Thursday, July 16, 2009
Yes, it was beautiful.
But I didn't want to go on this tour: not after the all-night train ride the night before, the 6-hour van ride from Delhi to Agra, and the argument at the security check where they didn't want to let me in.
The problem turned out to be the tiny straight pin holding an Indian flag that had been pinned to my shirt by someone at the train station earlier in the day.
According to our schedule, we were going to tour the Taj Mahal the next day, after a restful evening and dinner in the Grand Imperial Hotel--our first and only night in a hotel during the whole two weeks.
But for some reason, we were unloaded from the van at the gate of the Taj at 5:15 pm when I was feeling tired and cranky.
The reason turned out to be that someone reading a guidebook had discovered that the Taj is not open on Fridays. Ergo, it was now or never for seeing the Taj Mahal.
Actually, it was more beautiful in the evening hours with dramatic clouds than it would have been on a sunny, quiet morning.
I was surprised to learn that the whole place is a memorial garden and mausoleum with adjoining mosques, built for a woman who died in 1631 while giving birth to her 14th child.
She earned every inch of it! May every woman who dies in childbirth be given such a monument--especially those who have already given so much to the world.
(Sophia Tolstoy bore 13 children and before the last several births had begged her husband for respite from intercourse and pregnancy--to no avail--but she outlived Leo.)
But back to Arjumand Banu Begum, who married the Mughal emperor Shat Jahan and was given the title Mumtaz Mahal (Exalted One of the Palace).
When she died at 38, the Shah promised to build her the most beautiful mausoleum in the world. It took 22 years to build with marble from Rajasthan inlaid with gold and colorful cut gemstones.
We paid 750 rupees for entry ($15.53) and were given bottled water and a pair of paper shoe coverings (like those worn by surgeons) in a souvenir carry bag.
Nearing the marble terrace, we had to put on the shoe coverings--much better than removing our shoes as at previous historical sites.
We were not given instructions on how to find the restroom, which soon became a priority for me.
"It's near the main gate--you don't have to go all the way back to the security entrance," Nita said with a wave of her arm.
I set off in that direction and noticed that no utilitarian signs were allowed to spoil the beauty of the place--unlike Disneyland where toilet signs are everywhere.
But I did enjoy the garden and took lots of photos of the flowers and trees.
Finally at the main gate I saw two signs: "Toilet" and "Exit" both pointing the same way. I walked almost back to the security entrance before turning back and asking a guard for information.
He let me back in and I found left of the gate a long open hall of India's history starting in 5,000 BCE and ending with a modest sign just outside the toilets.
As our group left the Taj at 7 pm, we were beseiged by the same crowd of boys and young men trying to sell us mini-Taj Mahals and other products of inlaid marble.
When we had entered, I had had to borrow 700 rupees from Nita Kumar to get in--I'd spent all my cash yesterday tipping rickshaw drivers and porters in my mad dash to catch the train from Varanasi to Delhi.
So my main concern was to find an ATM and repay her. One of the boys very kindly directed me to an ATM, so out of gratitude I entered his father's shop to buy a souvenir.
I walked out with a set of six marble coasters inlaid with turquoise, lapis lazuli, carnelian, mother of pearl (in an inlaid marble container) along with a small plate and little ring box. Cost: 10,000 rupees ($207). More than I'd planned to spend, but the coasters would be a good Christmas gift for my mother-in-law.
We had to stand around waiting for three more members of our group, and that meant enduring the continued assault of all the young salesmen.
"Meri pas hai," I kept saying. "I already bought those things."
By the time our group finally reached the safety of the van, where they continued to pry at the windows shouting at us to buy things, I was nearly in tears.
I had been close to hauling off and walloping them--all that yelling in my face was tough to put up with on a few hours of sleep.
But to these persistent young salesmen, we were a walking gold mine.
You can see or buy inlaid marble at http://www.kashand.com/.