I cannot remember the last time a destination exceeded my expectations as much as the Taj Mahal. Hotel Sheela in Agra, on the other hand, squarely met them. Keir had told us that after several trips to Agra, he could discern no difference between a hundred dollar a night room and a fifteen dollar one. Things got better only if we’d be willing to drop three hundred a night. The choice was clear: Hotel Sheela. The establishment’s minor pest problem was offset by the availability of the hotel restaurant where my extended family could chat over meals being served one at a time, in no particular order, by a staff that seemed unprepared for our numbers. I would have thought that this might charmingly be the actual case, were we not in Agra (home of one of the most visited tourist sites in the world) and had I not encountered this reaction from servers throughout our trip.
“Coffee?” a server would repeat my request, then turn his gaze into the distance as if trying to remember where he had heard that word before.
“Yes. Do you have some?”
“Yes, yes,” the server would reassure me, picking up my menu to scan it, perhaps for a clue.
“Any kind of coffee would be good.”
“Yes,” the server would say, then call over another server to exchange a few words. When that server would disappear, our first guy would say, “He says. Yes. Coffee, possible.” Leaving me still unsure about whether a cup of Joe would actually materialize. No matter, this taught me a non-western brand of fatalistic patience and gave me some pure moments of surprised delight when sustenance arrived.
There was some discussion over our unintentionally progressive meal that night, about waking up early to see the sun rise over the Taj Mahal. The notion was abandoned in favor of sleep. This turned out to be fortuitous, if only because the Taj Mahal was fogged in and at sunrise the view would have simply looked like an untouched canvas.
As it was, at nine in the morning we could barely make out the Taj Mahal upon entering the gate. I have been told that the sun glinting off of the white marble is truly magnificent. I’m sure this is the case, but I quite liked to slow reveal of the mausoleum as fog burned off. Our guide came recommended to Keir and he was full of great anecdotes that impressed the children. He told us that the building took twenty-two years to construct and that many workers filed their fingers down to bloody nubs, inlaying jewels into the walls. Once they had exhausted their usefulness, the story goes, Shah Jahan put them to death. Guidebooks warn that there’s extensive mythology that has developed around the construction of the building in the mid-seventeenth century, so it’s hard to separate fact from fiction. To my mind, there are two strains to both the mythology and the history. One, the love story of a Shah that loved his third wife so much that when she expired after birthing thirteen of his children, he was driven to memorialize her by constructing the most beautiful resting place the world had ever seen. Two, the violent story of the shah’s son slaughtering all of his brothers and imprisoning his father so that the Shah could neither visit, nor look upon, his beloved wife’s tomb (except through a diamond reflecting the Taj Mahal that hung on a wall of his cell).
The children were riveted.
And then there’s Shah Jahan’s OCD. Everything about the Taj Mahal had to be symmetrical, from matching turrets and gates to the steeple atop the dome. I’m a fan of asymmetry, myself, but the extent to which the Shah achieved his objective is staggering. Of course, if a designer stood to lose his life for pointing out that it might be a nice surprise to put one set of steps on an angle, chances are he’d stay mum and keep working like mad. I imagined Shah Jahan as a Mogul Howard Hughes with full blown dementia, “I said EXACTLY symmetrical damn it! What part of ‘symmetrical’ do you not understand? The part that says 5 millimeters on the left means 5 millimeters on the right – not 6! I KNOW it’s been 20 years and it’s going to be 20 more years until we get this RIGHT! How many times to I need to say this? Keep the Taj symmetrical people, or I won’t wait until your fingers are bloody stubs.”
The boys ran around the building, testing the symmetry by putting their eyes to grates and holding their arms out, delineating the middle, to see how everything matched up. We all watched the guide shine a flashlight through the jewels in the white marble to show how deep they had been inlaid. As I walked around the base of the mausoleum, I wondered why this building seemed more impressive, say, than the Giza pyramids or Notre Dame? The only answer that came to me was that the Taj Mahal is an incredible piece of architecture, precision, and artistry but it is also accessible. I could touch the walls and walk on the marble floors in my stocking feet. Even with thousands more tourists pouring through the gate, my connection to the building felt personal – intimate.
It was hard to leave. As the family gathered at our exit and Keir paid the guide, I asked the boys if they had liked the Taj Mahal. They both declared enthusiastically that they had loved it and that it was a highlight of the trip so far. “Good,” I said, proud that I’d given my young sons a dose of culture that few American contemporaries get to experience. “Keir says that on the way out of town, we’re hitting a Pizza Hut.” They both jumped up and down excitedly, squealing their excitement and approval of the Pizza Hut choice. They even made up a Pizza Hut dance as we waited for Erik and Shona to join us.
I didn’t ask if Pizza Hut had now surpassed the Taj Mahal as one of the highlights of the trip because part of the mythology of our family is that our passion for the arts and culture far outweighs our interest in common pastimes like chowing down on a slice.
I’ll hang onto that for a little bit longer.
|Checking out the carvings and the inlaid jewels|
|Symmetry through the grate, if you hold the camera right!|
|The boys testing out the symmetry from the middle line|
|The Pizza Hut dance (Zoe is celebrating behind them as well)|