait, wait, wait for a stupidly short train to chug past. Five. I don't even look twice at the woman with her dancing bear on the side of the road. I just want to get there. Four. Three. After six weeks in India, I’ve finally shaken off my blasé front and am excited about something.
At the Agra bus station, fully aware that this is the only place I can say it, I tell the auto-rickshaw driver, “Take me to the Taj!” And we’re off.
The Taj Mahal. Billowed marble domes moulded from clouds floating gracefully out of the sky. A high-arched dream of white symmetry, a scene from A Thousand and One Nights, an edifice of love. I walk towards it, along the promenade of rectangular water pools, eyes wide, staring, staring, staring, as if unbelieving.
An imagined palace. An architectural fantasy. A gesture from Emperor Shah Jahan for his beloved wife Mumtaz Mahal. A carnival of couples comes and goes, holding hands, pushing baby strollers; families of four or five drift along, stopping now and then to pose for pictures. Some have picnics in the grass. Everyone is smiling.
I circle the building three times, four times, trying to take in the brilliance from all sides, still wondering if it's a mirage. The sun rolls lazily down the sky and the Yamuna River is a curve behind it, motionless.
Inside, patterns of red and green flowers snake around the walls. A man with a flashlight shines it up and down the wall to show semi-precious lotuses glowing open and closed. I repeat the trick for others with my flashlight. There's a steady buzz of whispered voices and shuffling feet. The sarcophagi of Shah Jahan and Mumtaz Mahal lie in the basement while replicas sit in the centre of the chamber, encircled by a marble wall and touched by a pointillist light that filters down through the finely carved screens. Children scurry about, testing the echo of the darkened dome. The room is a blend of light and dark layered sounds. Here too, I walk around and around.
Later, I join some other foreigners by one of the fountains facing the Taj Mahal. We lie on our backs and make shapes out of the clouds.