Since arriving in India, Joe and I have spoken to several travellers who’ve been to the Taj Mahal, and they all say the same thing: “See the Taj, then get out. Don’t waste time in Agra.”
Knowing there was a whole lot of other places (holy crap this country’s big) penciled into our two-month itinerary, we agreed to take the advice coming our way. Trains were booked: an overnight sleeper from Sawai Madhopur to Agra, arriving at 6 am. We’d spend the day checking out the “world’s most beautiful building” as The Rough Guide calls it, and depart for Khajuraho the same day, at 11 pm. Back-to-back sleeper trains with the Taj in between? Perfect.
Except for one thing…
The day before we arrived, I decided to read up on this “zenith of Mughal architecture”. After discovering it was built by the emperor Shah Jahan to enshrine the body of his favourite wife, that it took over 20 years to build, and that Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore called it ” a teardrop on the face of the earth” (thanks, Rough Guide!) I read on to learn it’s open daily from 6 am to 7 pm, and closed Fridays.
Hmm. Closed Fridays?
“Joe–what day is it tomorrow?” (Since leaving Korea, days of the week have ceased to matter. It’s bliss.)
“Friday,” he said.
1. Convince ourselves the outside of the Taj is really the important part to see anyway. Who needs to view the interior’s “marble screen, decorated with precious stones and cut so finely it seems almost translucent”? Not us.
2. Note the guidebook’s mention of the 750 rupee ($15 U.S.!) entrance fee, and congratulate ourselves on all the money we’re going to save by, well, not entering.
3. Discover the “see the Taj for free” section of The Rough Guide, and read about the “breathtaking” dawn view we can get of the monument near the entrance of a place called Mehtab Garden. Decide we’ll head there directly from the train station, with our packs, as soon as the train pulls in.
4. Try not to curse ourselves for messing up the one day in our lives we’ll have a chance to see the world’s most beautiful building. Friday? What closes on a Friday? And who knew March 23rd was a Friday anyway?
After a sleepless and harrowing train ride (I’m not exaggerating; the ride to Agra was NUTS–blog post to come), we were a touch grouchy and beyond grimy, making trekking to the Taj viewpoint with our packs a less than thrilling prospect. “It’s past sunrise anyway,” I reasoned,” so it won’t matter if we see it at a different time of day.”
In the Taj Ganj, we haggled a dingy room down to 250 rupees, showered, slept for five hours, dumped our packs in the storage closet, and shared a cheese sandwich, a malai kofta, and a pot of coffee at Joney’s Place on Chowk Kagzi. Then we hailed a rickshaw to Mehtab Garden.
A road veered right, scattered with locals selling various trinkets–leather whip? one woman asked, batting the thing around as we shook our heads and carried on. Good price, she said. Further down, the road veered again, and then we saw it–the teardrop on the face of the earth. Its dome loomed above the four columns which enclosed it, spire rising into the sky. Wide arches were carved into its sides and it was guarded by a long red wall, which stood behind a wide, barren stretch of sand, a barbed wire fence, and…a gate.
The view wasn’t bad, but if we could just get a little closer, we could see more detail, and our photos would be sooo much better. And gates are meant to open, right? Especially when they’re not locked…
We slipped through it and treaded the sandy bank, the tomb’s face and sun-soaked minaret’s growing grander with every step. No one else around! Who needed to see the inside when we could have this view all to ourselves?
Clearly it was photo-shoot time…
Until Joe heard shouting in the distance behind us, away from the Taj, back toward the gate. “I’m sure it’s nothing,” I said. “Why would anyone care what the two of us are doing?”
“A guy is waving,” he said. “We should go.”
But not before another quick pic…
I looked back and saw two uniformed men with rifles walking toward us. Maybe we weren’t supposed to open the gate after all… After one more photo, we put the cameras away and headed toward the officers. “Sorry!” I said as we approached. “We didn’t know!”
“You could go to jail, ” said one. We kept walking, a little faster. “The gate was open,” Joe said. “We thought we could go through.”
The officers shook their heads and said nothing, letting us pass them on the other side. I glanced back at the tomb, smaller now, the lines and changing colours of its surface diminished from this distance, its smallest minarets almost invisible.
Our time wasn’t long, and we didn’t get inside, but we saw the Taj Mahal.
And got one final shot.
Don’t worry, Dad! They weren’t really going to throw us in jail…