Sunday, March 23, 2008

The Taj Mahal

      The journey begins at 7am on Easter Sunday morning.  We are driving 200 kilometers south to Agra, the famous city where the mogul built the mausoleum in honor of his beloved wife, who died after giving birth to their 13th child.  It is a bright and sunny day here and the roads around the hotel are fairly clear.  But as we navigate the city of Delhi the press of cars and motorcycles, taxis, buses and trucks begin to smother us.  Soon we are engulfed in a smog, a thick viscous air pollution that blots out the sun and in a haze we speed past honking horns and screeching brakes.  It is going to be a long day.  The driver, who is bold and talented, promises he will get us there in 4 hours.  He came pretty close.  Along the way we saw spectacular old Muslim mosques and Hindu temples,  shining new shopping malls and fields of rice and wheat. There are oxen and cattle everywhere, at least partially as they are sacred to the Hindus.  Yet they are chained up to trees or posts so they can collect their dung and dry it in the sun.  They fuel their cooking stoves and their factories with dried dung.  The entire country smells like an open sewer.
     At each road crossing the throngs approach the cars, banging hard on the windows, trying to sell a carved elephant, or a necklace, or a silver bracelet.  Beggars whine and mothers cry out or stare with empty, hopeless eyes as they clutch their infants.  Most do not speak English but bleat a cry in a universial language: despair.
     We are on the road to visit one of the wonders of the world.  And it is.
     The Taj Mahal is majestic, breathtaking, splendid, awesome, magnificent, inspiring, precise, geometrical poetry.  It is the closest thing  to perfection I have ever seen.  The men who labored for 22 years to build this were craftsmen supreme.  The men who designed it and oversaw the 20,000 workmen, were building a monument to love.  They have created a vision of perfection. 
     Located  high on a bank, looking down on a bending river towards the ancient brown walls of Agra, the Taj Mahal is perfect from every angle.  Inside the delicate carvings around the tomb are intricate, the paint still red and black now nearly 400 years after it was painted.  Throngs of visitors, mostly Indian families, are strolling the grounds in awe.  We all take off our shoes, walking barefoot in the 96 degree heat, the pavement stones burning our feet.  In somber reflection on love and beauty and permanence we wait patiently and parade through the inner sanctum.  It is too hot.  We need water. None allowed inside.  We exit and walk in twenty steps from the gates of Paradise to Hell.

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