Tourism and Transcendence at the Taj Mahal

Taj Mahal

Let’s start with some trivia: where in the world is the Taj Mahal? Many people’s first instinct is to say India. That would have been my response about a year ago, and while technically correct, it’s not very precise. It’s like saying that the Eiffel Tower is located in Western Europe or that the Statue of Liberty is located east of the Mississippi River.

Surprisingly, for the home of India’s most famous monument, the capital of one of the largest empires in history, and a modern urban center with over one and a half million residents, the city of Agra isn’t particularly well known abroad. At least, I had never heard of it before coming to India. To be honest, beyond the things I just mentioned, there’s not a lot to hear about Agra. I only spent one day in the city while traveling with my family, but I wouldn’t have wanted to stay much longer. An abundance of major tourist attractions and a lack of independent urban identity make for a highly undesirable mixture. The tourist economy overpowers all else.

The Taj Mahal, seen from afar

The Taj Mahal, seen from afar

As a result, Agra has by far the most aggressive and persistent salesmen that I have ever encountered in India. On the roads around the county’s most iconic sight, a foreigner can’t take three steps without being stalked by a rickshaw driver, shopkeeper, or hawker advocating relentlessly for whatever good or service he hopes to provide. While many of these men speak excellent English, they inevitably fail to understand the word “no.”

Take, for example, the interactions my brother and I had with bicycle rickshaw operators as we walked to the Taj Mahal from the ticket office, which was inconveniently located a kilometer from the monument’s main gate.

“Rickshaw, sir?”

“No, thank you.”

“Taj Mahal gate. Very long way.”

“It’s fine. We’ll walk.”

“It is very far. You will be tired.”

We had woken up before dawn in order to arrive for sunrise, so we clearly didn’t mind being tired. “We’ll be fine.”

“Only fifty rupees. Cheap price.”

“We’d rather walk. Please go away.”

“Twenty rupees.”

“No.”

“Look, already it is sunrise time.”

“We’re fine. We don’t want a rickshaw.”

“Sunrise time is very important. I am information.”

There are many nouns I would associate with the rickshaw horde, but information isn’t one of them. Most of the operators will say whatever it takes for you to give them money, and they’ll keep talking long after you’ve lost the will to listen. One guy followed us the whole way to the gate, wasting legwork he could have saved for more receptive passengers. Another guy only left us alone when I offered him my complimentary foot covers, still unused, as payment. Yes, it was rude, but I was fed up.  How else could I convince him that I had absolutely no interest in what he was selling?

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The Taj Mahal looks almost pink at sunrise

Stasis proved deadly. When my family stopped to rest for a few minutes, the hawkers swarmed like vultures over a dying beast or like sharks around spilled blood. At the time, one of my family members came up with a different zoological analogy: “They’re like flies drawn to a fat turd.”

“Yes, that’s us,” I said. “Fresh and steaming.”

The worst of the harassment happens at Fatehpur Sikri, just outside of Agra, which was the short-lived capital of the Mughal Empire under Akbar. Now abandoned, it has become a hotspot for obnoxious sales tactics. At the parking lot, after I’d barely been in Fatehpur Sikri for two minutes, a man began to walk beside me. He tried to convince me to visit his shop “just to look,” because “looking is free, my friend.” I told him I wasn’t interested, but he kept it up. When I told him I was from the U.S., he began to praise President Obama, so in an attempt to take control of the conversation, I gave a thorough explanation of the Electoral College and its shortcomings as a democratic process. To the guy’s credit, he stuck it out through the whole lecture. Then he gave me his business card and asked when I would visit his shop. He eventually warned me to be careful of unwanted attention from the people near the monuments.

“Yes,” I told him, “It’s terrible when people follow you around and don’t leave you alone.”

He got the point and returned to his shop.

The Hall of Private Audience at Fatehpur Sikri

What the man hadn’t warned me was that the people near the monuments would be primarily children. Many offered their services as guides, including a few who looked no older than six. The children spoke excellent English and seemed very bright, too smart for their own good. They could have put their minds to use at school, but instead they were clamoring to give me a tour of a nearby mosque. It was heartbreaking. Saying no to a child is so much more difficult than saying no to a grown adult.

It’s a shame that these uncomfortable encounters often constitute the primary interactions between tourists and the people of India. What an odd filter through which to perceive a country. The men pushing miniature chess sets and marble elephants represent such a small subset of the Indian population, yet it’s possible to speak more to them than to anyone else. They seem almost a different species from my friends in Jodhpur. While there are plenty of cultural differences between Indians and Westerners, the differences between street vendors and the rest of India are far greater. In any culture, it’s a rare breed of person who can so readily dismiss rejection.

Somehow, though, the Taj Mahal manages to transcend the ugly mess that surrounds it. Domes and towers of white marble rise with impossible grace against a clear blue sky, intensely familiar yet still sublimely astounding. Photographs cannot capture the scale and splendor of the monument. It fully earns its status as one of the world’s most exquisite manmade structures and one of India’s most prized attractions.

The Arabic inscriptions get larger as they go up the arch, so form the bottom, they all look like they're the same size.

The Urdu inscriptions get larger as they go up the arch, so from the bottom, they all look like they’re the same size.

If only the Taj could stand on it own, away from the clutter and hassle of Agra. But of course, wherever it stands, it will draw tourists, and the tourists will draw people eager to take money from the tourists, and the whole jumble will form again. It’s inevitable. Transcendent beauty rarely escapes tourist attention, and every onlooker diminishes the charm, bringing an otherworldly place closer to the mundane concerns of worldly life. In the case of the Taj Mahal, there’s no getting around it. All you can do is admire what’s in front of you, along with hundreds of other tourists, and ignore the voice constantly asking if you’d like a ride in his bicycle rickshaw.

Soltoff family at India's most famous monument

The Soltoff family at India’s most famous monument

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2 thoughts on “Tourism and Transcendence at the Taj Mahal

  1. Stephen Paul

    Although the Taj draws a large number of tourists inside its gates, luckily the multitude of vendors remain outside the gates (unlike at some other monuments) so that one can try to have contemplative moments in spite of the masses. Although the vendors are overly aggressive by Western standards, their poverty doubtlessly drives their solicitation behavior. Great photos of an incredibly beautiful monument!

  2. David Fisher

    Great to read another update and learn that the family was able to visit – didn’t know that was in the works! I love the obligatory family picture at the Taj Mahal, and not being sure if you all are stil there together, wish you and your family safe travels. 🙂
    And of course a happy Pesach!

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