We managed to heed the call of our alarm, woke the boys, and made our way down to a bleary-eyed breakfast, if such a thing exists. We sat in a small covered area just out front of the hotel doors, waiting for a breakfast that did not understand that we wanted to see the sunrise at the Taj Mahal.
The distractions of Agra being what they are managed to make the main gate completely invisible to us despite the fact the gate was about a hundred yards from our hotel, but a fortuitous (albeit late) right turn brought us to the entrance at the west gate. Wow, the entrance fee is two rupees!! if you're an Indian citizen. I looked around; we did not qualify. As non-residents, we would pay full fare, 500 rupees then. Kids were entitled to free admission, so once again I found myself amazed that we would be witnessing yet another marvel for only a few dollars each.
The Taj Mahal is likely the most photographed building in the world, and as such, we were originally prepared for it to be something of a cliché, our visit to be fun but perhaps a little underwhelming. We would see it, take our pictures to prove to ourselves that we were there, and we would move on.
As we approached the interior gate, we could see only a fraction of the Taj's front face through the opening.
Avoiding the eyes of the many would-be guides, we walked toward the gate, each step adjusting the proportions of the Taj Mahal in the silhouetted space, every movement forward like walking into a self-induced hypnotic state.
At one point, the gate and the Taj set one another off perfectly, showcasing the spectacular symmetry of the entire site; as the sun began to rise, a touch of muted pink began to reflect of the large main dome. Perfect timing for us.
We stepped through the gate, and realized we were now completely under the spell.
We looked, and we breathed, we looked at each other, and looked around some more. We took pictures of our boys
and they took pictures of us.
We took pictures of others
and others took pictures of us.
I took pictures of the details
reflections on the pond
the classic Taj Mahal shots that have been showcased in magazines all over the world
and then we did it all over again. Laura and the boys, everyone on their own, standing, sitting
and standing again. Hoods down so we can see faces
and then with the sun rising higher, once more with this more intense red on our faces
and new shadows on the Taj Mahal behind us.
Twenty-minutes and exactly fifty pictures later, we descended the steps, but not without one more photo as I make my way down.
Seconds later, I whispered to Laura, "...stop..." and we started the process all over again.
Laura with one
and Laura with the other
and then someone offered to take a family shot.
The air was thick with wonder and despite the many tourists and gawkers, nothing could diminish the sense that we were witnessing something extraordinary. The fountains in the reflecting pools were not turned on until later in the morning, so we were gifted with a near glass-like reflection of all we could see, a gentle breeze carefully and continuously manipulating our double view.
As the sun rose higher, the colours began to intensify, the morning haze giving way to a brilliant, jewel-like blue, the pink glaze on the white marble moving on to yellow-gold.
The minarets reflected back like lighthouses
directing tired seafarers (and travellers) safely towards their destination.
Because of the monumental scale of the building, its shape appeared to change with every step forward.
Thirty-one minutes and fifty-four pictures later, we put on our protective booties
and stepped out on to the marble base, upon which the Taj Mahal sits. We looked in every direction, still transfixed by the wonder of it all, the sun growing warmer on our faces.
The Taj is accompanied by a mosque on one side
and an identical Jam'at Khanah, a 'house of assembly,' on the other
each offering us more unique views. As we inspected the meticulous marble inlay work near the main entrance of the Taj
a middle-aged man in a black and gold sweater tapped our younger son on the shoulder and politely asked if he would take a picture of him and his wife. The man had a thick scarf pulled snugly around his neck, his wife wore an off-white shawl over her sparkling blue sari.
Thank you, the man said as he smiled at our son while retrieving his camera. He could have asked me, I was standing right there, but he chose to ask our ten year-old son. It's moments like these, added up over months of travelling, that make everything seem so worthwhile, and so alive in our memories.
Several times we walked around, looking from every possible angle
and looking across the Yamuna River, trying to imagine life in the 1600s when the Taj Mahal was built.
Seeing it last night from the north side of the river was an experience that seemed to spring from our dreams.
But now we've been here, we've touched it. It's real.
Eighty-five minutes and ninety-two pictures later, we stepped off the marble platform, removed our booties, and meandered about the grounds.
Eventually we settle in The Garden, atop the small island mid-way between the main gate and the Taj.
We watched as Indian families and groups of young men carefully posed and took their own group photos. We listened in on casual conversations in Hindi, and several attempted (some successful) business transactions in English, as a 'guide' would do his best to lure a tourist to a particular spot for that perfect photo op and offer to take said photo, us knowing full well that an exchange of rupees would be asked for at the end of it all. "Here, Ma'am, it is over her that you must see, the Taj Mahal is most pleasantly positioned for your best photo. Come, I will take it for you. "No, a little further this way," he would say, trying to direct his usually female client out of earshot where his demands would not be heard by others.
A little more wandering
and, one hour and fifty-seven minutes later, we left through the front gate
back into the busyness of Agra
returning to our hotel rooftop for a picturesque lunch, if such a thing exists.
The whole experience reminded me of a conversation I had with my artist friend Christian, about how artists can amplify a sense of beauty by creating a relatively plain or sedate atmosphere set to act as a foil to the focal point of a work. Chris made specific reference to Rembrandt's paintings and how many of them involve a single light source that illuminates only a fraction of the work, intensifying the impact of the moment captured on the canvas. As well, we talked about Beethoven's 9th Symphony, and how you have to sit through a sometimes agonizingly dull twenty minutes of fairly average music, until all of a sudden you are hit with this powerful, anthemic masterpiece that is made that much more majestic because thirty seconds ago you were ready to walk out on him. And now this.
So yes, the Taj Mahal is a great building, a remarkable icon, but to find it here, after two months of travelling in India (which I must stress is anything but agonizingly dull), the land of open sewers, cows on the streets, garbage and dung underfoot everywhere, poverty and overcrowding, crumbling infrastructure, spitting, burping and all manner of other expulsions, one rupee one pen one chocolate, hello sir rickshaw yes please, let me take you to my shop, men with guns urinating on the side of the road*, twenty-hour train rides and ten thousand kilometres later...step through a gate, take a breath and smile...and marvel at this marble angel that sits quietly before you for no other reason than to be beautiful. And as shallow as it is, it works, because it IS beautiful. A monument to love, painstakingly crafted by the hands of twenty thousand imported workers under the thumb of a man who was likely going mad.
We strive for beauty, every day, in our lives, our actions, our thoughts, sometimes succeeding and many times failing, and here before us is what appears to be a physical manifestation of what we work for all our lives. And yet, it's just a building, a beautiful building set amidst a hard and often unforgiving landscape. It's a building that makes me realize that every bit of good we do has a place, and the more hopeless the situation seems, the more wondrous that little bit of good can be. When a child comes to us begging for money**, and Laura asks the child what their name is, plays games with them and sings them songs, the smiles that they return are like the light of the sun somehow touching the darkest places on Earth, and it begins to warm up. Just a little bit.
* India is all his and so much more. It is very easy to dwell on the negative, as I found myself doing on many occasions, but there is just so much to see and do, so many friendly and inquisitive people, that a visit to India cannot help but lift your spirits.
**There were many children who would ask us for money, but the majority did not. When it did happen, it often seemed like they were not so much interested in the answer as just breaking the ice and opening up conversation, after which all sorts of questions would come.