The Mansingh Palace hotel in Agra seems to be caught between two worlds. Opulent marble floors and elaborately carved wood paneling give the hallways an antiquated cricket-club feel. Bleak lighting points to some Anglican or Dickensian or otherwise non-Indian inspiration. An intricate floral pattern surrounds the perimeter of the elevator, adding some domestic flourish. The feet of tables and chairs all seem to have claws, as if designed to please royal sensibilities. However, as I sit in the barroom eating hot curried peanuts and admiring the stained glass inlay of the ceiling, I can hear the sounds of change not so far away. The hammering, the clanking of metal parts, the constant swish of sweeping and smell of fresh paint foretell a near future of improvement. To me the state of this hotel is a metaphor for the country, in the process of aligning its past to get on a smooth track to the future. It’s not so much East meets West, but old meets new.
In Agra it’s easy to lose sight of what I’m doing here in the first place. After three weeks of exploring urban slums areas and trekking out to remote villages to witness the initiatives being made toward social progress, here I am suddenly thrust into tourist central. Westerners abound here in numbers I haven’t seen in the other places. What’s more, the hotel has followed suit by inflating its prices and charging for anything and everything that can be given an additional charge. Wi-fi is an astounding 600 rupees, while most other hotels we’ve visited offer free or low-cost service. A Kingfisher will set you back 300 rupees, and oh yeah, did we want a projector for our guest speaker’s presentation? That also came with a fee. This being said, I cannot blame the hotel for wanting to make money. In America, I could hardly dream of staying in a hotel like this without forking over a lion’s share of my paycheck and perhaps subsisting on peanut butter and air sandwiches for the last week of the month. I can appreciate the hotel’s need for profit and expansion, even if they are ripoff prices by comparison. The fact is, people will pay. Because the Taj is only half a mile away.
The Taj Mahal, the “frozen teardrop of all eternity,” is just a short trip down the road. The plan is to see it at sunrise, to beat the heat, beat the tourists (yeah right), and see the magnificent marble structure bathed in golden pink sunlight.
* * *
Three Kingfishers and six hours later, I awoke at roughly 5:40 a.m. Hmmm… 3+6 is 9…. 5+4+0 is 9… These should be good omens according to popular numerological belief. Unfortunately, the sun beat us to the punchline.
We set off at about 6:00, almost leaving a few stragglers behind–to be fair, I barely achieved non-straggler status–and with the sun bright and luminous above, a sense of giddiness spread over the group as the bus dropped us by the ticket counter.
A “high value” ticket will get you a diminutive printed totebag containing a cool bottle of water and a pair of booties to cover your shoes when entering the mausoleum. From the ticket counter, located in a separate building about a kilometer from the actual site, I boarded an open-air trolley and gripped the bar tightly as we jolted over speed bumps.
Our guide, who bore stylish purple-tinted shades and clothes that might have belonged on a Banana Republic mannequin, gave a brief introduction to the Taj Mahal, only when he said it, it sounded like “Taj Ma-hell,” which it turns out is the right way to say it. This was later confirmed to me by a Bihari art dealer in Dilli Haat. So forget about the “ma-hall” stuff. When you enter the Taj, you’re entering the gates of “ma-hell.” And let me say, those gates are quite heavenly.
The story of the Taj Mahal is pure romance, living and tangible. The guide explained how the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan wanted to honor his wife whom he affectionately referred to as Mumtaz Mahal. “Mum” means beautiful and “taz” or “taj” means crown. The shah thought of his beloved as the precious ornament of their palace. In life, she had asked for a memorial, a simple vault, to be placed in the wake of her death. Never could she have imagined a structure so grand as the one which still stands today. In the time it takes a newborn baby to learn to walk, study through twelve years of school, choose a college degree and buy his first beer, the Taj Mahal was constructed. It represents the labor and fine craftsmanship of thousands of artisans. The shah could see no limitations in honoring the woman he loved, and he spared no expense in preserving her memory.
Earlier the guide had listed off all the banned items, which to my dismay included notebooks. Notebooks! I think the reasoning is that with notebooks come pens and with pens come potential defacement of world heritage property. At least cameras are allowed, albeit in limited capacity. It goes without saying that there are more than enough images out there already, so I used my camera sparingly, opting instead to simply enjoy a stroll through the gardens and a tour of the inner chambers. The gentle sounds of birds chirping and hushed voices of people in awe soothed my ears as I walked through the humid haze of late July. As with other grandiose structures on this trip, the overwhelming beauty of the architecture can only truly be experienced firsthand.
Well, an unfortunate thing happened as I was entering the mausoleum. A wayward monkey jumped from some hidden recess and attacked me, wrenching the camera from my hand before he absconded to the inner chamber. I raced in after him and looked all around, to no avail. As I became resigned to my loss and headed toward the exit in disgust, I beheld the rapscallious monkey climbing a marble screen or jali on the exterior window of the western balcony. I rushed over and caught him by the tail. Then, taking a banana from my back pocket–one of the few unprohibited items–I offered an exchange. This monkey knew when to hold ’em, when to fold ’em, when to take the banana and when to give me my camera.
Alright. That story may seem like b.s. to you. But I’m sticking to it.
If you want to see what that temporary thief did with my camera, take a gander.
While waiting for a connecting flight at Chicago O’Hare, I saw this advertisement.
Ah, the land of Kubera. Nice marketing strategy.