In the customary presentations that followed our family trips, my mum showed off a blurry picture of the Taj Mahal she managed to take during her pilgrimage to Bodhgaya. Her tour had only passed by the mausoleum grounds so she couldn’t visit. Little did I know that I would one up her on this in a few months.
After I had accidentally gotten myself into a tour bus that went around Agra, I was relieved. I was concerned about getting around Agra once I got there but now it was all taken care of. After a visit to the Red Fort and a scammy stop at a glassworks store, we were on our way to the highlight of the tour, the Taj Mahal.
As we got closer, the tour guide started announcing the entrance prices which went something like this. “Entrance price for Indian citizens: ₹100”. But then with in a slow voice with a grin on his face he announced “Entrance price for SAARC (South Asian) countries: ₹ 500”. The rest of bus turned and grinned at me, the only south Asian foreigner on the bus. They were almost laughing as they looked at the only westerner on the bus as the guide announced “Entrance price for other countries: ₹1500”.
This over pricing tactic was not new to me. I experienced it in almost all of the places I visited before in New Delhi. But by playing dumb and not saying a word, I was able to convince the ticket sellers that I was an Indian and get away with the Indian ticket price. I thought I can do the same here too.
After arriving at the grounds, the tour guide accompanied the rest of the crowd to the local ticket counter and directed us to the foreigners’ ticket counter. That combined with the passport check meant that I was paying the full price this time. Compared to the price that the other British guy had to pay, I felt like I had gotten a bargain. We had this over pricing in several places in Sri Lanka and I have heard others justifying it saying that “foreigners have money”. But when you are a foreigner from a country with a less valuable currency, it is not fun. In my mind, regardless of where and for whom this tactic is used, it is not fair.
Regrouping with the rest of the group, we crammed into an electric kart which took us to the entrance. Clearing the queue and the security check, I found myself charging through an arch in the middle of a mob snapping pictures over their heads as we caught our first glimpse of the Taj Mahal.
It looked just like the pictures with one big exception. The crowd was everywhere. Hundreds, maybe thousands of people filled the pathways. It took me sometime to finally get down to the grounds past the crowds of people taking panoramic pictures from the top of the stairs. One does not simply take a picture of the Taj Mahal, you instead take a picture of someone else taking a picture of the Taj Mahal.
Initially, I was underwhelmed. The Taj Mahal was called a world wonder and sure, it was really beautiful. But a world wonder? Hmmm. Perhaps I had high expectations. It is perhaps a world wonder due to its complex construction entirely in white marble. But from a distance, it looked normal.
Entering the white mausoleum complex there were 2 distinct paths for the locals and the foreigners. I was told to put on the shoe covers that was given to me with my ticket and I climbed the short stairs up to vast white marble ground that surrounded the central structure. As I looked at the entrance, I was startled to see the long queue in front which nearly looped the entire building. It would have taken almost an hour to clear this queue. But thanks to my “special” ticket, I didn’t have to. The officers just told me to walk to the front of the queue and get in. For once, I was thankful that I paid more and it was one of the few times in my life when I felt entitled.
My time inside was short. One in a crowd of a hundred, I was lead to the center of the building where a white octagonal structure stood. The patterns cut into it revealed the casket shaped structures inside. It is said that the Taj Mahal was built by Shah Jahan in the memory of his wife Mumtaz Mahal out of grief for her passing. It was this legend that made the Taj Mahal so romantic. Still, I wonder what he would think if he could see his memorial filled with tourists now.
“Photography is prohibited inside the main mausoleum” read a sign by the entrance. I intended to honor the rules but once inside, no one else seemed to care. Some people were even using their flashes. Against such careless violations, I felt that a few flash free photos won’t hurt..
Next the crowd was lead to another part of the building and I started to notice the engravings and colored drawings that covered the white marble surface. From the green vines with red flowers and an ancient form of Arabic, there were so many little details on every surface of the Taj Mahal.
By now it was almost time for the tour to leave. This is one reason why I don’t like travelling with a tour group. You can’t spend as much time as you would like and instead you have to stick with the group. A lot of tours are structured around bringing people to take pictures of a place before moving on to the next place. I wanted to stay longer to take it all in so now I had a choice. By accident I had double booked and had a seperate train ticket to get back. I would only gain 45 minutes more but I did it anyway.
Feeling free, I decided to go inside again. Since I didn’t have to wait in queue, this was a no brainer. Afterwards I explored the buildings on either side of the Taj Mahal feeling sympathetic to them. They were grand buildings on their own but against the backdrop of the Taj Mahal, people just didn’t notice.
Heading out of the complex, I spotted a platform at the centre of the grounds which I thought would be a good viewpoint. I was running out of time but I decided to wait and sat on the platform with my legs over the edge. People came, took photos and left while I gazed ahead taking it all in. I wanted to stay longer but I couldn’t.
Dragging myself away, reality hit me. I had to find a tuk tuk to get to the railway station. I knew that any driver nearby would charge exorbitant price this being the Taj Mahal and all so I left the grounds and walked on. I didn’t know where I was going, turning left and right through the unknown streets on a whim with no tuk tuk in sight. I was starting to regret my decision to leave the tour group.
When I finally found a driver, he wanted more than I had budgeted for. I was running out of time and after some failed bargaining, I agreed. As we rode through the streets, it struck me how unfamiliar everything looked. While on the tour, I was isolated from it all in the comfort of an air conditioned bus and a pre-planned schedule. But now I was seeing the real city. It was a different world compared to the tourist sites I was at before.
Eventually I got the station with time to spare. Given my struggles getting here, I was relieved. As I roamed around the station trying to kill time, I saw people haphazardly sitting on the floor all across the platform. A recurring theme all across India was the lack of capacity for the sheer number of locals. Given that, I was bracing myself for my first train ride in India. If I were to believe the photos that were floating around the web, I will soon be on the roof of a train.
That last case was definitely not going to happen. When buying the tickets, I had insisted on getting a seat reservation. So no roof climbing required. It was not the most comfortable but it was not as bad as I expected it to be and certainly tolerable for the 2.5-hour journey back to New Delhi.
As the train moved on, I got into a chat with the passenger sitting next to me. He was a jeweller and while I have forgotten most of our conversation, I do remember him praising Sri Lankan gems. When I compared the journey that morning to Agra against the return journey in my mind, I realized two things. One, guided tours were simply not for me and two, India was not as daunting as it seemed.