Despite my having heard multiple tales of disappointment beside expectation concerning India’s greatest wonder, I went to the Taj Mahal with eagerness. Eagerness and a serious sleep deficit. My train arrived three hours late in the night, my rickshaw driver lied about know where my hotel was (an annoyingly common occurrence, which somehow ends with them wanting more money), and I was determined to beat the crowds and see the palace kissed pink by the sunrise, so a brisk nap in an empty dormitory and I was on the go again.
I’m a sucker for iconography and I’m glad to say it was a wonderful visit. The Taj really is a masterpiece, in both its immensity and minute details – enhanced, perhaps, by the dreamy languor of sleeplessness.
It turned out there were quite a mass of people there also hoping to beat the masses of people, but somehow most weren’t very ambitious when the gates were open and I was able to capture my favorite angles unchallenged. I prayed that the scene wouldn’t be too choked with pollution, as can happen here, and frustratingly there was quite a bit hanging thick on the horizon. Some of it got gobbled up by the sun as the morning went on, so I’m left to choose whether I prefer the pinks and greys of the smoggy dawn or the clarity of white and blue in the time after.
Not properly aware of the story behind the Taj Mahal, I was delighted to find that it’s actually quite good – even if it can be difficult to tease away the threads of lore from the webs of history. Mumtaz Mahal, the favorite wife of emperor Shah Jahan, lost her life giving birth to Jahan’s 14th child. The story goes Shah Jahan was so stricken his hair went grey overnight. He built the Taj as a tribute to Mumtaz and as a mausoleum for her remains, and his as well when the time came. Royal greed can be cruel, however, and the emperor was stripped of his kingdom and his freedom, overthrown by his son. He was locked away in the nearby Agra Fort, still with a view of the Taj Mahal perched above the Yamuna river, and not until his death would he be permitted to return to his creation and his beloved. They remain buried together underneath the Taj, inaccessible to the public.
My stay in India was now more than halfway over. Determined to experience the variations between north and south India, I arranged for my last flight to be out of Bangaluru, and it was time to start booking it south. I had briefly toyed with the idea of flying to Mumbai to save time, but realized I had more time than Rupees – though really, both are in short supply. I found a good halfway point between Agra & Mumbai and booked two long overnight bus trips, stopping in Indore. This time with sleeper seats, praise the maker.
Over the 13 hours of my first bus trip, I had hoped to edit some photos, plan my time in Mumbai, journal a bit, and get some overdue sleeping in. My sleeper bunk was at the back of the bus and on the top bunk: perfectly secluded, I naively thought. Naïve, because the laws of physics dictate that being at the top bunk at the back of the bus is only going to intensify the severity of every swerve, brake, and bump along the way. Very quickly the notion of bus bound productivity went up in a puff of carbon monoxide, so I consoled myself with an audiobook I cleverly brought along on my iPod. I listened to Shantaram, a novel about an Australian convict’s misadventures in Bombay, and the author’s initial reactions to the sights and sounds of Indian metropolis were so close to my own, I couldn’t help but smile at his grim descriptions of poverty and chaos.
Sleep deprivation was accumulating heavily on my eyelids and I unwrapped a shawl I purchased in Pushkar to double as a blanket. My little cabin rattled side to side like an old boardwalk rollercoaster car, and after the third time a bump in the road threw me so bodily into the air that no part of me was touching my cushion , I realized my hope of sleeping was an optimistic notion as well.
Sleepy, but not sleeping, the minstrel cast of my unconscious mind had no set to perform in, so instead they had their show on the moving bus. As it is with dreams, I can’t specifically recall the contents, but I know I was enjoying champagne toasts and mediating arguments with people I knew and many wholly fabricated. And I never once had to leave my bunk.
The sun rose and I tried to enjoy the backlit early morning scenes of plains, farms, and village life – despite the dry wretching of the occupant below me trying to vomit out the window. Regardless of my not sleeping there’s something rejuvenating about just trying, and I tried to see what I can do in this city I knew nothing about.
Now Indore isn’t really on the tourist circuit, which initially intrigued me, but I quickly learned that meant Indore was abound with everything I’ve become weary from by Indian cities, with none of the charming compensations. Its chief attraction, a meager and unremarkable colonial period palace, wouldn’t even admit me for their lack of change so I took to napping and conversing with locals in their exotic English garden.
After some mindless wandering, I came upon a mall and realized I had yet to see a Hindi film in India, and if I saw one in Indore, I wouldn’t have to waste that time in a more interesting city.
I had a dull Punjabi Thali (Thalis are usually awesome, offering a plate full of variety and usually centered on the offerings of a specific state) and found a seat in Son of Sardar, an action film with a protagonist I was told I looked like when I wore a turban in Amritsar. Despite being billed as an action film and starting off with Son of Sardar’s kicking all kinds of ass in a London biker bar (London biker bar?), the rest of the film had its bare knuckled brawling hero frolicking among meadows, engaging in some almost high school level flirting, and defying physics in Looney Tunes style hijinks.
It was a moment of respite in a long and boring day, and I was left dreading my new reliance on busses (trains now are cripplingly overbooked, and at this point I don’t really have an itinerary after Mumbai) and crossing my fingers that somehow Mumbai wasn’t like New Delhi, Agra, and Indore. I’m not sure where I’m going after that, but I suspect it involves palm trees and coconuts. No more of this big city nonsense.