It’s not as easy as getting on a plane in Jordan, and arriving at the Taj. There’s a cab to the airport, a flight to Abu Dhabi, a red-eye flight to New Delhi, an overnight in a hotel, and finally a train which will take me to Agra. There is also the issue of the 100+ degree heat weather that is currently gripping the country. This should increase the unpleasant smell quotient considerably, as well as the overcrowded stress factor.
The good news is that I have booked decent hotels in all my destinations so I have a refuge after a day of sensory overload. I go prepared with spare toilet paper which tends to be in short supply, and will probably buy some scented oil to dab on my upper lip should the smell of feces tend to wear thin.
I am already looking forward to the pristine beaches of Hikkaduwa in Sri Lanka!
INDIRA GANDHI INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT
TECTONIC SHIFT IN PLANS!!!
On my way from the airport, my driver was unable to locate my hotel in the clusterf#ck that is New Delhi, so I finally managed to persuade him to stop at a travel agent’s office for directions.
Once there, the agent addressed my desire for train tickets, as well as my itinerary during my stay in India. He expressed serious reservations about the Varanasi portion of my trip given its pungent aroma and generally shabby demeanor. Of course, he was trying to sell me on an alternate plan, but it wasn’t hard to grasp the wisdom of it because the whole Varanasi thing had been eating at me for weeks.
A friend had sold me on the whole spiritual city by the Ganges thing, but I don’t buy into that stuff especially if the place smells like an outhouse. It’s also not uncommon for bodies to float by on the river. Many people make it a point to visit the Ganges before they die, and many expire once there due to old age, and possibly due to bathing in the toxic river, itself. Factor in the 100+ temperatures, and you have a perfect storm for olfactory unpleasantness of the highest order.
So I will retain my plans for three nights in Agra to see the Taj Mahal, but plans for Varanasi have been scrapped in lieu of a trip to the Kashmir. There, I will spend a week in a houseboat on a lake, hike the foothills of the Himalayas, and do a little trout fishing as well. Not only will I be treated to the cool, clean mountain air, but I will be off the grid for seven days.
In addition to these quite reasonable arrangements, I won’t even have to worry about airport transfers. I will be driven to Agra, and will have a driver for the full three days of my Taj Majal adventure. The once worrisome India trip is looking up. I know there would have been a lot of amusing aggravations as a result of the Varanasi visit which would have really spiced up the blog. But I would prefer my spices to be in the Indian food I’ll be consumed during my stay.
Once again the Travel Zealot’s rule of silver linings and maximum flexibility have paid off, and spared me a considerable amount of needless suffering. My travel synchronicities have been quite abundant lately. For those of you traveling to poorer countries, you can often book your tours locally at a much better price.
THE TAJ MAHAL – Let’s just cut to the chase, people. Major bucket list material is now sorted.
ITC MUGHAL AGRA – My five star sanctuary for three days here in Agra. This was a genius move. The hotel cost me less than most three star hotels. It is certainly helping to take the edge off of the whole India experience, which is a pretty dusty, noisy, chaotic affair. Not only do the congested streets promote a great deal of horn honking. New York City at rush hour times ten wouldn’t even reach the level of sonic insanity found here, and this is Agra!
In Delhi it’s even worse. What’s even more trying is that about half of the beeping isn’t in response to traffic at all. They just get so used to leaning on their horns that it has pretty much turned into a nervous tic. Factor in crowding and pollution, and you a toxic trifecta. Thankfully, my time in Delhi will be used purely as a way station to other destinations, and I advise you to do the same. That said, If you make the trip all the way to see the Taj Majal, for God’s sake, stay at this beautiful hotel. The staff is impeccable, the food is delicious, the grounds are beautiful, the rooms are wonderful, and the beds are divine. What could be better than visiting the number one wonder of the world, and staying in a palace for less than a Holiday Inn?
RECEPTION & LOBBY
ONE OF MANY RESTAURANTS
MY UPGRADED MINI SUITE – With sofa lounge, green marble floors and elegant rug.
After all of those bunk beds and one star hotels, this mattress sent me into a coma within seconds.
This was actually on the highway to Agra, but it’s a good segue for the Taj. My first visit was at sunset to be followed by another tomorrow morning at 5:30am.
If you wish you can take a Tuk-Tuk to the North Gate entrance to the Taj Majal.
Ricky, my guide, insisted on taking lots of pictures of me, most of which I thankfully discarded.
NORTH GATE – Main entrance to the Taj Majal
THE TAJ MAJAL – The Taj Majal took twenty-two years to build, and was completed by 20,000 artisans in 1653 at a cost of $827,000,000. It was commissioned in 1632 by the Mughal emperor, Shah Jahan to house the tomb of his favorite wife, Mumtaz Majal. She was said to be brave, beautiful, and intelligent. His other two wives failed to produce offspring, but Mumtaz bore him a total of fourteen children in about 16 years. That would attest to her bravery and perhaps to the reason for her early demise.
As women are wont to do, Mumtaz requested that the king fulfill three promises from her deathbed. First, that he would build a monument to her in her hometown of Agra. Second, that he would look after all of her children. Third that he would not remarry. He still had two wives to fall back upon so that wasn’t such a sacrifice. He kept all three promises, but the Taj Mahal remains the one that people remember and the one that left an indelible mark on planet Earth.
The Taj Majal is visited by seven to eight million visitors per year. In 2007 is was honored with the distinction of being declared the winner of the New 7 Wonders of the World initiative.
I just checked the list, and am gratified to say that there is only one wonder that I have not yet visited. The good news is that I will be visiting it in a month when I am in China. Of course, we’re talking about the Great Wall of China, and that will be a total of 3 wonders visited in only two months. What an awesome year, crazy!
EXPECTATIONS EXCEEDED – The closer you get the better she looks. The Taj is meticulously restored and is cleaned every five years because of the effects of pollution. It seems it was changing the color so the Indian government took steps to preserve this national treasure.
BASE, DOME, AND MINARET – The minarets are tilted away from the main structure in case of earthquake.
All around the exterior of the Taj, you will find floral inlays above the arches and in trim framing certain elements. Semi-precious stones were inlaid into the white marble. Craftsmen who performed this task passed their art down through the ages, and there a groups of them still practicing today. You can find their work around Agra, the craftsmanship is excellent and the pieces are beautiful.
MORE BEAUTIFUL INLAY WORK
BAS RELIEF AND INLAY WORK
SEMI PRECIOUS STONE INLAYS
MUMTAZ MAJAL’S SARCOPHAGUS – OR IS IT?
MAGNIFICENT MEDLY OF ELEMENTS AND TECHNIQUES
Intricate panels here are carved out of one piece of marble. They are trimmed here with jeweled inlays.
MUMTAZ’ FALSE SARCOPHAGUS – The real one is in a burial chamber directly below.
A truly majestic structure conceived by three architects.
A monkey patrols the perimeter, and subsequently lunges at me.
Having escaped the demon ape, I pose for one last selfie.
One last look at the Taj before dusk.
Back out the gate. There are eleven little domes perched above the main arch. There are eleven more on the other side. These twenty two domes indicate how many years it took to complete the Taj Majal.
Mama and baby monkey scrounging for a bite to eat.
After a hard days work with dark approaching, the monkeys return to the forest, and I return to my Mughal Palace. The next morning I’ll return for the sunrise at the Taj.
Day Two – Sunrise at the Taj
The Taj awaits behind the red wall.
NORTH GATE – MAIN ENTRANCE
Kamal, my driver in the yellow shirt approaches the North Gate. This is a day steeped in profundity in that he has driven to Agra over one thousand times, and has never laid eyes upon the Taj Majal! No Travel Zealot worth his salt would let this injustice continue unaddressed, so I brought him along with me. I gave him the day off the next day with money to celebrate over lunch. That last bit was actually a bit self serving since I spent the whole day in my palatial hotel enjoying my sumptuous accommodation.
After ten bloody years of ferrying tourists from Delhi to Agra, Kamal finally gets to see the Taj for himself.
There was a terrible storm the night before, but I was completely unaware of the severity due to the soundproofing at the hotel. Evidently fifty people died due to the winds. To the left of the reflecting pool you can see a couple of trees that are bent over about twenty degrees. Other than that, everything is pretty much the same as the day before. They must have had a cleaning crew in there at 5:00am to tidy up the place.
Sunrise tries to assert itself through the haze.
The building on the right was used as a Royal retreat where nobility could stay during visits to the Taj. Later the British took it over as a retreat of their own. When India got its independence, the British cleaned the place out of all of its priceless antiquities. There are a lot of ill gotten gains in the British Museum from those empire days, and I reckon there are a lot of countries who are seriously pissed off because of it.
These are beautifully executed minarets that take on a different personality depending upon the background.
Spot all of the beautiful design elements in this image.
This is a floor detail from outside of the Royal Retreat.
This design element was made wider at the top so it would seem even from top to bottom.
Faux Burial Chamber
Original Door – This is a door to the burial chamber with much of its embellishments intact.
Here you see the crowds begin to flood in at 7:30am. Time to clear out.
I know I beat the hell out of the Taj photographically, but this might be the last visit I make to India. Also at sunset and sunrise the light was constantly changing so hopefully the images reflected subtle changes that could be enjoyed. I know that I’ll always be grateful to have visited this incredible monument and wonderfully fulfilled promise to a wife who sacrificed so much.
It’s too bad she wasn’t permitted to just have say seven kids instead of fourteen. Shah Jahan might have enjoyed her company for many more years, and may have avoided imprisonment for trying to build a black marble Taj across the river. Of course, then we wouldn’t have the wonder you see here. Their loss, the world’s gain.
NEW DELHI TRAFFIC
I took no pictures in Delhi because I have no desire to remember it.
I’m sorry, but Samuel L. Jackson once said in “Pulp Fiction” that he wouldn’t eat pork since a pig is a filthy animal, and he wouldn’t consume anything that disregards it’s own feces. It’s kind of how I feel about visiting India and it’s own serious disregard for its own excrement. Also, overpopulation is at the root of many of it’s problems, yet they often insist upon breeding their way into perpetual poverty.
Forget all of their so called spiritual wisdom. Where are the gurus with the condoms? I fail to see the spirituality to be found in rampant illiteracy, overpopulation, poverty, chaos, pollution and filth. India is a polluted, chaotic, insane clusterf#ck of monumental proportions. Sure, it has its occasional charms, but at what cost. One day in Delhi feels like you’ve smoked a carton of Camel no filters, not to mention risking your life with their kamikaze taxi drivers.
Even in Kashmir you end up driving through noise, chaos and insanity to visit something peaceful and beautiful. Then you have to go back through the maelstrom losing all grasp of the serenity you had just derived from your destination.
My advice. Fly to Delhi, get a connecting flight to Agra, stay in the ITC Mughal for three nights, and then head straight for a beachfront hotel in Sri Lanka to decompress and salvage the lingering awe from visiting the Taj.
Many people I know are mesmerized by their travels throughout India, but it’s not for everyone. My intro was a pretty tame one in the grand scheme of things, but I think I have gotten to a point in my life where squalor and misery hold little interest. Unless I can do something to help out, I’d rather not play spectator.