The Unreality of the Taj Mahal

We came out of New Delhi airport just after midnight and it felt like the world had ended. Smog hung so low in the sky that even the taxi rank was hazy. It smelled like burning plastic. We were immediately descended upon by a flesh-hungry swarm of taxi drivers.

After protesting to the driver who insisted he knew a better hotel than the one we’d actually asked him to take us to, we turned into a dusty back alley along a dark street carpeted in litter. After checking in, we flicked the light on in our room and two cockroaches scuttled hastily back down the open drain in the bathroom floor. The window opened up to a narrow alley covered in obscene levels of pigeon shit. One of us slept fully clothed all night.

The first time, we were only there for the night as a stopover between Bhubaneswar where we’d attended the wedding, and Udaipur the serene lakeside town in Rajasthan where we were spending four days, just because.

The second time we returned to New Delhi was a little better. We arrived in daylight and the pollution didn’t seem so dense. Our taxi driver didn’t try to take us to a hotel with a ‘better deal’. The view was still of a pigeon-shit alley, but this one seemed to have slightly more charm to it. We had dinner and got an early night before our train the next morning to Agra, India’s old capital and now the hot, dusty town where tourists flock in their masses to see one of the world’s most iconic images ‘in the flesh’.

We walked to the train station in darkness, but the city was very much awake. We were told by a man waiting at the entrance that we’d bought the wrong type of ticket and he’d help us to buy new ones. We very nearly believed him.

As the train left the station, I watched out of the window as the sun rose slowly over the changing landscape: sometimes grassy plains that went on for miles, sometimes ramshackle buildings forming low villages, sometimes a line of men squatting by the side of tracks. Shitting.

When you arrive in Agra, you can’t see the Taj Mahal until you’re literally in front of it. You turn a corner, walk through a gate and all of a sudden, there it is. With its smooth white marble dome and its elegant minarets, it appears to preen in front of the four still ponds that reflect its image back up at itself.

It feels like you’re looking at yet another photograph. It’s eerily unreal.

Perhaps it’s the optical tricks the crafty architect employed. Pillars that seem straight are actually at a slight tilt to overcome the visual distortion caused by distance. Arabic script that winds around the gate is apparently twice as thick at the top than the bottom for the same reason. Everything is perfectly symmetrical. It’s hard to think that it was designed four centuries ago. It’s inconceivable to imagine that the architect’s ambitious vision was made a reality with no modern technology or tools.

In today’s money, it’s estimated that the Taj Mahal would have cost over a billion dollars to build. Looking at it, this sounds about right.

The whole building is constructed from semi-translucent white marble. At sunrise and sunset, the colours of the sky seep through the dome and illuminate the inner chambers in soft pink. In broadest, brightest daylight, they glow with creamy white light.

Intricate detail is added with semi-precious stones meticulously shaped and inlaid into the marble. They shimmer under the sun’s intense rays. Descendents of the original craftsmen who built the Taj Mahal nearly four hundred years ago still work one day each week to maintain these details. No-one else knows their secrets.

Later on that afternoon at Agra Fort, we looked out across the landscape to see the Taj Mahal floating on the horizon like a ghostly mirage. Pearlescent and pristine, it seems totally out-of-place in the scrubby farmland that surrounds it.

The Taj Mahal has never been a living building. The inside of it is sparse and airy (if you discount the hoards of tourists) and at the centre of it all lies a marble slab, dwarfed by the immensity of its surroundings. It’s the tomb of the Shah’s wife – the woman for whom this impossible building is dedicated. It was built to serve no other purpose that to preserve her memory.

Apparently, the Shah had in mind to construct another Taj Mahal nearby – this time in black – to serve as his own mausoleum. His son heard of these plans, rolled his eyes and kept his father locked away for last years of his life in nearby Agra Fort to prevent him from realising his dream of Taj Mahal 2. When he eventually died, his son placed the old Shah next to his wife in the original Taj Mahal in an extremely passive aggressive gesture which totally throws off the perfect symmetry of the construction.

After a long day in the heat, we caught the train back to Delhi. The train stopped at a different station across the city and we suffered a fresh hell of trying to get a taxi to cover the rest of the journey. It took around an hour until we found a taxi driver who expertly navigated the chaotic traffic whilst telling us conflicting stories about his Brazilian girlfriend, his wife and young daughter.

The next day, we left India for Nepal. It had been a brief stint in a huge country, but I feel that somehow we managed to experience a tiny slice of its diversity. I’m not rushing to go back immediately but I am intrigued to see more of it at some point in the future and to see what else there is to be found in a country that offers so much (literal) shit alongside such beauty.

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