Although I missed out on quite a few of Delhi’s “musts” I was off to see India’s number one must – the Taj Mahal! Contrary to what I believed before coming to India, the Taj is not in fact in Delhi but in Agra, a city 3-4 hours away by train in the neighboring state of Uttar Pradesh. If Delhi was less than pleasant, Agra was downright awful. It was such a surprise to find a seedy, dirty, unpleasant little town surrounding one of the most impressive and beautiful buildings in the world, but I can assure you, it’s there. Uttar Pradesh is sadly well-known for its corruption, and is also one of the poorest states in India, all of which contributes to Agra’s status as a bit of a craphole. From exiting the station and getting twice as much of a hustle as normal by tuk-tuk drivers and taxis it was clear that Agra was going to be a bit trying on the nerves. It is impossible to walk Agra without constant bombardment by anyone over the age of 5 trying to sell you something or offer you a ride, a room, or a meal and not in a friendly way. There is something about the general attitude, the more aggressive and desperate tone, the word choice, that made it far more wearisome and grating than the usual street commentary. On the flip side, Agra’s one redeeming factor is pretty spectacular.
The Taj is at once awe-inspiring and disappointing. It is as if you finally get to your childhood fantasy world and it’s just like you imagined it, the only caveat: you’re seeing it through your adult eyes. Time eroded the dream; it lost some of its sparkle somehow in the intervening years. That is not to say I’ve been dreaming about visiting the Taj all my life, in fact I’d never really thought much about it nor was it particularly high on my list of things to see in this world. But it has such a grandiose image, it is so built up that no matter how much you underestimate its impact, it could never possibly live up to the hype. Don’t get me wrong, like I said, it is absolutely beautiful, an architectural marvel, a stunning mausoleum that boggles the mind with its magnificence, but the spell of the fantasy is nevertheless broken when it becomes a reality. The structure is impressive, the design of the complex gorgeous, the precision of the marble carvings is incredible, the grounds are meticulously maintained – it is near impossible to find flaw in the Taj Mahal. The management is lacking – there is so little information about the building itself, and though ostensibly the weighty price tag of the entry ticket includes a free guide, they are touts, competing for your tip money and are more of a headache than they seem to be worth (it’s a general judgment based on the experiences I had with other Agra residents, it is probable that there are a least a couple of guides who are knowledgeable, intelligent, honest, and well worth the stress of searching them out). However aside from this people roam freely without direction, without much education and without much purpose – probably due to the fact that the Taj is so overwhelming it almost drowns you. Everything demands exploration, each perfectly carved flower warrants a photo, every tiny detail is worthy of examination, and yet there is the whole to take in as well; it’s very hard not to get lost in all that there is to see at the Taj. So my advice – don’t worry about missing things, you would never see it all, just be satisfied with the Taj that you see.
Aside from the Taj, I have to admit to finding one other enjoyable thing about Agra. From around 5pm until sunset the rooftops of town are covered with young boys and men flying, and fighting kites. The evening of our Taj visit we sat on our rooftop, with the mausoleum as the backdrop watching one of the young boys from the hotel cut kites and get cut. It seems a simple pastime but it was very easy to get caught up in the excitement of the kite flyers, cheering and “awing” at the appropriate moments as victories and losses were meted out. It was a rather enjoyable evening all in all and a nice way to say goodbye to the Taj.
However in general, Agra itself made me sad, because it a towering example of how India continues to simply fall short: something that could be done so well and it just isn’t. The governance of the Taj could be set up in a way that would benefit the community, welcome tourists, and become a long-term stop on any Indian itinerary. Instead, they rely on the name “Taj Mahal” to draw the tourists and ignore any responsibility for improving or enhancing the experience, encouraging a quick day-trip or one night stay style of tourism, which in and of itself is a missed source of income for the town. The 750 rupee ($17 US) price tag for the entry fee is an astronomical figure for India and instead of paying for the upkeep of the town, adding signage and information throughout the site, redevelopment of the roads and buildings, it lines the pockets of corrupt officials, it pays for one man to mow the lawn, and another employee to walk next to him and point where to go with a stick. Rather than banning touts in the old town, and especially in the Taj itself, they are part and parcel of a system that makes tourists and locals alike feel uncomfortable and feeds into the corruption.
Why are there two barricades at each of the four gate roads, 100 meters apart, each employing 15 guards lounging in chairs reading newspapers and wagging large rifles, which serve the same function of not letting motorized vehicles within a certain distance of the Taj? Why are there mounted police officers prancing around the streets doing nothing more than looking fancy? How much money is being spent on redundancies? On unnecessary frivolities? Employees with the exact same job? Why are the streets leading to the entry gates allowed to literally overflow with touts offering 1 rupee postcards, useless Taj key chains, and “marble” tchotchkes? That is not to say that the tacky-gift selling society which feeds on the tourist industry can or even should ever be completely done away with, but for it to be encouraged and even supported by the sight itself seems to me to be a pointless waste of resources, especially at the expense of local culture and infrastructure.
I’m not claiming to have the perfect solution, and I don’t think it would be easy, not just a simple matter of reallocating funds. It would take a lot of hard work and a mentality that I have encountered in far too few Indians for the necessary changes to take place. But it seems to me that with the right education, the right (non-financial) incentives for the community members, and a lot of elbow grease, Agra could cease to be a stereo-typical example of the Indian contradiction which is India’s greatest and I think, most debilitating fault. I think that for any visitor to India, it is an obvious fact that it is one of the culturally richest places in the world, but unfortunately it lacks the infrastructure, the social mentality, and (for now) the financial ability to live up to its full potential.