My last few days in India and the Taj Mahal seemed like an neat ‘full stop’ to my month-long trip. Many say the Taj is the jewel in the crown of India, an essential stop on any tourist’s trip. Built in 1643 and located on the banks of the Yamuna river, it is flanked by a mosque and boathouse in similar architectural style. I was told back in Jodhpur that I was very lucky to have timed my visit during the full moon as a nighttime viewing is the romantic Indian experience not to be missed, even whilst travelling solo. But a little research revealed that inflated prices, numerous guarded checkpoints and heavy smog were enough to make a nighttime visit pointless. Apparently, a full moon viewing doesn’t even involve stepping onto the grounds of the vast, geometric gardens surrounding the Taj – sightseers have to stand way back at the entrance gates and chance a moonlit glimpse through smoggy cloud cover. My day trip to the Taj was an exercise in avoiding hawkers, getting lost on the way to the office supplying audio tours, paying to use a few squares of toilet paper at the public toilets and making videos of energetic squirrels, writhing in piles of bird seed like it was Christmas. Like me, most tourists seemed to be busy seeking the pleasurably symmetrical photo opportunities that the sophisticated, marble structure affords.
Myth and awe surround the UNESCO heritage-listed building, especially regarding the supposed love story behind it. Shah Jahan built it to house the body of his third wife, Mumtaz. She’d died in childbirth after a thirty hour labour and her fourteenth pregnancy – the real reason why many people assume she was his ‘favourite’. Not a single court document from the time of the Shah Jahan’s lifetime chronicles nor corroborates a love story of any kind between them, perhaps historians have been misleading us for centuries. That the building is so huge and pearly-white attests only to his own desire to also be laid to rest in a beautiful residence (his body is placed in a much fancier sarcophagi beside hers). Some say his guilt over impregnating her fourteen times is the real reason for the majestic, grand building. Still, I wish people visiting would respect it as the final resting place of two historical figures and refrain from leaving their rubbish on the ground and in the long reflection pools.
Better than the famous monolith itself is the Taj Nature Walk, recommended to me by my AirBnB hosts in Agra who described it as a ‘jungle’ where, at its highest point, I could glimpse views of the Taj’s eastern side. Only 200 rupees to enter and a few hours could be wiled away walking the snaking concrete paths through open grasslands, along a man-made river, into the sandy mounds and through dense, bramble-like plants where kingfishers and brown birds twittered. Secretive couples also favoured the many sandy spots among the thickets. You’d be lucky to be anywhere in India and enjoy surrounds more populated by birds than people. That day the Agra sky was very blue and I had found a place where the air didn’t make me cough by midday.
It was in this garden that my most special moment happened. With the distinctive “eee-ow!” call of everyone’s favourite Indian bird in my ears, I followed a pair of tailless peacocks (peahens don’t have big tail feathers anyway) with their adolescent chick in tow. I immediately recalled my very memorable dream of another peacock feather sought and found; it was a dream I’d had in my first few days in the country, down south in the tropical setting of the vedic retreat in Pollachi. That day in the park I found my feather – there on a gravelly sidetrack, small and iridescent with its distinctive ‘eye’. What I was seeking in a dream, I had found in my waking travels along a path I hadn’t expected to take.
After Agra, I flew home out of Delhi airport. I was tired and seriously low on rupees, but lucky enough to have a full middle row of plane seats to stretch out on. I slept like I hadn’t in weeks. Leaving India, I did so with a suitcase full of treasures and a head full of memories. More on those in my post next week, where I take stock of what I learnt from India and reflect on the reasons for one day making my return.
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