Please note: This narrative is the fifth in the series of travel essays on my Sikkim to Himachal highway journey. The rest are available on the blog.
Staring at the Symmetrical Taj Mahal, Soaking in Sun, and Scuttering Away from Petha Sellers
After the Lucknow food tour, we drove on to Agra (Uttar Pradesh). My partner S was sure we needed to see the Taj Mahal. The iconic monument that’s in my home state saw me once when as a little girl I stood in front of the Taj, tugging at the neck of my frock in sweltering heat (don’t have that photo with me). S visited the Taj when he was two years old.
But the affordable hotel with the rooftop view of the Taj that S wanted was fully reserved by the time we finally decided to book it. So we got another homestay-cum-hotel where we arrived at ten pm. That was the only guesthouse throughout our Sikkim to Himachal drive where we were not asked about our relationship. We gave our identity cards and could check-in. Simple. (Finding homestays and accommodations in India.)
Our room was (almost) clean but boxed. It didn’t have a window. There wasn’t any hot water to shower, and the toilet seat cover kept falling on us. But the owners were nice, and we got filtered drinking water and a plate and knife upon asking.
The previous day, from a farmer sitting on the highway in Bihar, we bought five kilos of musk melons (for fifty rupees, about sixty US cents) and a dozen of small bananas (thirty rupees, about forty cents). Behind the farmers, their tawny fields stretched up to the horizon. The woman who sold the bananas fingered the currency notes, confused, and it was obvious she wasn’t the finance manager of her household (or she was bewildered because I paid her extra, probably making up for not tipping in Lucknow’s Tunday Kababi). The sun beat down on the villagers squatting down on their haunches, hoping for their yellow-green melons to sell.
The musk melons wouldn’t last in that summer heat. I cut four mangoes (bought in Gangtok), which were all delicious, and three musk melons one by one. But each melon, a fruit that is supposed to be super sweet, was a weird sour, with not even a drop of sweetness in it. I would pick up the next, hoping for it to be the honeyed summer drink melons become in May, but nothing. Nada. Those were the worst melons of my life, and I dumped most pieces.
S booked two entry tickets for the Taj Mahal, and we slipped under the covers. The room wasn’t ventilated, but our tired, and overfed, bodies just floated into the slumber cloud.
We slept well and left our hotel by 9:30 am. One more melon was dumped on the road whole, in the hope that some abandoned cow would get to it. Even the bananas were weird. In fact, at the risk of sounding trite, I would say those were the worst bananas I have had. They were raw when bought but during the night in the car ripened fully with no trace of green left in them — often carrying bananas on drives, I had not seen such quick transformation ever before. I had many dreams for those bananas but their sweetness was so overwhelming, like molasses gone bad. They were neither juicy nor fragrant and were limp. Even if they had ripened in the room not in the car, they couldn’t turn out so different that they could be called good. Impossible.
S, as always, had his hands up — “I can’t take this nonsense. I deserve better.” I ate some bananas. But then I drew a line, too. The most arrogant on the part of the bananas was that with every minute they turned browner, blacker, squishier, even more disgustingly molassey. The sun, the growling sun, didn’t help a bit. One by one, I tossed the bananas out of the car window on the side of the road where an animal would have pitied the fruit and taken it in (I doubt it).
Engaged in this banana missile project, we arrived at the parking of the Taj Mahal. Much like in every public or reserved Indian parking, a guy spun out of space, handed us a receipt, took hundred rupees, and spun back into nothingness (the spinning may remind the Indians of the popular children’s superhero Shaktimaan).
Having left our hotel on a two-mango-fed stomach, the parking’s snack and tea stall under a tree bought a smile to our faces and a cry of joy from our bellies. S and I took a potato kachori (fried snack) with peas-lentil curry each and shared a potato patty and a cup of sugary tea. The patty shared the problem of its Lucknow counterpart: its potato had abandoned it. The seller said only if we had arrived at the cart two minutes earlier, we would have gotten less sweet tea — as we walked to his stall, he was sprinkling sugar into the boiling tea pan.
Now we strode to the Taj. The sun — with utter blithe for the lifelong dreams of tens of thousands of people who go to see the Taj every day — baked us like any other day. At another roadside shop, one of the many that fringed the road to the entry gate, we gulped down cold lemon sodas like two thirsty dogs. It was made with the marble soda bottle — colloquially known as kancha bottle because kancha is marble in Hindi or banta — and cost thirty rupees. Growing up in India, I bought that bottle for two rupees and bottomed it up without any embellishments such as masala or lemon that the vendor added to our glasses served with a straw. The joy of that bottle lies in drinking it up straight while the marble knocks against the glass and you shake the bottle, displacing the marble to squeeze those last drops of the soda into your parched mouth. (I don’t have a photo of this bottle but you can see it here.)
On both flanks of the road leading to the memorial, shops stood neck to neck. The vendors were outside their shops, shouting and telling the visitors to buy “Agra ka famous petha” (Agra’s famous petha), leather footwear, and dal moth. They would be quiet but as soon as a tourist passed, they started touting. S said street side sellers have motion sensor alarms. I agreed.
Petha is a delicious sweet made with the ash gourd, also known as winter melon and in Hindi as petha. There was a petha factory (karkhana in Hindi) near my parent’s house. While walking to the market or on my father’s scooter, we passed the shop through the narrow alley left between piles of cut, opened, and (I assume) used petha fruit thrown outside. The maker had properly taken everything he needed and discarded the residue on the street. In those narrow lanes, there wasn’t space for huge shops (though his wasn’t that tiny). But I assume he had just enough space for the extraction, processing, and keeping. Ash gourd, as we call it in Hindi petha, is a big fruit after all. But the juicy syrupy or dry petha dessert — shaped like squares, cylindrical, and now even in smaller balls — doesn’t resemble the fruit in any manner whatsoever.
That’s just one use of ash gourd. For last year when I traveled to Pondicherry, petha fruit splashed with holy red powder was thrown all about the streets or on doorsteps as an auspicious omen. I guess that’s another use of the fruit but if a petha maker from Uttar Pradesh would go to Pondicherry, he would pick up all the broken melon and start turning it into petha dessert right then and there.
Though I love petha, I’m indifferent to dal moth: probably the second biggest seller in Agra. It is a savoury snack, and I don’t know what is the big deal about it. But without knowing that I was eating dal moth, I was having it all while growing up. We just called it namkeen. Crispy strands made of chickpea flour mixed with fried whole masoor lentil and spices: dal moth was a crunchy snack my father didn’t let finish at home because my parents munched it between tea sips. He brought many other varieties of snacks for tea, and dal moth was a bit lost in it. But I remember it was present in a plastic jar amongst other quick eatables all the year.
The Agra sellers were screaming dal-moth in our ears, and I wanted to sprint to the Taj in my shoes rather than buy the leather footwear, which is also a quintessential product of the city of Agra and was displayed all around.
We went through the security easily because we weren’t carrying any of the laptops, eatables, plastics, or anything that wasn’t allowed.
We walked and walked and the Taj wasn’t visible until we were at the final red-stone gate which was so beautiful with all its marble engravings, arches, and Arabic inscriptions. The gate is so huge it completely blocks the view of the Taj Mahal up until you cross it. Imagine. An emperor capable of envisioning such a brilliant one-of-the-kind monument was also smart enough, or perhaps artistic enough, to construct a giant gate in front of the mausoleum of his dear wife so that none could just see it from afar. To get a view, one has to walk to the tomb through a gate that slowly from a glimpse would present the whole of the Taj Mahal to someone who had gone to seek it.
At the gate, we stood amongst a throng of people all of whom were clicking photographs of the Taj ahead. Though once the number of daily visitors went to 70,000 on weekends, now the Archaeological Survey of India doesn’t allow more than 40,000 visitors on any given day. The limitation is to protect the monument and even the people from stampede-like situations. (Though I couldn’t spot the limitation on ASI’s website, various reliable internet resources, such as Skift and Statista, share the number.)
Through the gate, we saw the Taj glowing golden-white ahead. It was beautiful, glorious. It rose out of the earth as the perfect enlarged replica of the small Taj Mahal in water globes that were once ubiquitous in both rich and poor Indian households. But with naked eyes dulled to the monumental beauty of the world because of having seen it so much (a privilege for which I am grateful) and as someone ignorant of the challenges that would have been the making of the Taj Mahal between 1631 and 1648, I could only appreciate it so much.
I wanted to be more excited about the Taj, like those who aren’t able to keep their feet on the ground when they see the memorial the fifth Mughal emperor Shah Jahan made for his second wife Mumtaj Mahal who died giving birth to his sixteenth child. So along with others, I skipped along beyond the gate, and we all hopers were released into the gardens, sprawling around the symmetrical ornamental trees flanking a long blue water pool. Thus we began our sultry, but perhaps imagined for decades, journey. Our haphazard human spread would not have been appreciated by Shah Jahan, who along with a team of trusted architects, designers, and other artisans, made the Taj Mahal an epitome of symmetry.
Instead of going right inside the tomb, we first walked around the main mausoleum while getting scorched not just from the sun above but from the heat of the baked white marble of the Taj. I wouldn’t go into the angles and colours and symmetries of the Taj — not only because I am not equipped enough to comment but also because every visitor of the Taj Mahal would have their own view, impressions, and enchantments. But from wherever we looked, the Taj was perfect in its symmetry, carvings, and alignments. The multicoloured flowery arabesques made with precious stones on the arches emphasized, if everything else had not already, that the Taj belonged to an era where things were done slowly but well and beautifully.
Unabashed, I gazed at the Taj Mahal from as many angles as I could, even memorising the symmetry of the domes, arches, and various components of the building. When I closed my eyes and opened them again that was when I saw how grand Taj was.
The four minarets standing around the main tomb had a staircase, lattice air vents, doors on all three levels, and an open-air domed top. I thought those minarets were the viewing points for the emperor and his other wives. But I was wrong.
UNESCO says, “The four minarets provide not only a kind of spatial reference to the monument but also give a three dimensional effect to the edifice.” The tombs of two other queens of Shah Jahan now lay forgotten in the corners of the Taj Mahal — I didn’t know about them while visiting so I didn’t see them. Also, we had to get back to the highway.
When S and I were done staring at the white marble majestic mausoleum we turned our eyes to the red sandstone mosque opposite it. Again with its arches leading into more arches, latticework, flower motifs in stone and of stone, and ceiling carvings, a prayer place, in my opinion, couldn’t be more exquisite.
We had the ticket to see the cenotaphs inside so we packed up our feet in plastic covers and queued up. Around a richly latticed screen, we walked, rushed by the attendant, admiring the carved cenotaphs of the husband and wife. The real tombs were downstairs in the lower chambers where Shah Jahan was put to rest at least a decade after Mumtaj Mahal was reburied there (She was originally buried 900 km away from Agra in Burhanpur, Madhya Pradesh where she died). Now the couple must rest quietly in silence.
The British aristocrat Lord Marcus Beresford in his “Journal of my life in India” rightly called the Taj the noble monument of a monarch’s grief. But to think, once the British wanted to sell the Taj, like they sold the shahi hammam or the bathhouse of the Mughal emperors dismantled from the Agra fort. The exquisite, carved, engraved bath now lies in the vaults of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.
Thankfully, we still have the Taj, if not for anything else, for that heartbroken husband who spent the last eight years of his life looking at the Taj far away from the Agra fort because his son had declared himself ruler and locked his father up there.
How glorious Taj must be on full-moon nights! (Psst: You can get night viewings of the Taj Mahal on full moon nights and two days before and after. Book on the official website of the Taj Mahal.)
Back out again, we stood at the edge and looked at the blue-grey Yamuna coursing behind the mausoleum. Storks and other water birds bent their necks and preyed in the water nonchalantly. I loved imagining the emperor getting unhindered views of Yamuna and his kingdom from the tomb of his favourite wife and his administrative half.
S was happy but hot. During the last selfie frenzies he looked as if he would faint. The sky was clear and bright, and our caps saved us else we would have gotten a heatstroke, given we had lived for the past three months in Gangtok with a permanently clouded sky and temperature hovering around fifteen degrees. We plonked down on the lawns and later at a water cooler drank more than camels.
Though I was happy to see the Taj, I wouldn’t say it was the most majestic thing I have ever seen nor does it have to be. I was more amazed by Machu Picchu, the Amazon forest, and the Shikari Devi summit in the Himalayas. Nature’s wonders stun me a bit more (than manmade) but that doesn’t take away anything from the Taj’s symmetry, perfection, engravings, hues, and setting, not to say the emotion behind it. It wouldn’t have been an easy feat to achieve.
For decades most Indians believed in the apocryphal story that Shah Jahan ordered the hands and eyes of the workers who built the Taj Mahal to be cut and pierced so they couldn’t make another Taj. But the story is a dramatizing myth.
Or, perhaps, my impressions of the Taj were a little toned down for I couldn’t forget what Sahir Ludhianvi, the rebellious poet and lyricist, said about the memorial.
ये चमनज़ार ये जमुना का किनारा ये महल
ये मुनक़्क़श दर-ओ-दीवार, ये महराब ये ताक़
इक शहनशाह ने दौलत का सहारा ले कर
हम ग़रीबों की मुहब्बत का उड़ाया है मज़ाक |
मेरे महबूब कहीं और मिला कर मुझसे |
English translation by Mustansir Dalvi goes as this,
The lush gardens and palaces,
the Yamuna’s edge;
the exquisitely carved portals,
the arches and niches,
the handiwork of the one
emperor who, buttress’d
by infinite wealth
has mocked our very love,
our impoverish’d, destitute love.
Even so, my love,
let us meet
But Sahir’s ghazal couldn’t stop the most-average of Indian households to have a sparkling water globe of the Taj as one of their most prized possession, whether they needed a paperweight or not and whether they had visited the Taj or not. Those paperweights were displayed in glass showcases filled with other curiosities, made the best gift for a lover or a newlywed couple, and, most importantly, were also to remind oneself of the out-of-reach magnificent things amongst the daily rut of life. I guess you can’t stop one from dreaming.
As Freya Stark said of a Persian nomad who amidst children in rags and broken roof presented her a little soap with the air of triumph, “It was the symbol of a different order of things, a litde treasure kept among the difficulties of nomad life as a reminder of something better which might otherwise be forgotten.”
Taj Mahal definitely reminded and still does of serenity, purity, and beauty, much like the white marble that sheaths it.
“Only let this one tear-drop, this Taj Mahal, glisten spotlessly bright on the cheek of time, forever and ever.” Rabindranath Tagore
After a long and hot day, S and I held hands and walked to our car. When a horse cart driver touted a ride, I jumped onto the cart and dragged S along for he had never ridden one. The ride was five minutes only but it made S skittish and excited like a child. We rushed to the car to make in it time to my college friend’s house where we would stay for the night (when I messaged her from the mosque telling her I would pass her house on the way to Himachal, she said she was getting our bed ready, and it was a non-refundable booking. She would eat the last of the melons happily, which she found not too sour though not sweet either.). But not without first finding the best shop for petha and buying enough for us and our friend. The day, indeed, had a sweet end.
I leave you with the photographs of the Taj Mahal.
Planning your trip to Agra’s Taj Mahal
To book the tickets, visit the official website of the Taj. For hotels, check out Booking, my most reliable source for hotels and guesthouses in India. Ignore all petha sellers and buy petha from Panchhi Petha shop.
Have you been to the Taj Mahal? Would you like to go?
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