My guide Dheeraj had persuaded a boatman to take us out on the stretch of the River Yamuna that flows passed the Taj Mahal. He flashed a smile at me under a glowing street lamp. That part of its course was forbidden, he said. The next morning, we woke early and walked to the riverbank via a dirt track flanked by the Taj’s outer wall. As we passed a sleeping village to our right, the outline of the mausoleum’s main structure rose up out of the gloom. Upon reaching the Yamuna, my eye caught blue twine twisted around an iron stump. Ravens were all business, bustling along the debris strewn banks. Doves fluttered in the distance like rising snowflakes. Wild pigs, rats, and dogs scuffled. Vociferous bugs. The boatman stood, a lone sentinel at the centre of this menagerie. A cloud of cigarette smoke hung in the torpid air. Ignoring the buzz and sting of mosquitoes, I skipped down the muddy slope towards him, occasionally glancing back up at the large complex of structures that were coming into focus as the day broke. We glided out onto the river. The shallows reeked. Dheeraj grinned. The boatman smoked another cigarette. Out on the water, I didn’t take many photos. I was content to simply observe the great gilded iceberg and its furnishings.
The history of the place is heavy here. I imagined the thousands of workers dragging slabs of marble. The heat. Broken bodies. Sweat and exhaustion. All for beauty. Jahan, the fifth Mughal Emperor of India (1592-1666), commissioned the construction of the Taj in 1632 as a memorial to his first wife Mumtaz Mahal, who died while giving birth to their 14th child. Following an illness in the later stages of his life, Jahan’s son Aurangzeb declared him incompetent to rule, and he spent his final years in a room overlooking the tomb of his greatest love. It was from a window in this very room that I first saw the Taj. Glimmering wanly in the fading light, the great structure sat like a forgotten pearl in a dried out riverbed. There was a loneliness to the scene. Scaffolding wrapped itself around two of its four minarets, and the great dome was rendered in faded ochre against the musty sky. I glanced left and right through a sea of lenses that clicked unseeingly. I looked up to see a flight of swallows duck and weave. Turning away, I noticed a guard staring into space in the shadow of a pillar.
We had reached Agra just before sundown, and made our way directly to the fort a couple of miles northwest of the Taj Mahal. Dheeraj, a charming, scholarly fellow with a passion for Philip Larkin, met us at the entrance. He told us that the view from the fort in the evening was memorable. The Mughal structure was begun during the 11th century. It crouched above us like an ancient king crab. We craned our necks, squinting up to pick out details on its burnt sienna façades. We trailed up the long slope into the centre of the citadel, and were immediately caught among a throng of visitors, both local and from further afield, buzzing with anticipation at catching a first glimpse of the illustrious mausoleum.
I felt immune to the excitement, suffering perhaps from that feeling when a book is recommended to you once too often. India is so often reduced to an image of that ivory dome, and I felt compelled to speak of its other glories: the warmth of the wind, the promise of imminent thunder, the smell of burnt dung and spice, my first taste of local dosa. On the drive from Jaipur to Agra, a religious march had forced our driver to take a series of detours through country lanes. As we careered over cracks and potholes, I was transfixed by my brief glimpses of villages and fields as we trundled passed. A young girl stood in a ditch under a khejri tree. She wore an olive green dress with the collar done up to the top. Late afternoon light played across the surface of the tea coloured puddles at her feet. For a moment, our eyes met, and then she was gone. I was reminded of Paul Fusco’s photos from Robert F Kennedy’s funeral train. His images capture the spirit of a nation, each a vignette, telling the story of one of its citizens. The framing of each photo was guided by instinct due to the fleeting nature of his subjects. All are compelling in their vivacity. With those images in mind, I whiled away the bumpy journey through rural Rajasthan taking photos from the back of the coach. I wanted to be back there, where children played cricket in dusty alleys, farmers chopped bushels of wheat, bonfires glowed, and everywhere, that light, straight from Géricault’s palette, cast a supernal haze over the dusty countryside. Nevertheless, as we made our way through the gilded corridors that finally became an emperor’s prison, I felt myself irresistibly drawn by the allure of peeking over the battlements at Shah Jahan’s finest creation.
By the time Dheeraj and I clambered off the boat and back up the muddy slope, the sun was up and beating. At seven in the morning, the Charbagh, or Paradise Gardens, which lead to the tomb itself, were already heaving with people. I walked slowly through the raised pathways that divided a series of verdant flowerbeds. I had read somewhere that the design of the garden was Persian, based on the Mughal vision of Eden. The mausoleum itself sat atop a series of platforms. I squinted as the sun reflected from the east facing façade. Searing white. A love poem in burnished rock. Finally, my resistance broke. I stood for over an hour examining the alcoves, vaults, and doorways. The dome and towers were lost from view. Maybe I just needed to be there, with my face a few inches from its walls imagining a mason minutely chipping those exquisite details, to appreciate the Taj as it is.