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The most famous place in India

September 2, 2016
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Delhi’s oldest spice market
September 2, 2016
The Red Fort, the red girl
September 2, 2016
 

This is chapter 3 of the Graduate & Live 2016 Summer Tour of Asia, where three traveling freelancers take advantage of their freedom. After two amazing experiences in New Delhi, Ryan, Aom and Ashley travel to visit India's most iconic image.


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Ashley Lombardo

 


The Taj Mahal is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the New Seven Wonders of the World. Photos of the monument have circulated around the globe, but very few people know its story.

We planned to travel to Agra, the home of the Taj Mahal, in a private car. Our Nepalese driver Tapah let me switch off the Rajasthani radio in favor of some good old-fashioned road trippin’ tunes. I threw on Willie Nelson’s “On the Road Again,” and after a week spent overcoming food poisoning in New Delhi, we were finally on the way.

 

A Change of Pace

 
 

We pulled into Agra after a quick, three-hour ride. The unpaved roads and low rise buildings gave the town a rural, simplistic feel. Groups lounged in streetside snack shops, talking and lazily tending to steaming pots of rice. Women hand-washed clothes in a foggy river while a herd of buffalo cooled down nearby. Right off the bat, I could tell that Agra would be different from Delhi.

Tapah recommended a few restaurants, and although we didn’t exactly accept the offer, he dropped us at a place called Maya. A combination of cooking spices created a heavy, burnt smell. I noticed the same smell on street corners and five-star hotels, and it seemed to follow me wherever I went. Residual Delhi belly had got the best of me, so we headed straight for the terrace.

 
 

Aside from a few flies and the occasional whiff of cow poop, Maya’s rooftop was a solid workspace. Tree branches stretched high above our table and created a much-needed layer of shade. I’d pick this unusual backdrop over a corporate office any day.

 

Street View

 

On the second day, we were ready to explore the Taj. Our guide, a 23-year-old Delhi native named Samarth, met us at the hotel, a modest but centrally located joint called the Taj Haveli. Samarth, well-dressed in a pink button up, spoke perfect English. He studied for two years to get his diploma in tourism and he’s been sharing the famed monument's story ever since.

 
 
Samarth recommended arriving at the Taj early to avoid the crowds, so he grabbed our tickets in advance and picked us up around 7 a.m. The monument was just a short walk, and on the way, we saw three camels saunter past, the entrance to a Leprosy colony, saucy snacks served in handwoven leaf bowls and brigades of colorful families.
 
I found it a little bizarre that scientists study a highly contagious disease just a few feet from one of the world’s most famous monuments. It's safe to say the street to the Taj is truly a sight in itself.
 

Touring the Taj

 
 

The Taj Mahal is a Persian architectural masterpiece surrounded by a series of ornate gardens and structures. The ivory-white marvel and most celebrated piece sits in the center. Four pillars surround the rounded dome, which stretches toward the sky. On each side, two sandstone buildings add a sense of delicate balance. Built more than 350 years ago, the complex is perfectly symmetrical.

Millions of people dream of standing in front of the Taj Mahal, but many will never have the chance. I walked through the archway and looked upon one of the world's cultural wonders. After being hit with a feeling of immense gratitude, I weaved through the crowd to find a good spot for a photo.

I noticed a scaffolding set up around the pillars, and Samarth explained that it's because the monument had to be cleaned regularly. Over time, carbon-drenched air had started to yellow the marble. This speaks to the severity of pollution in India.

As I lifted my camera to take the picture, I felt someone tap me on the shoulder.

"Miss, you're so beautiful, can you take a photo with us?" an Indian woman asked me, gesturing at her young, shy daughter.
"Oh thank you, that's so kind," I said. "Of course, I don't mind at all."

I posed with the pair, which opened the door to a chain of requests. I took about 15 pictures before I started turning people down. It turns out that Indian tourists were just as interested in taking photos with Westerners as they were of the Taj.

 

Most people recognize the Taj, but very few have seen the inside. Like Akshardham, no cameras are allowed.

The innermost caverns are truly magnificent. Thousands of precious stones are placed within the building's winding walls. Handcrafted pieces of malachite, cornelian, lapis lazuli, emerald, sapphire, agate, crystal and jade are shaped into flowers and embedded into the marble. Nature's energy had found a permanent home inside the monument. Each stone radiated with memory.

In 1857, India rebelled against Britain and fought for its independence. When it became clear that the rebels would succeed, the British soldiers looted the monument, using blades to rip stones from the walls. As I walked through the Taj, running my fingers over the hollows, I felt the past. I felt the magnetic presence of all people who lived decades before me. I felt myself become a part of the history.

 

A Timeless Love Story

 
 

I knew nothing about the Taj Mahal, and when Samarth started to share, I realized that it's more than just a monument. There’s a very powerful love story behind this breathtaking piece of architecture.

In the 1600s, the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan built the Taj Mahal for his favorite wife, Mumtaz Mahal. The two met at age 15 and were married for 19 years.

But in truth, Mumtaz was more than a wife. She was an equal, advising the emperor in times of war. The two were said to be inseparable and when Mumtaz died giving birth to her 14th child, he promised to honor her. How, you ask? He swore to her that he'd build something the world had never seen before.

More than 20,000 people built the Taj over a period of 22 years. Mumtaz's body rests beneath white makhana marble, adorned with 25 different precious stones. Even today, her moseleum draws millions of admirers from all corners of the world.

Ashley Lombardo
Ashley Lombardo
Ashley Lombardo is a freelance writer.

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