Wednesday, December 9, 2015

India - The Taj Mahal

It's not often that we get to visit one of the Seven Wonders of the World... or a building which has been named 'something truly majestic'. Today was such a day though. Again a day where it suddenly hits you where you actually are. 'I'm looking at the Taj Mahal! The famous Taj Mahal in India!' We simply couldn't believe it... If you look on Google then you'll find heaps of photos, quite a few of which are heavily Photoshopped by the way... You can even walk around it online, and see it without so much as leaving your armchair. Still, there is no substitute for seeing and experiencing it for real.

This post is not meant to be a history lesson or a copy of a tourist brochure. We simply write what we saw and experienced while at the Taj Mahal. If you want detailed information about the Taj Mahal then we'd suggest you do your research and Google it as there is simply too much info to put in a post. We did our research, saw the beautiful images and read on the official website that if we were to show up early, we would get the best out of our visit. The brochure promised we could take photos without hordes of tourists swamping every angle if we were to arrive on time. On time is basically at 6 am as that's when it opens. No matter what you do, you will not get in any earlier. So we got up at 5, left the homestay at 5.30 and walked through Agra towards the famous Taj Mahal! The owners of the homestay we stayed at, which comes complete with breakfast, had thoughtfully prepared some sandwiches for us to take with us. As the streets of Agra are full of monkeys, who are always on the lookout for food... we had to safeguard the sandwiches or they would have been gone before we knew it. With the benefit of hindsight we should have given them our banana... as you will read later :-)

Arriving well in time, we found the ticket office swamped, the admission prices for a foreigner 37 times higher than for a Indian national... and 4 huge chaotic queues after that. Good start! The huge queues were the result of every visitor being searched for dangerous materials... Dangerous for the Taj Mahal seems to be an apple... a tripod... a sandwich... or a banana... Has anyone ever tried to blow up a building with a banana I wonder? I mean we're not Minions are we...? The time we spend in the queue was over an hour... but as women and men are also separated and as manually searching a woman seems to take much more time than a man(?), we had to wait a lot longer for the lady in our group to arrive... Then followed a thorough personal body search, which for some strange reason seemed to concentrate around the private parts... as if anyone who wanted to do serious harm in or around the Taj Mahal would be dumb enough to carry the explosives in his or her pockets... It was all performed so unnecessarily rude that we wondered what they were actually trying to achieve here. It definitely wasn't safeguarding the Taj Mahal, as anyone with serious bad plans in mind could easily get through this. Perhaps they were just doing their best to piss people off or try to reduce the number of visitors by giving it a bad name? I have no idea but judging by the faces of the many frustrated visitors it wasn't appreciated much.

Quite often the argument is brought forward that charging more for a foreigner is acceptable as foreigners have so much more money than Indian nationals...? Not sure how that could be maintained when a visitor from Tanzania or Honduras who has saved hard all his life just to see this is charged 37 times more than Sunil Vaswani who is an Indian National, only number 50 on the Forbes list of richest men in India and has an estimated net worth of US$ 2 Billion, but lets not go there. I would suggest to charge everyone the same and have a concession for low incomes, as this would not be discrimination but social help. Strangely enough the biggest noise about the current different pricing system was made by an Indian family, of whom the husband worked abroad to support them, and who therefore also had to pay the 37 times higher admission fees... The higher entry fee is according to the info we received on it from the Taj Mahal, simple tourist tax. Quite a few local people we met expressed, unprovoked, their disgust about this. I can understand why as it is just plain and simple discrimination as the differentiation is solely based on where you are from. Strangely enough according to article 15 of the Constitution of India it is illegal as it reads 'Prohibition of discrimination on grounds of religion, race, caste, sex or place of birth'... The revered Mahatma Gandhi wrote about the subject 'The only difference between man and man all the world over is one of degree, and not of kind, even as there is between trees of the same species. Where in is the cause for anger, envy or discrimination?'  Yet for what it is, the entry fee isn't high, we don't dispute it and we did pay it. The entry fee for the Taj Mahal for a foreigner is apparently about to double, we were told. 

Still, after all this and with the sunset now well and truly missed because of the huge queues, we could at least finally see the Taj Mahal! It is a majestic building, swamped with tourists of course, but still impressive. Quite a few have written in the past that they were disappointed when they actually saw it with their own eyes. We weren't but I can sort of understand why. Indian Tourism creates very high expectations by hailing it as the 'crown of palaces' and 'the jewel of Muslim art in India' and by using the most amazing photos. Visitors have found that only part of it is visible to the public, meaning the publicity photos cannot be repeated by a visitor as he or she simply doesn't get access to where the 'official' photographer took his pictures. 

It is a grand building with quite a story. It was commissioned in 1632 by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan to house the tomb of his favourite wife. The buildings are so majestic that in 1983 it became a Unesco World Heritage Site. The place really is truly impressive. We walked around for a couple of hours, entered all the areas we could and saw what you see here on this page. We took lots of photos!

We visited the complex together with Emiel and Claire, and enjoyed our visit very much. Being able to see the Taj Mahal is something very special. At the end of the day Mike and Emiel decided to go back to the northern viewpoint at sunset to try for the famous sunset photo of the Taj Mahal. That turned into a disappointment though as the access to the riverbank, from where that photo can be taken, is blocked by barbed wire and controlled by the military... Despite having already paid for the entry of the Taj Mahal, they would have had to pay again for access to a designated photo point... which in itself wasn't the problem but it's not the best point to take the photo and definitely not the point where the well known photos of the Taj Mahal are taken. That area is now well and truly out of bounds for visitors. A tripod, mandatory to take good photos under such light conditions, and which would have been used by the official photographer, wasn't allowed even after paying the fee. 

We don't mind to be there with lots of other visitors, India is a mad place and had we been able to see it in peace and quiet then it would have been real somehow. India as we know it, is because of this kind of madness, the millions of people everywhere and the bizarre excesses. It would have been seriously strange to be there 'alone'. I didn't even try to make photos without people in it, quite the opposite! We would have loved to be there at sunrise though...

So what is the best time to visit the Taj Mahal for photos? Well, for starters the images found on the web cannot be made by visitors. They simply will not give you access to the areas where the official photographers have been. This applies to both outside and inside shots. We also noticed that it's closed on Fridays and wonder if that is perhaps the time when the official photographers take their photos. I'm sure Morgan Freeman and Jack Nicholson where there on Friday when they filmed the movie 'The Bucket List'. Getting up early to see the sunrise and avoid the masses doesn't work as it doesn't open until 6 am, the queues are massive and you thus won't be in before 7. Don't expect the water you see in the fountains on the photos to be there in reality either... A tripod is not allowed, but a selfie stick (which can be quite handy to 'rise above the masses if you want to limit the amount of people in your photos') is ok.

As majestic and impressive as the Taj Mahal is, we enjoyed walking the narrow streets to and back from the Taj Mahal just as much. Watching the real Indian life was in many ways even better than the tourist attraction. All because this is where the real people from Agra live. As dirty and at times nauseating as it is because of the open sewers and garbage thrown around everywhere, this is still the honest reality. It inspired Emiel to take a selfie in front of one of the many garbage heaps we found on the streets, as selfies by their very nature should picture you in front of where you are, we thought this was a brilliant idea and did one too :-)

We were also fortunate enough to be invited by a pottery maker. He not only allowed us to photograph and video what he was doing, but made some beautiful things too. In the streets of Agra we also found the by now familiar sights shown in the photos. Overloaded little bikes, kids running around and wanting their photos taken, cows eating from the rubbish on the street (something to remember when you think about buying milk I guess) and hundreds of little businesses selling and producing everything you could possibly need. The narrow streets in Agra are the places where tourists don't go and thus also the place where you can get away from the continuous pestering of all sorts of tuktuk drivers. Having been in India for a couple of weeks now, it was nice to be left alone for a while...:-)

One more tip about India: quite a few restaurants will try to charge you so called service fees and all sorts of taxes. Don't fall for the trap. We had breakfast at a very small restaurant in the back streets of Agra. A place where the locals eat. The food was absolutely great, the service outstanding and the charges unbelievably low... and no service fee or any other tax! In most other restaurants they will charge you more in service fees and so called taxes than we spend in this place on food for the 4 of us... The 'service fees' and so called 'taxes' are just one of the many scams going around.

Coming back to the Taj Mahal, we are glad we went and feel fortunate to have been able to see it. The building is majestic and impressive. Simply being there is an amazing experience. The reason it was built in the first place, to display the love for his wife, however is even more impressive than the building itself, it is truly inspiring. By its very nature it is something which should be high on everyone's list to see and experience.