It is the definition of iconic. Classic. It is the ultimate tourist destination and the easiest picture to take in the world. The Taj Mahal. We got there from Jaipur by hired car, the same car that took us to Jaipur from Delhi. Hired cars are cheap in India and a great way to take a road trip and see the countryside without the incredible stress of actually driving in India. Whatever transportation you take, you are dropped off in a jumble of shanties outside a less than impressive red stone gate. This is India so you are instantly swarmed by salesmen and tour guides touting little models of the Taj Mahal, intricate stone work, textiles and other crafts. You walk through the first gate into a wide and much more peaceful garden. In front of you is another, much larger stone gate. There is no sign of the Taj Mahal. You walk a little further, admiring the construction of the red stone, and you catch your first glimpse of white stone gleaming in the blue grey air. Enchanted, your heart quickens as you step up on to the plinth of the gate.
There it is. Through the tiny doorway.
It is bigger and smaller than you expected. Bigger in that it dominates the buildings around it, in the detail already visible from this considerable distance. Smaller in that you are used to the modern scale of skyscrapers. It is unarguably perfect. A monument to love built by Shah Jahan for his wife, it was supposed to be one of two, the other made of black marble to be sited across the Yamuna River. It was his great vision. It was not to be. His son decided that his father’s dream was not worth the cost. He was probably right. Instead they buried the Shah next to his wife: the only asymmetry in the building. But wandering around the gardens of the Taj Mahal, you can’t help but be thankful Shah Jahan was willing to spend his empire’s money on a monument to his wife. India is an all out assault on a traveler’s senses, but inside the walls of the Taj Mahal, all is peaceful. You are free of touts and begging children. Free from sounds and smell. Free from being western. You are in a timeless place. A place where one can spend an hour or two looking at the Shah’s creation from every conceivable angle. Trying to model it in your head. Because you know now that the simple iconic photograph just doesn’t do it justice.