Asia | India | Tamil Nadu | Chennai (Madras) – The Taj and All That
Before I forget — the Taj Mahal. It made me cry. I think it was the contrast. I’d gotten in the previous day, had my tickets and cash stolen, then braved one of the densest thickets of touts and con artists on earth to arrive at this nearly empty hotel and tales of economic woe. Also still shaken by news of war, and the ever present crowds and poverty, and then getting ripped off by a kindly smiling roadside drink vendor.
Then I stepped through that red sandstone portal and sat on a step, looking across this immaculate garden onto the most elegant, graceful…well, *perfect* building I’ve ever seen. Photos *don’t* do it justice and it *is* worth crossing the planet to see, and I was so over come with thoughts of “Why can’t more of the world be like this? and Why does so much of it have to suck and be mangled and harsh, when the same species has the ability to get together and make something like *this*?” that I just started crying.
This is fairly typical for me. For some reason, tragedy and pain hardly ever move me to tears; it’s the thought of how it *could* be that really shakes me. A lot of Agra is a pit, I realize that, but it doesn’t upset me that much, because there are lots of pits in the world: I lived in a pit for two years, and by some folks’ reckoning, I still do. I can accept that, that’s the way the world is, and even in a pit, life isn’t necessarily so bad. People are tough, and adaptable, and have this incredible ability to build lives for themselves, and even joy in the most destitute of circumstances.
But then you show me an alternative, a shining jewel right next to the pit, and this is when I lose it completely: Why? Why can’t just a little bit of the beauty and peace leak out into the real world? Why’s it have to be confined to these narrow little dreamlands? I mean, it is the same mankind that built each, so why the disparity? It just kills me.
So I watched the white domes and high arches buzzing with Indian tourists, and the occasional European, and I sobbed, quietly enough that nobody noticed. Then I dried my eyes and walked up and basked in it for the next three hours, and that was wonderful.
With the exception of that river guide, I’ve yet to meet a single American tourist. But of course, Agra isn’t a ghost town. There are still hundreds of thousands of Indian tourists criss-crossing the country, seeking out the same monuments and temples that I am, spending money and cranking Agra’s economic machinery. And, thank god, doing it largely without the aid of butt-packs and Bermuda shorts. Maybe I should feel fortunate that my view across the gardens to the eternal white marble tomb was mostly over the heads of large, polite groups of Indian tourists, posing dutifully for one another in sari and pressed dress shirts for hundreds of identical snapshots.
Which is not to say that all Indian tourists are perfectly well-mannered. School groups in particular, in my experience, are obnoxious the world over. The next day at Agra Fort I was lucky enough to encounter an unchaperoned group of middle school kids who thought it would be fun to run around Aurangzeb’s Palace whistling as loudly as they possible could into strangers’ ears (mine included). And two days later, according to the “New Indian Express,” a student group affiliated with the BJP, a popular right-wing Hindu political party, stormed the Taj in a mob and scrawled graffitti across her ancient face.
The event was, of course, condemned by the press across the board as immature, destructive vandalism, but I admit I took a perverse sort of comfort in the news. It is strangely calming to know that not every act of destruction or ignorant rage is linked to Afghanistan, New York, stealth bombers or fundamentalist Islamic rhetoric.
The papers, in fact, are devoting almost as much space these days to stories of election rigging and poll disputes as to the bombing of Kabul. In one story, a slightly older version of the student mob that stormed the Taj was reported as rushing into a polling station in suburban Chennai, pouring water into a ballot box, and then stuffing other boxes with their own parties votes. Driving around Tamil Nadu, flags and decorations were in evidence in every town an village, in a festive but repetitive series of motifs:
a bow and arrow, a faucet, a mango, a lotus blossom, a sun rising behind two mountains, a hammer and sickle. They’re all political party symbols it turns out.
The hammer and sickle is pretty obviously the Communist Party, but it was a little odd seeing it on the side of a rural road, done up in red Christmas lights two meters high in front of someone’s house.