We found our coach to Agra, although not before unintentionally filling one of our final India-bingo slots. While C went to look for the petrol station that was to be our bus stop, I spotted three lads riding an elephant down the motorway. With tuk-tuks and vans swarming around them, they ambled over behind me to their own refuelling stop, a patch of grass.
After being politely informed by a very nice hotel two minutes from the Taj that in fact we were not booked in with them, but with another hotel by the same name, and then after a bit of a hunt to find this less prestigious address, we got there. Then we went back out for a wander. The street sellers were the most annoying we’d encountered, but we were also getting very good at ignoring them. We took a side road down past the Taj Mahal on a whim, arriving at the river behind it just as the sun began to set. It turned out to be one of the all-time great spontaneous detours. We ignored a big threatening looking gate to get down to the bit of temple and waste-land by the river, and then talked to a boat man who at any other time we probably would have ignored.
By the shores of the Yamuna rubbish is enmired in sludge, glum egrets perch on coiled barbed wire, pink and orange petals stick to the mud and float out into the still water, swallows in their thousands are reflected like insects in the river, the sun is setting behind the Taj Mahal. We wander over to a man bailing his boat, agree on a price and hop in. It’s made of metal lined with wood, he steers with a long bamboo pole, a wee shrine at the stern, a dubious packet of bread at the bow. There’s no one else on the river. The Taj Mahal is magic reflected. It feels good to be on the water. The boatman points down the river ‘Delhi that way. This good?’ A flock of egrets take off, a fish rises, a puppy prances along the shore, three peahens scuttle by, oystercatcher-like-birds wade in the water. It’s calm, and quiet. Relief. We have seen it! We have seen the Taj Mahal from a wee boat in the middle of the river at sunset. I mean hell, can it get much better than this?!
We sit on the steps to the wee shrine as bells ring, chanting to Ram comes in bursts. An agile brown puppy leps up the steps and eats a bone under a bicycle, a monkey flees with a chapati in its mouth, a lady all in shawls goes down to the river and feeds the dogs and the birds, another monkey wipes seeds into little piles then bends down and nibbles up the lot.
After this, blissed out, we wandered into an excellent dhaba (Hindi for, roughly, “greasy spoon”). Only a few hundred metres from the Taj, this place had a sort of invisibility cloak by lacking any garish lighting, English writing or aggressive touts, and only Indian people sitting at its terrace. The food was incredibly cheap and incredibly good, and the people incredibly friendly. The whole evening showed that, even at one of the most popular, touristy attractions in the world, with a bit of pluck and a bit of luck you can have a genuinely great time. Up early tomorrow to go inside the Taj itself!
Well, the pluck-luck combination paid off again today! In the end we dismissed the plan to get up early and queue for several hours. Instead, we slept in and then went for brunch, eventually arriving at the gate around 11am. There was barely a queue! The poor Germans we met in Amritsar advised us to arrive before 6 and queue for five or six hours as they had. Even then, they said, it had been too smoggy to see much and the main mausoleum had been closed. We spent 15 minutes queuing and then were in, it was a warm, sunny day, busy but not stupidly so, access all areas. We even managed to surreptitiously pirate a tour guide’s spiel by tactically choosing the right bench. So we spent a lovely few hours there marvelling – it’s absolutely beautiful, but there isn’t a whole lot more you can say about it!
It’s busy, everyone is in their finery, sparkly hats and floppy hats and big heels, pressed trousers and silk dresses glittering with sequins and golden thread. I wait for T to get through security, and chat to an Australian lady who camped through India in ’78, ‘there was none of this then, well I don’t remember it, I only remember the Taj.’ She tells me her two sons are currently doing a rickshaw race for charity, and accidentally scuffed some paint off a lorry, the driver of which then slapped them around the head and demanded $1,000, they gave him Rs2,000 and fled. ‘But if you’re ever bored, google rickshaw race, it’s crazy!’ And with that she left with her husband Pat.
“I aways say, it’s the most beautiful building in the world. Our poet Tagore he called it ‘a teardrop on the cheek of eternity.’ It was built by Emperor Shah Jahan as a mausoleum for his third wife Mumtaz Mahal (the other two wives only political marriages, no children) after she died giving birth to their 14th child. (8 died very young, 6 survived) From the behind, from the river, it’s 91 metres high, and I am telling you it took 20,000 men 20 years to complete. It is made of white and yellow marble, from near Jaipur. After Shah Jahan died in captivity, this was in Agra Fort, his body was floated down the Yamuna river and buried next to his wife.” A guide pauses for breath, his group look dazed “I always tell people, I say, it’s very easy, you see, it is a building of love, he really loved her, yes arranged marriage, but 95% of arranged marriages they work out, love marriages only 25%. Nowadays the towers are closed, this is because in 1996 two young couple from Chennai went up to the top and throw themselves right into the river. You see?” He pauses again “The outside it is decorated with floral patterns and different sacred scripts from the Quran, it is identical on all the sides, but different script.’
It is mesmerising, from every angle, perfect whichever way you look. Its symmetry is calming; domes, riddled with geometrical stars, curving inwards and outwards, lotus and jasmine flowers clamber up its walls in great sweeping arches of semi-precious stones, a crescent moon sacred in both Islam and Hinduism perched on the roof. It is perfect as a whole, and each tiny detail is wholly perfect.
At sunset we walk amongst dusty dunes, body swerving amorous couples. We see peacocks courting and the Taj Mahal over a sea of trees and a hoopoe scrambling in the dirt.
The Taj Mahal is closed on a Friday. The incessant shopkeepers and tuk-tuk men read newspapers by the side of the street. It’s quiet. Lines of dogs stretched out, sleeping in the sun. We walk down a road for the craic. Through a wee village where a toddler in dirty pants holds a massive knife in front of his face, two tiny baby goats nibble by the side of the road, everybody stares and shouts ‘hello!’ ‘Where are you going?’ ‘We’re walking, just walking’ This is strange, but accepted.
On a bit and two men on a motorbike pull over, the motorbike man weaves slowly next to us. He decides ‘Scotland’ means ‘England’ and seems happy with that. We visit a Ram temple with him, but cannae go in because of the dreaded shoes, he insists on some selfies. Then he points down a wee lane – ‘this river, this back Taj Mahal, this photo, photo!’ Up the lane is a little village, the man tries to get his wife to take pictures with us, but she is fully veiled and not inclined and neither are we. Wee boys half dressed scamper after us, a very pregnant goat munches next to a man selling puris. A young girl in pigtails is making earrings with her Granny. Down a sandy path and we are at the Yamuna and the Taj is reflected in the still water and it’s still beautiful. Suddenly, something hits me on the neck, it’s just a bit of a stick, but I don’t know who has thrown it, and there’s a big group of men and boys walking towards us down the river, the motorbike man shouts at someone, but I don’t wait to see and we walk quickly back up the path, past the smiling pigtail girl and her Granny and the wee boys washing and the goat still munching, past the great turf-like mounds of cow pats drying, and thatched roofs. In the next village we are accosted by wee boys and bigger boys again, one comes up to me and says ‘nice boobs’. I tell him to ‘fuck off’ and he does. Everywhere men stare and women don’t. Every day I try not to be prejudiced against Indian men, but every day my prejudices are affirmed.
Fed up of being on edge and on guard all the time, we plodded back down to the relative peace and safety of the river bank from the first evening. We sat there for over an hour, barely talking or moving, calming down and observing the behaviour and rhythms of the animals – shoogles for supremacy among the rubbish-dump dogs, monkeys and cows, both passive-aggressive and aggressive-aggressive; cyclones of birds over the river; groups of buffalo and goats gently grazing on the far side. Finally it was time to go – packing up the bags again, stuffing everything into a tiny tuk-tuk, and waiting once more for an overnight train to take us to a new part of the country.