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Beauty in the Beast

Our train from Pushkar was delayed so we arrived a little later than planned at our hotel in Agra. We’d booked a room for 300 rupees (£4) but upon arriving at the hotel we were taken to a room with a spectacular balcony and Taj Mahal view. We questioned if this was our room and were told that they had given away our booked room so had upgraded us for free. It was late at night so we went to bed and awoke the next morning to a rather haze confined Taj. The mist almost blended in with the whiteness of the building. The clean pearl like marble and perfect curvature of the celestial building have a calming, almost soothing effect which makes even the biggest American tourists shut up in awe. As I stared at the imposing roundness of the Taj’s infamous dome from our balcony, I noticed that the shape reminded me of something. I couldn’t put my finger on it until Carl said ‘take a picture of me and the Taj’. He stepped in front of the illustrious building and there it was. The perfect roundness of my boyfriend’s cranium matched precisely the domed pinnacle of the Taj. At this point I cleverly coined the phrase the ‘Taj Ma-Carl’ and laughed incessantly at my own joke throughout our time in Agra.

As it was extra misty we decided not to enter the Taj on our first day. Instead we meandered around the tourist hell hole that is Agra. The area around the Taj isn’t too bad if you can ignore the persistent touts trying to sell you Taj t-shirts, posters and humorous snow globes, but the area around the fort is probably on par with Jaipur in terms of dirt. We watched a man squat on the road to take a shit and then settle down nicely on a curb next to his crap to eat his lunch. Open sewers and parks that had turned into rubbish dumps encouraged rats, cows and scavenger monkeys. We quickly got a rickshaw back to the cleaner area surrounding the main attraction, where getting lunch hopefully wouldn’t also mean picking up any fatal diseases.

We wondered once again how the Indian government could let people live like this, and would wonder it repeatedly as we travelled the mid-North strip of India that holds the cultures brightest and darkest customs. The lack of infrastructure for rubbish collection creates a kind of apathy when it comes to cleanliness and respect for ones environment which seems to be engraved within the Indian psyche at a young age. Children are encouraged to dispel their rubbish out of train windows and to urinate into the same streams in which they wash. Their beautiful country is their dumping ground and this is a very sad sight to see. The lack of an adequate education system for the poor has a big part to play in the demise of India’s natural beauty. Most people aren’t aware of the damage they’re causing.

But back to the Taj Mahal. That same day we took a tuk-tuk to a well known spot across the river where you got a wonderful view of the Taj for free (like real travellers Carl and I were still boiling over about the £20 entrance fee!). We took pictures from the opposite side of the river with all the other tourists and watched the sun set over the Taj. Carl commented that the building was as close as man will ever come to mimicking the beauty of nature and I agreed.

The next morning we checked out of our room and left our luggage at the hotel. We were up early to beat the crowds. The lovely Muslim man at reception greeted us enthusiastically. ‘Today is Eid’ he said, ‘so entrance to the Taj is free!’ We looked at each other. ‘Happy Eid’ we said to the man and left to take full advantage of the good news. We queued with a number of chuffed travellers and entered the grounds without paying a penny. The chattering crowds quickly fall silent in awe before their excitement gets the better of them and the noise resumes.

Pristine gardens line the walkway to the famous building. Photographers try to get the perfect Taj reflection in the garden’s clear water pools and people pose with their fingers poised attempting the perfect ‘me holding the Taj’ photo. After an hour or so Carl was happy with his.

We moved leisurely along the walkway, stopping now and again to admire the building. The Taj is sandwiched between two Mosques, one active one not. The main building itself was built by Shah Jahan as both a tribute to and a tomb for his favourite wife Mumtaz Mahal, who died during child birth in 1631. Now both the tombs of the Shah Jahan and Mumtaz are housed inside the Taj for all to see. Up close the figure of the building is just as spectacular, but like everything the Taj is impermanent and upon inspection the walls seem to be fading slightly and despite restoration works in the 20th century, inevitable erosion has begun. The inner regions of the building are sparse and after a few minutes observing the tombs and the hollow dome above, the 9am call to pray rang out tempting Carl and I outside to observe the Eid festivities.

As we exited the main building the grounds of the Taj came alive with a stream of local Muslimsrunning to the mosque in time for prayer. It was quite a sight and the ever so peaceful Taj grounds were transformed for action. Men flung off their shoes and took their place in line while children played and posed for photos behind them. Late comers still trickled in but the grounds of the Taj fell silent once more as a loud speaker led the men in prayer. Thousands of Muslims dropped to their knees in tandem with one another and paid their respects to Allah; the Taj had been brought to life. Carl and I were touched by the friendliness and togetherness of the men but left a little unsettled by the lack of female presence. When prayers were over the Taj emptied again leaving just us tourists, both Indian and foreign, to wonder the subdued grounds.

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