The trek to just be in the vicinity of the Taj Mahal was an experience of its own…
Our group started by taking a short ten-minute bus drive to a nearby street where we were required to transfer to a small passenger van. Our guide explained that this was necessary because large vehicles damaged the small, narrow roads and were strictly prohibited. After the van ride we stopped in a parking lot and were told that we would have to walk the rest of the path among people our guide referred to as “hawkers”. We were given strict directions to not talk, acknowledge or make eye contact with these people because just a polite “no, thank you” was interpreted as a “maybe, ask me again” and was an invitation for them to sell their products. After our warning, our guide stepped out of the van for a few minutes to gather supplies for us and that was when our bus was swarmed with vendors. The hawkers opened every window to the van and the passenger side door in an attempt to sell off their Taj Mahal pins, brochures, snow globes and postcards. Products were shoved to less than six inches away from your face, things were rattled to gain your attention and prices of the products were endlessly repeated into your ears. At one point, a student had to step in and “shoo” the hawkers away from the surrounded van and firmly tell them that their tactics were not welcome. I never personally felt threatened or in any immediate danger but it was shocking to see the amount of desperation and persistence in the eyes of the largely young, male hawkers. After what seemed like an eternity, our tour guide returned with bottled water for everyone and red slippers to wear inside the monument. We finally stepped outside of our bubble and were mobbed the whole walk up to the security check just like the guide had cautioned us. At security, the males and females were separated to be inspected by a member of their respective sex. Items not authorized, like pen/notebook/photographs/food/video cameras/etc, were either discarded or kept until you returned on your way out.
FINALLY, we made it to just outside the Taj Mahal. This area was known as the forecourt and harbored three separate entrances. These gates were named according to what city they faced and included the western Delhi Gate, eastern Fatiabahd Gate and southern Taj Gate. When you face the main gain entrance that leads to the Taj Mahal, you notice scriptures from the holy Koran all written in Arabic. What is special about the scriptures on the gate, beside the fact that it came from a holy book, is that they play an optical illusion on you without you even noticing. The letters appear to all be the same uniform size but actually start off small towards the ground and increase in size as they climb up the walls of the gate. These black onyx stones are inlaid into the white marble, along with hundreds of other semi precious stones, and are not painted like some mistake it to be. After admiring the workmanship in the forecourt, we could F-I-N-A-L-L-Y walk through the northern gate and witness the Taj Mahal.
It was absolutely surreal to walk through that gate and see the monument in all of its glory. The transfer of buses, the mob of hawkers and long lines of security were small inconveniences well worth the trouble to just glance at the Taj Mahal. It was just about 8:30 am when we walked through the gate but there was such a frenzy of people from Africa, Europe, Asia, North America, South America already buzzing from top to bottom. Hundreds of people were trying to snap their photographs in front of the great monument and the whole site was filled with excitement. It was an absolutely incredible feeling that I’ll never be able to put into words or capture with my camera.
All of the students were dressed in traditional Indian clothing and just about everyone noticed. People native to India and individuals traveling from other parts of the globe consistently asked to either take pictures of us or with us. Students held babies, posed with extended family and modeled with individuals just to please the crowds. I think I could get used to this kind of attention….
Quick history lesson:
The Taj Mahal was built by the fifth Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan in memory of his wife, queen Mumtaz Mahal in 1631. It took approximately 22 years and 20,000 workers to put this “poem in marble” together by 1653. Although Shah Jahan had three wives, two of them were diplomatic and strictly political in nature. Mumtaz, his second wife, was the true love of his life and died during the birth of their 14th child. Before her death, she wanted Shah Jahan to carry out two promises:
1. Never marry again
2. Build a memorial in her honor
Shah Jahan was true to his word and successfully carried out his promises to his late wife.
Since the Taj Mahal was a memorial built by a Mughal, the structure was supposed to be in the middle of a garden. The thought behind this ritual is that a person never dies and just resides within a tomb when they are tired or need to rest. On judgment day the individual comes out of their tomb and goes directly to heaven or hell, depending on their worldly deeds. Since kings and queens never did anything wrong, the all went to heaven where beautiful gardens awaited them. The idea is to go from a garden to a garden.
However, the Taj Mahal we know today was not built in the middle of a garden as tradition would have it. Instead, the building is at the end of a garden and not surrounded by green on all four sides. Why was it not destroyed or moved? This is because of the light show the Taj Mahal gives depending on the time of day.
The Taj Mahal during the sunrise is pink in color, during the daytime is white, in the evening appears golden, under the moonlight is blue and during overcast looks slightly gray. How? Since the memorial is built from translucent marble and has nothing but the color of the sky as a background, this building will change its appearance in color according to the time of day.
If I could sum up the entire experience in one word: unparalleled.