The first portion of my time in India was fairly luxe, and you would think visiting the Taj Mahal would continue that trend. Not so.
What most people do when they visit the Taj Mahal from Delhi, unless backpacking or carrying on to a further destination, is hire a driver, who generally gets you to the Taj at around 9.00, and then returns you to Delhi in the evening. I had several issues with this plan: first of all, I looked into the cost of hiring a driver and decided that it was out of my price range (125 USD, do I look like I have a money tree?), then I spoke with some friends who romanticized the idea of train travel in India, making it seem like the best way to get around the country, and finally, I didn’t want to get to the Taj at the same time as a million other tourists and have to fight for photo ops. Plus, sunrise at the Taj Mahal, who doesn’t want to see that?
So, I came up with a great plan: Trish and I were arriving back from Ladakh on Thursday. The Taj is closed on Fridays, and my flight back to Kathmandu was Sunday, so Saturday was my day. I could spend Friday morning in Delhi, catch a train to Agra, go across the Yamuna River to see the sunset over the Taj with nobody in the complex, stay in a hostel, get up early to beat the crowds, finish my visit around the time most tourists are starting theirs, and be on a mid-morning train back to Delhi to leave the afternoon and evening for exploring Delhi.
That sounds like an entirely reasonable plan, right? Wrong.
Before I even arrived in India, I tried booking my train tickets online in advance, just to make sure I was on whichever ones were most convenient to this timing. You can’t book train tickets in India without an Indian phone number, unless you contact the Indian Train Authority with a copy of your passport, in which case they will send you a code that you input on their website allowing you to book. Shockingly, though I contacted the Authority a week before I was scheduled to fly to Delhi, they did not respond to me until the last day of the Ladakh trek (during which, I had no internet access anyways). So, before Trish and I left for Ladakh, I went to the concierge at our insanely fancy hotel to ask him to book me a ticket. The conversation went like this:
“Hi, I’m planning on going to Agra to see the Taj Mahal on x date. I was wondering if you could book my train ticket for me.”
“Ma’am, you don’t need a train ticket. All the five star guests from all the five star hotels who want to go visit get together in a private van and we drive you out in the morning. It’s only 7500 rupees.” (7500 INR is roughly 150 CAD, that wasn’t happening)
“I actually want to see the sunrise, so I want to go to Agra the night before and get up early. The van arrives too late.”
“Ma’am, the van is very nice.”
“I’m sure it is, but I’d rather go by train. Trust me, I’ll be ok.”
“Ma’am, the train really isn’t that comfortable.”
[This continued for about ten minutes until I finally convinced him I would be fine with the train, and that I didn’t need five star transportation: see my old friend, Prison Train].
“Ok, ma’am, if you say so. So train ticket, first class cabin -”
“No, if you could actually get me second class, that’s what I looked at taking.”
We continued on like this for a bit until he looked into the trains coming back to Delhi on Saturday, telling me that the only one with seats available didn’t leave Agra until 17.00.
“What about buses?”
I finally convinced him to book me a ticket one-way to Agra, telling him I would visit the Marriott in Agra to arrange to have another ticket booked. So my return trip was going to be a giant question mark, but I figured if worse came to worse I could find some rich Western tourists going back to Delhi and pay them twenty bucks to let me join their van back to Delhi.
So, I head to the Delhi train station half an hour before my train is scheduled to depart, and am all set to get into Agra at 17.00, in time for the sunset.
My train is delayed an hour.
And then another.
And of course, it was delayed incrementally, so even had I wanted to store my bags and come back, I never felt like I had enough time to do so. So I sat in the Delhi Rail Station for five hours, in 46 degree weather. Luckily I had brought snacks. I didn’t get into Agra until 22.00, and the fact that I made it is a miracle in and of itself – they don’t call out the train stations, and my Nepali phone company doesn’t allow roaming, so every time the train stopped, I was asking where the hell I was. The train itself was comfortable though – second class has aircon, I had an entire sleeper area to myself, and the other people were families travelling, one of which had lived in England for ten years.
But I made it! I could wash the dye that had bled from my clothes into my skin due to the sweat resulting from sitting in that damn train station for hours on end, and go to sleep with a 4.30 wakeup call to be at the Taj for 5.00!
So Mumtaz Mahal, nee Arjumand Banu Begum, was betrothed to the then-Prince, later Emperor Shah, when she was 14, but they waited to get married until she was 19, based on the court astrologers’ readings of their horoscopes (I was pretty happy with my horoscope reading, so maybe these people know what they’re doing – see the bottom of this post). After the wedding, Shah, “finding her in appearance and character elect among all the women of the time,” renamed Arjumand “Mumtaz Mahal,” meaning ‘Chosen One of the Palace.’ Now, Mumtaz was Shah’s fourth wife, and he ended up taking nine wives in total, which really brings down the romance of having a bro build you a giant marble final resting place because he loved you so much… but apparently he was so in love with Mumtaz that he didn’t exercise his polygamous rights with his other wives beyond siring a child with them, as was his duty. The court reporter did indicate that Mumtaz was above and beyond his favourite, noting that the other wives “had nothing more than the status of marriage. The intimacy, deep affection, attention and favour which His Majesty had for the Cradle of Excellence (Mumtaz) exceeded by a thousand times what he felt for any other.” He also gave her the most gifts while she was alive – her residence was decorated with gold and precious stones and had its own rose water fountains.
Not exactly my ideal relationship, but to each their own.
Mumtaz honestly sounds pretty lame to me (like how did she get that palace and I’m living in an apartment with questionable access to running water?) – she had no political aspirations, even though Shah totally trusted her and would have let her do super cool political things, and all she did was follow him around when he went out on military campaigns and then hang out at her residence. And apparently she was really into watching elephant fights, which is straight up terrible.
But after her death, Emperor Shah went into solitary mourning for a year (after finishing the military campaign he had been on at the time of her death, priorities and all), and when he reappeared from his mourning period, the only person who could console him was his eldest daughter with Mumtaz.
The bodies of Mumtaz and Shah are in sarcophagi within the Taj Mahal, but you can’t see the sarcophagi – instead, you see false tombs when you enter the building, and the real ones are in the lower level. Somewhat ironically, Muslim tradition forbids elaborate decoration of graves (remember, this entire building is a tomb) – so it was okay for Shah to create this marble building, but the actual crypt, below the inner chamber, is considered relatively plain. I do say relatively: the casket is still decorated with calligraphy and precious stones.
The charbagh (Mughal-style garden) in the Taj complex is incredible too – if it weren’t so hot, even at 6.00, it would have been a really nice place to sit for a while. The garden is 300m, and divided into 16 flowerbeds. The garden changed somewhat when the British took control of India, from having very dense vegetation to landscape it more similarly to formal gardens in London.
It really is a breathtaking building – like many of the things I’ve experienced on this part of the world, it’s hard to put its scope and its beauty accurately into words. Kipling described it as “the embodiment of all things pure,” and Tagore called it a teardrop on the cheek of eternity. I can’t compete with those descriptions, so I won’t even try to.
I will however, tell a small world story, since they’re some of my favourites: the skirt I wore to the Taj was something I purchased in Zanzibar back in 2013. While wandering around the Taj complex, a British girl about my age came up to me and asked where I got my skirt – turns out, she has the exact same one that she bought three years ago in Stone Town, and almost wore it the day we were visiting the Taj. Fashion makes friends – we ended up chilling for half an hour or so in the complex, and then went on our separate ways.
After my visit, I was ready to head back to Delhi at around 9.00, ahead of what I had intended – so it was lucky I hadn’t pre-booked a ticket after all! I headed to the train station, as the employees of my hostel told me there were some tickets I could walk on with.
So these tickets cost about two dollars, and you literally just get on any train. A friend later told me that the way she travelled around India was by buying these tickets and just going into empty seats on the aircon cabins. If only I had talked to her before. I was rushed to the front of the ticket line (being a blonde white woman), and told to go to platform two and get on the train that shows up at 10.00. Of course, no train showed up at 10.00, so I’m asking security guards which train goes to Delhi until I finally meet a guy my age who speaks British English, and he brings me to a train headed to Delhi and tells me to talk to the train manager, who directs me to a cabin.
And that’s how I ended up riding in the baggage compartment of an Indian train for four hours.
And now, it’s very hard to believe that my contract at IIDEA is wrapping up next week! I’m excited for my next step, which I’ll talk about (as well as some of the cool work I’ve been doing lately) in my next post!