In the dark hours before dawn our Qatar Airlines flight soars over some of the most bombed cities on the face of the planet: Aleppo, Baghdad, and Kuwait. Most passengers sleep uncomfortably in their upright seats, others snore loudly, mouths agape, contributing unconsciously to the rumble of the plane, and some like me sit awake watching the map slip slowly under our wings.
I am once again on my way to India to lead a retreat, this time with a group of fifteen people from eight states. I have a few days before and a full week after the retreat to travel, so this year we begin with the Taj Mahal. Before we land, I pray from the skies that our fragile planet below can hold; that the people down there inside the map I am studying are safe and sound tonight; that we humans can treat each other with love and compassion; I pray for peace as midnight delivers us into the coming day.
It is 5 am and my travel buddy, Brendan, is on the phone trying to negotiate with a taxi service from Delhi to Agra, home of the Taj Mahal, the universal symbol of undying love and one of the seven wonders of the world. A price is settled upon, and the taxi will be here in an hour. In the meantime we sip Americanos and eat almond croissants full of marzipan. I know I’m heading into a three week panchakarma cleanse, but it is Valentines Day, and I have just left my beloved behind in the snow for five weeks, and I am not going to be eating chocolate for a month. Coffee and pastry one last time.
At 5:20 the taxi driver leads us to the small white car labeled TOURIST on the windshield, and we zip out of the parking garage into the pre-dawn smog draped over the city. The road is wide and quiet, our driver is not in a rush, and the sun seems stuck in the gray haze as it pushes its red face up over rooftops and the fields that flow endlessly by on the Taj Mahal Highway.
Our driver pulls into a gas station to fill up and take the first 2,000 rupees of our down payment. I use the filthy bathroom and am grateful for the wad of tissue I find stuffed into the outer pocket of my fleece jacket. Little things.
The road from Delhi to Agra is known for its morning fog, and at times the driver slows down to see the lines on the road. I find it amusing when we emerge from the mist and there is a tractor riding alongside us as if racing us into the sun.Two hours go by before we stop to grab a snack of masala spiced peanuts and to use the restroom. The sun is fully up now, and for the first time I want to peel my coat off and relish the warmth. Nearby a minivan door slides open, the hatchback lifts, and I kid you not, eleven people pour out of the van into the rest area: ladies in saris, little girls in dresses, men in skinny jeans and a variety of fake leather coats and parkas. Everyone takes off a layer. For a moment I watch, mesmerized. We drive away into the sunshine with our peanuts and water bottles. Next stop: Agra.
I neglected to mention earlier that our driver cannot speak English and has no interest in engaging anyway. I’ve always been amazed at how despite language barriers, people still enjoy the challenge and fun of trying to communicate; but this driver is having none of it. So you can imagine how odd and surprising it is when our car comes to an abrupt stop alongside a park in Agra, and in hops a little man who says his name is Hari. He tells us he will be our tour guide for “no extra charge.” Hmmm. We are too curious to say no, especially since his English is good, so we speed off with Hari riding shotgun next to our driver whose name we still don’t know.
Hari ushers us to our lodging, Sunita Homestay, only a few hundred yards from the East Gate of the Taj, and we literally drop our bags and head down the street lined with souvenir and shoe shops. By now it is 10 am and the place is bustling with cafes, vendors, tourists, and Indians here to enjoy a day out with friends. I wonder if anyone comes to pay homage to the love of an emperor for his lost queen. It is not as crowded as I thought it would be, and there is no line at the ticket booth where we pay 1,000 rupees each for a pass, a pair of white fabric booties, and a bottle of water.
We follow Hari inside the complex, and he explains a bit about the masonry and stone inlays on the buildings that surround the Taj. He is already telling us about the marble factory tour we will visit next and seems to be rushing us along. The details of the external buildings are exquisite, and I am trying my best to listen to Hari who rattles along too fast to really hear him, so that eventually, I admit, my ears turn off. Have you ever been in a place so beautiful you just don’t care how it was made or came to be? I can tell by Brendan’s face he wants to be done with Hari too.
But for a moment, let me be your tour guide. The Taj Mahal was built in 1632 by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan for his second wife who he married in 1612. The word Taj means crown, and Mumtaz Mahal was the Shah’s crown jewel. Mahal was from a noble Persian family, and she married the Shah at nineteen, bore him fourteen children, and died in childbirth at thirty nine years of age. In his grief and in her honor, he built a mausoleum enclosed in a forty-two acre complex. At the time the project cost 30 million rupees, which in today’s money is $827 million dollars. It took the hands of 20,000 sculptors, artisans, and laborers to complete in 1653. After all was said and done, the Shah’s son had him locked up in jail for spending the royal fortune on his mother’s tomb.
There are no words to describe how white the marble is, or how at first it looks unreal—a mirage floating at the end of a row of gardens and throngs of saris and iPhones and people watching people. Here is our first glimpse:
The whole scene is one of magical chaos: lovers holding hands and posing for photos, gardeners on the lawn pulling weeds under the hot sun, whole families clustered for portraits with professional photographers, guards and tour guides, dogs reclining under cypress trees, and women lined up to sit on Lady Diana’s bench. I wonder how many pictures have been snapped here.
By this time Hari has lost Brendan and I both, and we decide to go without the guide and just plant ourselves here for the entire day. We hand him a tip and say we’ll see him later, both knowing we won’t ask him to guide us to the Red Fort tomorrow. For now we are absorbed in this one beautiful place.
Before we enter the central tomb, the line of tourists stops to slip white elastic booties over our shoes. The collective shuffle of feet up stairs and through portals is a whisper as voices bounce along the marble walls. We are told “no photo,” and enter the place where the queen reclines under the carved coral lotus flowers and jade leaves of her marble coffin. People toss coins into the tomb. We are out of the room in less than three minutes. Already the light of the day is changing, and the front of the Taj is no longer gleaming white: now long lines and gray shadows creep into her pale face, but this only enhances the sculpted facade and semi precious stones decorating the archways.
I cant help myself—I have to do a little bit of yoga posing to express my delight!
Awhile later the marble begins to take on a golden glow as the sun begins its descent, and even when it becomes a silhouette, it is magnificent.
We decide to stay until sunset, still hours away. People from around the world sit basking like us, just soaking up the day. No one is in a rush. Even the monkeys take their time as they parade across the steps of the Shah’s mosque toward the Yamuna River overlook.
Eventually the guards sweep the campus, and people slowly meander back toward the reflection pool where a final lineup of people waits to have photos taken in the Taj Mahal sunset.
Before we turn to go, I take a final look at this gorgeous monument. All at once I am overwhelmed with the knowledge that I am loved as much by my husband as Mumtaz was by her Shah Jahan. It is a sweet and tender knowledge.
The sun didn’t turn the marble pink like in some pictures I’d seen, but it did glow in the last rays of the sun. I admit I messed around with the filter on my camera in this final image, but I feel like it captures way I felt as I walked away from this beautiful sight; for a moment, time stood still like in a postcard.
From the Taj, with love,