Published: February 21st 2008January 23rd 2008
Once Upon A Time
In the year 1607 a fourteen year old girl named Arjumand Banu Begum became betrothed to Prince Khurrum, third son of the Mughal Emperor Jahangir. This alone would be a truly unremarkable story but thankfully there is a little more to tell. This is the story of how one man ruined it for the rest of us by setting the bar far too high.
The princess became the third and most beloved wife of Khurrum (polygamy being in fashion and all) and the couple were reportedly so head over heels in love with each other that they were rarely parted even during the Prince’s frequent military campaigns. What his first two wives thought of the arrangement is unclear as they seem to have been fairly well ignored by Khurrum for the remainder of his life; he was truly devoted to his third.
The princess became known as many things as her gracefulness, beauty, and compassion was widely espoused by poets whenever possible. She was so adored by all and sundry that titles such as Mumtaz Mahal (Chosen One of the Palace) were given to her. If the wealth of poetry, accounts, records and histories
of the time are believed to be accurate then Mumtaz must truly have been the most perfect woman of her time and the love she shared with the Prince was unparalleled anywhere in the world.
Eventually, and despite being only third in line, Khurrum became Emperor of the Mughals, assuming the name Shah Jahan as he did so, and he went on to become one of the most successful rulers in the history of India. His power was immense, his empire stretched far and wide, and his many achievements are still visible today.
After 19 years of blissful marriage, and the birth of fourteen children (that’s an average of a little more than seven months break between each child, talk about dedication to the king), Mumtaz Mahal passed away leaving Shah Jahan distraught and inconsolable. Out of his misery and great loss came the world’s most everlasting demonstration of love, a building so uniquely beautiful that its equal can not be found. I refer of course to the Taj Mahal.
Now then, compared to that story what hope have the rest of us? How can we possibly compete with that? I can hear the conversation now:
More of That Facade
I will never grow tired of this image.
“Do you love me dear?”
“Of course, I love you.”
“Yes, but how much do you love me?”
“Ummm. . . a lot. . .”
“No, no, no, I mean do you really, truly love me?”
“Did I do something wrong? Here, have some chocolates, I’ll run off and buy you some flowers.”
“I don’t think you love me as much as Shah Jahan loved his Mumtaz.”
“That’s not true! I love you more than that.”
“Then you will build me a building more beautiful than the Taj Mahal if I die?”
“Well. . . no. . . I guess I don’t love you that much.”
The issue here is that absolutely no one in the entire world, not now and not at any time in the future, is able to build anything more beautiful than the Taj. Not even the richest Middle-Eastern Oil Baron Sheikh could build such a place no matter how much he loved his wife or how much money he threw at the problem. It is simply impossible to conceive that any building will ever outdo the Taj in terms of beauty. Shah Jahan went and ruined the party for the rest of us by
building the Taj so that even the most loving person in the world today has to suffer from “it’s beautiful, but. . .” no matter what lengths he goes to demonstrate his love. Shah Jahan proved once and for all that he loved Mumtaz Mahal as much as any man can ever love a woman.
I guess the women of today will just have to settle for men who love them “only as much as Shah Jahan”.
Happily Ever After
Paul and I entered the grounds of the Taj Mahal alone, because we hadn’t met any friends there yet and because Punjabi Santa was suspected of being a bomb threat by the guards, armed with nothing more than our eyes, our cameras, our complimentary water bottles, and odd, small packages that turned out to be shoe covers. At least it can be said that the famously high entrance fee for the Taj goes to some good use: complimentary water for all.
The first courtyard, framed from behind by the imposing yet well-concealed outer wall and from the front by the imposing main gateway (a monstrous red sandstone gateway that completely obscures the view of the
Our Very First Glimpse of the Building in Question
Viewed from atop a restaurant where we chose to have our breakfast. Talk about a good view!
wonders hidden beyond it), opened before us as our first glimpse of the monument. Instantly, or more likely previously, we noticed the clear fact that more tourists were crammed into Agra than into the rest of India combined. There were people everywhere, all over the place, and we weren’t even inside the inner wall yet. We weren’t even able to see the Taj from there!
We took our time strolling up to the gateway, or at least that is how I wanted to go about it, in reality Paul charged ahead as he all but ignored the gateway itself, until we came under its shadow. The walkway under the arch opened into a ten meter wide chamber, nearly circular, with an identical arch marking the far end. There, though the opening and framed by the chamber in which we stood, sat the timeless Taj Mahal. Dazzlingly white, clear against its cloudy backdrop, standing strong and tall above the mirror-pond and manicured gardens before it, the Taj sat there just like it does in every photo you have ever seen of it.
There are many places in this world that have been photographed so many times that the act
of photographing them now seems more like a necessity than a pleasure; these are the sorts of places where you will replace your photo with a cutout from National Geographic before you put it on the mantle. The Pyramids of Egypt, the Acropolis, Time’s Square, Tower Bridge, The Great Wall, and the Eiffel Tower all fit into this category (as do every tourist attraction in China thanks to their local photographic tourism culture, but that is a story for another day). However, I have visited two such places, the Taj Mahal and the Terracotta Warriors in Xi’an, and I can happily say that in both cases something unexpected happened.
When I approached these two places, and I approached in the traditional way in both cases, I was anticipating the view. I had seen a thousand photos of the Taj reflected in the long pond as viewed from the north end of the main gate and I knew what it was going to look like. Furthermore, flying completely in the face of anti-traditionalism, the view was exactly identical to 90% of those photos so I was in no way shocked or in awe of the view’s originality. I was however
completely blown away by how strikingly beautiful that view was. The same thing happened at the Warriors: despite having seen all 8000 of them staring me down a thousand times in photographs I still had a chill run up my spine when their eyes were directed at me for the first time. There are some sights in this world that are so amazing, so wondrous, so beautiful, and so striking that no matter how many times you’ve seen them before you will still be filled with reverence when you see them with your own eyes. What better proof is there of the benefits of traveling?
The Taj Mahal is, without a doubt, the most beautiful building I have ever seen. I need to make that clear. There is something about it, something that I can not describe, something that arrests your gaze and holds it seemingly fixed forever on its marble walls. Were it one meter taller, one meter broader, if three arches were used in place of two, or if any other detail, however miniscule, were changed then the Taj would be less brilliant than it is. Simply put, the Taj Mahal is perfection in every sense.
A Welcome Change
Although I haven't mentioned it before, southern India was absolutely, completely, overwhelmingly full of mosquitoes. In Agra however we found flies instead! Equally disgusting but flies don't keep you up all night with your scratching.
Paul and I walked the ten steps forwards until we came to the edge of the long mirrored pond which leads directly to the foot of the Taj, only cut by a marble pedestal precisely half way along its length, and we went silly.
As I already mentioned, the Taj has already been photographed from every conceivable angle by multitudinous photographers well beyond my skills, so the only photos that it felt worthwhile to take were those which recorded our personal experience. Basically, we needed to take photos of ourselves to make the effort of turning on the camera worthwhile and eventually, after the twentieth stoic portrait, we had to resort to silly poses in order to be even fleetingly original. Silly faces, silly expressions, pointing at things, pretending to touch the Taj, holding up a minaret, doing a Tic-Tac commercial, jumping, silhouettes, rude portraiture, and all manner of other obscure photographic tendencies are exercised regularly at the Taj. Otherwise we’d be wasting 10% of the world’s photographic paper on identical prints taken using inferior equipment and operators. The result was a collection of mostly unusable photos that didn’t show the Taj in all its beauty and often didn’t
Paul and the Outer Gate
You rarely see pictures of this gate as it is comprehensively outdone by the Taj itself in terms of style and magnificence, however, if viewed on its own this would still be well worth a visit.
even include the Taj. Oh well, I guess you’ll have to go and visit it yourself to see what it looks like.
We wandered about, exploring every nook, cranny, niche and nuance of the Taj Mahal and all of its accompanying buildings. Constantly we would find some new angle that showed an as yet unexplored bit of beauty hidden within the complex exterior of the Taj only to find that it was the same thing we had been photographing five minutes earlier on the other side of the building. I do believe that I stopped dead in my tracks and stared dumbly up at the Taj on all four of its sides, convinced that it was more beautiful than it had been on the other three sides, despite the fact that all four sides were identical down to every minute detail. Just like Richard Halliburton before me I felt the urge to stay and bask in that view for an entire day and night, never growing tired of its beauty as the light changed through every colour of a rainbow; if only the security was the same as it had been in the 1920’s.
After completing construction of the Taj Mahal (a project which took an epic 20 years to complete) Shah Jahan was overthrown by one of his sons - I dare not presume which one as with ten wives and who knows how many children that would be a complicated issue. His successor, Aurangzeb, imprisoned the old emperor inside his other most notable construction: the Agra Fort. This massive fort of red-sandstone, with walls some twenty meters tall encloses a collection of buildings - palaces, temples and residences of the royals - which were constructed over centuries by many rulers, is one of the most imposing forts in India. The buildings vary in styles with age, and also in building material, but they all meld into each other resulting in one huge agglomerate structure.
Walking among the red stone and white marble palaces, around the temples and famous inscriptions, Paul and I were truly impressed by the scale on which the Mughals constructed their world. The Agra Fort manages to appear as both an imposing military outpost that only the foolhardy would attack and as a beautiful and peaceful retreat of the emperor.
All good things must come to an end, unless you can pay off whoever is stopping them, and in like style Paul had to fly back to Australia eventually. The three of us, the intrepid traveling team of Paul, Punjabi and I, caught one last train north to Delhi where we were to spend the last days of the adventure. Those two days were spent in relaxation mode, mostly concerned with finding a hot shower and good food, plus one other necessity: we became regulars at the only cheap pub that we could find in all of Delhi. We sat back, ate a curry, sipped a beer, and watched Australia lose the cricket. It was near perfection (it would have been perfect had Australia won).
The Great Indian Adventure had been amazing at times, and dull at others but you’re always going to get that, but when we looked back over everywhere we’d been it all looked rosy and incredible to us. Not only had India proven to be a simple, easy and laid back place to travel around (no one will ever again convince me that India is some kind
Classical Taj Mahal
Symmetry. . . what can I say, it's a proven formula. But then, there's a whole lot more to the Taj than symmetry. To be there in person is arresting, the building grabs your entire and undivided attention, even if you've seen a million photos beforehand.
of stress inducing horror zone where it is impossible to get around for even a single week without being robbed, scammed, frustrated, and offended. That simply isn’t true, India is shockingly easy to handle; most everyone there speaks English for a start!) but it had proven to be full of intriguingly individual and different places unlike anywhere else in the world. From the cosmopolitan carbon-copy of Europe that is Goa to the mysterious ashrams of the south to the ancient remains of Hampi and just about everything else that we saw, India is full of interesting places to see and things to learn. Just don’t go there expecting Thailand (that is not to say that we expected Thailand, we were just shocked at the price and terribly low quality of Indian beer, what were the English doing there?)
We did have one final hurrah, one night where we went to extremes (read: four random explanations to autorickshaw drivers which resulted in a one in two fun bar finding success rate) where we found not only a party but a full blown Indian nightclub! I won’t detail our misdeeds, but I will say that it isn’t often that you find
Is it Paul? And the Taj?
Yes, it is. For some reason unbeknownst to me everyone who visits the Taj (well, most people) gets obsessed with taking photos and then, after they've already taken 100 pictures of essentially the same thing, everyone starts taking "silly" photos. Lots of carefully placed hands, jumping in the air, arching over, and all that junk is constantly going on here.
yourself 40 minutes outside central Delhi waiting for a random Indian businessman to get you passes for an exclusive club that probably aren’t going to be forthcoming while wearing broken sunglasses in the middle of the night. All in all it was a good one.
The Big Issue: What Is the Best Curry in India?
Anyone who knows me knows two things. That is that I am well known for being a glutton (see A Day Dedicated to Food
if you don’t believe me) and that I am absolutely and completely obsessed with curries. Therefore, you would have been expecting my journals from India to be completely filled with food critiques and descriptions of the most overly unnecessary details of my eating habits while in India. Well, I do apologise for not including such details up until now but I thought it better to save it all up for one single occasion: this one.
This means that you can enjoy my dissection of Indian cuisine in one easy to swallow packet. Also, it means that you can skip right over it if you so wish.
Curry, curry, curry, so many to choose from. From my first meal to my
last I was never able to decipher every curry listed on any given menu. Although I made a valiant effort to try as many different dishes as I could (I estimate that I had about 30 different types of curry) I eventually got stuck on my decided favourites. Also, because I happen to be that unfashionable thing which is the exact opposite of a vegetarian, my choices were usually limited, what with most Indian dishes being of the leafy variety. The following dishes were standouts.
Chicken Curry: obvious, unassuming, never expected to be brilliant but never failing to be tasty, this staple food got me through many a long day. Chicken Masala also appeared on every single menu and was little more than a spicy version of Chicken Curry so it also gets my vote.
Murgh Markhani: one great Mughal styled curry consumed in Agra confirmed my suspicion that thick sauce and light spices will never fail to please me.
Vinadloo: only made in Goa and sadly not available in 99.9% of all tourist restaurants in Goa this dish is well worth the search. Tangy, spicy, red and creamy, nothing improves food better than Vindaloo sauce. Lister
was right all along.
Methi Mutter Malai: alliteration in the extreme, nothing beats a creamy spinach dish as a vegetarian side.
Butter Chicken: never the same, never actually Indian, and yet always to be found. Although this is probably the only curry that is never going to be the same as the last time you had it I would definitely recommend it for its lucky dip properties.
Tandoori Fish: Take one Red Snapper, cover in magic sauce, drop into clay oven, cook for half and hour and serve. Best New Years meal ever.
Chicken 65: I have no idea what the difference is between Chicken 65 and Chicken Tikka is but it is incredible. It’s a shame that we only discovered this wonder towards the end of our adventure.
Honourable mentions go to the following curry styles that came close to being the best food in the world: Rogan Josh, Saag, Jal Freezy, Aloo Gobhi and Madras.
While in India we were constantly surrounded by new and interesting curries as well as many we already knew from home, however, even the simplest curry made in a small shack in the middle of nowhere India
I do appologise, there are going to be a lot of photos of the Taj. How else do you expect me to fill this journal?
proved to be many times tastier than anything I have ever found back home. Of course, there were exceptions:
Mutton Rogan Josh in Aurangabad: well, somehow it turned out to be Mushroom Masala.
Chicken Masala in the pub in Delhi: That’s right, after 32 days in India without becoming seriously ill in any way (I’m told that this is a feat) I managed to catch “Delhi Belly” on my very last night. They say that it is impossible to visit India without getting food poisoning and I thought that I had proved that saying incorrect, but then, it turned out to be true.
There are more photos below