“The Taj Mahal rises above the banks of the river like a solitary tear suspended on the cheek of time.” – Rabindranath Tagore, Indian poet
“It seemed the embodiment of all things pure, all things holy, and all things unhappy. That was the mystery of the building.” – Rudyard Kipling
“A massive marble structure, without weight, as if formed of ether, perfectly rational and at the same time entirely decorative, it is perhaps the greatest art work which the forming spirit of mankind has ever brought forth.” – Count Hermann Keyserling, German philosopher
“I sat down on a bench in front of the Taj and within minutes tears were streaming down my cheeks. I simply cannot describe the beauty and power of the Taj Mahal; you have to experience it for yourself.” — fellow passenger on my last Dragoman trip
“There are two kinds of people in the world. Those who have seen the Taj Mahal and love it and those who have not seen the Taj and love it.” – Bill Clinton
I’ve got some news for you, Bill Clinton: I’m pretty sure there are more than two kinds of people in the world. I spent about five hours at the Taj Mahal on the morning of Saturday #74, and 48 hours later I’m still waiting to feel the magic. Put me in Category 3: People who have seen the Taj Mahal and said “meh.”
This is not going to be one of my more popular posts. I imagine that India’s Ministry of Tourism is already working to revoke my 90-day visa. But hear me out in this.
I had read that the Taj Mahal takes on different colouring at different times of the day, from a pinkish hue in the morning, milky white in the evening and golden at night when lit by the moon. They say the changing colour resembles the changing mood of females – in particular the Emperor’s queen.
This kaleidoscope of colour was totally lost on me. It was dark when I arrived at the ticket booth at 5:30 a.m. so it wouldn’t be fair to judge the structure on first appearances. And perhaps I should cut it some slack because you can almost cut the air in Agra with a knife. Unless you’re standing in its shadow, it’s pretty tough to see the Taj through a cloud of smog that ranks right up there with Beijing’s perma-haze.
What I did see was a perfectly symmetrical building of immense scale. It’s a beautiful building, I must admit, but THE single most beautiful thing ever created by mankind, as some have claimed? That’s a bit of a stretch, me thinks.
Trust me, I really wanted to be blown away. In fact, I expected to be blown away. After all, I have an interest in architecture, white marble is my favorite building material, and I’m a sucker for a love story such as the one surrounding the construction of the Taj Mahal.
Agra is far from a beautiful city in the normal sense of the word yet I love it, too. I can look beyond the pollution and garbage and open sewers and see beauty in the people, the colours, the smiles, the simplicity of the way its citizens live their lives. Basically, I should be president of the Taj Mahal Appreciation Club, yet I wasn’t exactly moved.
And it’s not like I rushed in and out of the place. Unlike thousands of daily visitors to the Taj, I was not traveling in a group and I had all the time in the world to soak it in and be mesmerized by its size, scale, symmetry, the attention to detail, and especially the love story behind its existence. I even ran into a guy who I had met in both Delhi and Pushkar and I ended up staying an hour longer than I might otherwise have just because he was so taken with the place. I tried to see it through his eyes. I’m still trying, actually.
When I admitted to King (that’s his first name) that I was still waiting for the angels to sing, he said: “Okay, but name me one other building in the entire world that is more beautiful.”
I had to think about that one. I appreciate the work of Le Corbusier, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Mies van der Rohe to name three modernist architects, but I knew that mentioning Toronto’s TD Centre in the same breath as the Taj Mahal would only cause unnecessary friction. While I couldn’t think of one building that was more beautiful, there are are dozens of structures that I’d put in the same general category.
The problem may be that neither Farnsworth House in rural Illinois or the Chrysler Building in Manhattan or even the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao are the single largest drivers of tourism in their respective countries. Without the heft of an entire nation’s marketing budget, and obviously the incredible love story that surrounds the building of the Taj Mahal, many phenomenal buildings are relegated to tier 2 status, well below the Taj.
I know I’m the odd man out on this issue. I’ve met several people who say they spent a few hours or even a whole day at the Taj Mahal and it was “life changing.”
Perhaps I got off to a bad start on Saturday. (There was no hot water at my hotel and even at 5:30 a.m. there were scammers on the street telling people the Taj was closed today and a tuk tuk to Agra Fort was the next best thing.) Maybe it was the archaic ticket buying process, the queues, the booties you’re required to wear. Perhaps it was the 10,000 selfie sticks that were constantly in my face.
In short, I’m willing to give the Taj Mahal a second chance. I’ll return on Tuesday and report back later in the week.