A Monument To Love

Mary McIntosh

Copyright 2003 by Mary McIntosh 

Photo by sanin sn on Unsplash
Photo by sanin sn on Unsplash
On a fascinating visit, I saw both the grandeur and squalor of India.

 White marble, inlaid with semiprecious jewels, a cloudless day, and the sun shining on the world’s most beautiful monument to love--my first glimpse of the Taj Mahal.  Of course I’d seen many pictures, but I was not prepared for its beauty, and the splendor of the jewels embedded in the marble that glistened in the Indian sunshine.

 When I joined a tour group in London, high on my list of things I wanted to see was the Taj Majal. We stayed at a hotel in Delhi, and were awakened early that morning for a 6:00 o’clock flight to Agra, This would give us a leisurely day, and time also to visit the 400-year-old Red Fort, which is surrounded by double walls and two moats.

 Plans changed.  Ready to board a plane in Delhi, we were advised that fog had rolled in, so we waited and we waited.  At 10 o’clock we were still at the airport. We’d been there, without breakfast, for five hours.  I was leery of buying anything from the snack bar because I’d seen what the locals had carried back to their seats. Since I had no idea what it was, and it didn’t look at all appetizing, I’d wait, no matter how long.  I guess the others in our group felt the same way, too, for no one ventured forth.  Besides, we all had to be so careful we didn’t contract “The Delhi Belly,” which would ruin the rest of our rip.  I ended up passing some Clorettes around, which helped take the dryness out of our mouths.

 The airport was crowded with families, and children running all over, even at that early hour. It was impossible to catch a short nap. Every hard bench was occupied. Those who couldn’t find a seat sat on the floor. The air was heavy with cigarette smoke.

 Just before eleven, we were allowed to board the plane.  It felt good to sit in a reasonably comfortable seat. I was ready to continue our trip.  But it was not to be. The fog descended again, so we sat on board and waited some more. Finally we were served our first meal of the day--a roll with jam, and a tangerine. A filet mignon at the best restaurant in New York City never tasted so good.

 At noon we finally took off.

 After arrival at the Agra airport we climbed into a beat-up, gaily painted bus, hired for the short ride to the Taj Mahal. After alighting from the bus, we had to wait before crossing the road because goats, cows, and chickens filled the streets, and a camel carrying a load of straw on its back was being led past the gate we needed to enter.  Scruffy-looking children, hands outstretched, begging for a coin, surrounded us, and beggars, many of them blind or minus a limb, were scrunched over in doorways, in a corner, or sitting forlornly on steps.

 As I entered the courtyard through an imposing filigreed iron gate that surrounded the Taj Mahal, I saw the most beautiful building I had ever seen reflected in the long, rectangular pool--India’s symbol to eternal love. My reaction--a shiver went down my back on a hot afternoon.

 The sharp contrast between the stark poverty outside, and the sudden magnificence of the Taj Mahal; was almost too much to absorb.  I listened, fascinated, as our guide told us the Taj Mahal assumes a pinkish color in the morning, milky white in the evening, and appears golden by the full moon. These changes, the Indians believe, depict the different moods of a woman.

 On this sunny day, the white Indian marble, embedded with as many as thirty-five different semiprecious stones, was so brilliant it seemed to hurt my eyes. I had never before gazed on a building so beautiful.  I learned that when the Taj Mahal was being built, caravans were sent to distant lands to obtain the jewels--turquoise, jade, agate, coral, lapis lazuli, onyx, bloodstone, carnelian, jasper, garnet, and malachite--from Tibet, Burma, Egypt, Afghanistan and the Indian Ocean. The hand-carved jewels were then laid in already prepared sockets in the surface of the marble. Sometimes as many as fifty tiny pieces of a semiprecious stones were cut, fine tuned into shape, and fixed in place to make a single stone flower.

 The four minarets on the tomb were built to give visual balance.  It took Prince Shahjahan twenty-two years to create this jewel for his beloved Princess Mumtaz Mahal.

 After I wandered around the gardens, and absorbed the tranquility the building seemed to emanate, I followed the rest of the group down a short flight of stone steps into a very dark passageway to the burial site of the Prince and Princess.  A small light, hanging from the ceiling, illuminated the two large, imposing tombs. Because the Emperor loved his Princess so dearly, he ordered his tomb to be slightly different, and less perfect than hers.  As a result, this tomb is the only asymmetrical object in the entire Taj Mahal, and this was his way, we were told, of showing his great love for her.

 It was time to go.  I climbed back up the stairs and joined my fellow travelers.  After the darkness of the tombs, the sun momentarily blinded me.  I turned to leave, and walked slowly down the long walkway next to the reflecting pools.  I didn’t want to go, but I kept reminding myself this was just a building, erected to honor the Mughal’s second and favorite wife.  But, oh how he must have loved her, I thought.

 As I started to walk out of the gate onto the busy Indian street, I turned around and, for one last time, gazed at the Taj Mahal. The brilliance of the embedded jewels on the white marble seemed to whisper to me of love.

 A visit to the Red Fort was next on our schedule.  Only a short distance away, it can be viewed from the Taj Mahal.  However, because of our late morning departure, and late arrival at Agra, we did not have time for a visit; we simply drove by and got only a quick glimpse of it.  We learned it was built as a military fort, and Prince Shahjahan, creator of the Taj Mahal, who was deposed by his third son, died there as a prisoner.

 When traveling on a tour, I discovered it was usually necessary for us to arrive at airports or bus stations with plenty of time to spare. This happened, even with a small group of twenty people, and so we arrived at the Agra airport at six that evening, even though we weren’t scheduled to leave until eight.  Only one plane was used to fly to Delhi, and we had to await its return. At Agra’s small airport, on a warm Indian evening, we sat outdoors on bamboo chairs, beneath a red and white striped awning, which looked very much like a circus tent.

 The small plane finally arrived, and I climbed on board for the short flight. We’d soon be in our hotel again, and I would be glad.  It had been a long day.  But, as we neared Delhi, I noticed the moon had moved from the left side of the plane to the right.  Hmm, I thought, unless something drastic has happened to our planet, we must have turned around. Sure enough, the pilot announced that Delhi airport had zero visibility.  We were headed back to Agra.

 Once again, we landed at the same small airport where we had landed earlier in the morning.  Once again, we headed toward the bamboo chairs underneath the circus-like tent, mumbling to each other while we waited for our guide to tell us what would happen next. After a short time-though, as tired as I was, it seemed like hours-our tour guide returned to announce we’d be spending the night at the Moghl Hotel in Agra, courtesy of Air India.

 The bus we now climbed into was not gaily painted like the one we’d ridden in earlier. This bus was painted brown similar to those we’d seen on the streets, and usually used to carry the natives, not tourists.  It was just a short ride, but a scary one as the bus rattled and swayed, and each time the driver stopped in traffic, and shifted gears, the brakes screeched and the bus shook.  I was beginning to wonder if we’d ever get to where we were going.

 At the Moghul Hotel, the night manager looked haggard.  I’m sure he was not accustomed to having to get rooms ready for twenty people without prior notice. While I waited, I sprawled on a chair in the lobby and tried to nap.  Many were doing the same thing, while others smoked cigarettes or wandered around talking in low tones to each other. When our tour guide finally informed us our rooms were ready, I gathered my purse and jacket, stretched my cramped neck, and followed the others to the lifts.  In my room, the filled-to-overflowing ashtray had not been dumped.  I didn’t care. The bed looked clean and comfortable, so I quickly climbed in.

 The trip to Agra was to have been only a day’s outing, so, of course, none of us brought anything for an overnight stay. There we were, spending a night in a hotel reputed to be one of the best 200 in the world, minus nightclothes, toothbrush, or comb.

 We were awakened at 5:15. Still only half-awake, I managed to get myself to the main floor where we were served a quick breakfast. On the way out of my room, I’d caught a glimpse in the mirror and thought what a sorry-looking sight I was. But glancing around the restaurant, I realized we all looked pretty much the same in our rumpled clothes, and uncombed hair.

 After breakfast, we were advised we’d be driving back in hired cars, each of which held only four people. This involved five cars, all black, following one another, like a funeral procession.  Our tour guide told us if we had traveled the previous night, a military escort would have been required because bandits often prowled the road to Delhi at night, and it might have been very dangerous for us if we’d been stopped-we could have been robbed, or even killed. During daylight hours, the danger was lessened, and the road considered reasonably safe.

 Since the plans had changed, a tour of Delhi and Old Delhi had to be forfeited.  This upset some in our group.  I found our drive to Delhi to be one of the most delightful parts of my two days in India. By going the long way back, I got to see the true Indian countryside.  We passed through small villages, where I saw women carrying baskets of soil, wood, or fruit on their heads, while walking gracefully and standing tall.  I watched the people going about their daily chores of building small wooden structures, used for storing food for the ever-present sacred cow, and I observed women bent over, putting seeds in the ground by hand, while others tilled the soil.  It was a delightful trip, though often slow, as the cars had to creep along until cows and goats, chickens, and children scurried out of the way.

 Unfortunately I did not get to see any more of India because we departed early the next morning for Afghanistan. But our short visit gave me a glimpse of what this part of India was like.  I saw the people, and the countryside, and the busy street just outside the Taj Mahal, crowded with people and animals. But then, almost as if someone had opened a special, secret door, we entered the grounds, and beheld the serene grandeur, and majestic elegance of the world’s most beautiful building.

It is truly a Monument to Love.

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