Noi6 means "the 6 of us" in Romanian.

We are five, you are the sixth one.

We thank you for joining us in our trip around the world...

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Hide and Seek

Deeply buried within us is the wish to be special— different from the rest of the world. And, in spite of our altruistic appearance, we’re happy that we feel different. We could have been like the other three million people who visit the Taj Mahal each year, and have taken pictures from all angles. But no... because the Taj was enshrouded in fog.
The owner of the hotel had told us the night before that if we are going at 6:30 am, there will be fog. “Listen, all the tourists at my hotel—and I have only foreign tourists—go to the Taj Mahal later.” But it’s Maria’s birthday and she likes to wake up early to enjoy every minute of it. On top of this, we don’t like crowds, and want to enjoy the monument with peace and quiet and space. The majority of tourists from Delhi come in the day time, see the sunset at the Taj, and then at night they’re back at their hotel. But we don’t want to be like the majority.
So we wake up at 5:30am, eat something while standing, and meet with the taxi driver at 6. We drive through a fog so thick we can’t see the road. Luckily, the headlights lead us along like Ariadne’s thread (or Dumbledore’s Deluminator).

We’re greeted from the sides by Indians who are stretching their limbs. I guess that they’re the vendors or guides which will assault us later. The ticket counter isn’t open yet, but there is activity; they’re sweeping, tying their turbans, putting shawls around their shoulders. There are two counters: one for Indians (divided into two, with a large balustrade between them. One side is for men, the other for women). The other counter is for foreigners. At this hour only the last of them are standing in line. The cold is humid and penetrates any layer of clothing you may have on. After we buy our tickets we collect our shoe covers and wait in the next line, where we can enter the palace. There is segregation even here and the four lines are, female foreigners, female Indians, male Indians and high value tickets holders (this is because foreigners pay 750 rupees compared to 20). After we pass through security, we arrive in a square where there are more people. They entered through the other gates.
The gate behind which the Taj Mahal is hiding can barely be seen, and we’re right next to it!
 I admire the intricate chandelier and keep walking. The gate ensconces a white atmosphere.
 We hurry through the garden towards the actual building, put on our shoe covers and climb the wooden stairs built over the marble ones. We’re face to face with the Taj Mahal. 

 As we enter the mausoleum we realize that it’s warm... the light filters through two rows of jalis (perforated stone windows) and through the windows from under the cupola, plus the cold light from the fluorescent bulb in the intricate lamp above the tombs. We can hear the pigeons fly and the cries of their young ones. We don’t know which way to look first.  The small fence which surrounds the center is occupied by a tourist group looking at the gate made of one block of marble. This portal has precious stones inlaid in the shapes of flowers.
 We move to one side, looking at the sculpted lace, following the dainty arabesques. The central vein flowers and bifurcates into delicate ovals. Our sight feels the smoothness. There is so much love ... you can’t create something this beautiful without loving marble and your work. It’s hard to tear myself away and keep going.
We make a round trip and arrive in front of the gate: in the center is Mumtaz’s grave, and to the side, Shah Jahan’s. His is a bit taller and bigger, but both are covered in that white motive with red and yellow flowers, with green leaves and black thistles. I notice that his is a bit raised on one side, which means that the floor with white marble stars separated by black strips is curved so that water can drain away!

We exit the central part and go around it between the jalis. The foggy light filters through and warms the floral basrelief. 
 Too quickly it’s finished and we find ourselves outside. We wait... maybe the fog will lift. We try to photograph the verses from the Quran written in black on marble one metre in width;
 we take pictures of details, a sweeper... 

The humid cold gets the better of us so we enter the mausoleum again. Calm... seeing it again... I touch the marble walls and precious stones and feel their warmth...
It’s time to leave. Though we found the Taj Mel in its hiding spot (as the Indians pronounce it), we didn’t see it properly.
We hurry towards the car and drive to Ttimad-ud-Daulah. It is Mumtaz’s grandparents’ grave and it’s nicknamed... Baby Taj. Just like Fontainebleu Castle is the precursor to Versailles, this one inspired the Taj Mahal. A small building, multi-colored, on a square platform, surrounded by fountains. 
 A jewel which shelters graves of orange marble. I feel happy— I feel like skipping and clapping my hands. On the inside the arcades are painted with blue and gold. 
 My eyes go over the walls with flowers made of stone: yellow, black, red, white, and so called green, that has waves of turquise and mother of pearl. With my mind’s eye I see the hands which cut, polished, sculpted, glued, and smoothed all the details ... so much work...  

And because we are close to the Yamuna river we drive to its shores to see the Taj Mahal. We pass by Mehtab Bagh, a garden recently arranged to protect the monument from sandy wind. A camel with touristic harness is eating its lunch. A place with many small temples. Military tents, the river and... as if through a veil, the Taj.  One side is in sunlight, the other in shadow. No matter how long we try, we cannot see it beter. We take pictures, when suddenly we hear bleating and the sound of bells: an Indian woman and some children were coming with a herd of goats so that they could graze on the banks. 
On to Agra Fort. Akbar had his court here when he built Fatehpur Sikri and we recognize places from “Jodhaa Akbar.” In the courtyard an old man surrounded by his family asks us if we are from Teheran. Our negative answer prompts him to tell us that everything here was built by Iranians. He is from Teheran, but lives in London. National pride!
As usual we walk without a guide through the yards and read the inscriptions provided by the Indian Archeological Institute. We learn about a succesion of shahs that usurped their fathers, about the people who built and improved the fort, about the water collection system from the river with Archimedes water wheel. From over a hundred buildings, only 38 survived the test of time and British military. The symmetry, the alternance of white marble and red stone, the repetition of the elements... It doesn’t compare with what we saw until now, but it has a feeling of order, of hierarchy. Finally we find the rooms where Shah Jahan spent his last years of life, imprisoned by his son Aurangzeb. We follow his line of sight over the river... but the Taj is hiding again in foggy folds.
But you know what? If we can see the domes of the Pearl Mosque from the fort, it means that we can see the Taj Mahal from the South Gate! Mr. Juned waited for us in the car and we go again across Agra through markets, between rickshaws and cows. There is no one in line for tickets, no one in the foreign line for security and we’re happy because the Indian Government gives us the privilege to be different: the line for Indians is doubled on itself... Armed with our high value tickets we waltz through the security and wait for the boys... who don’t show up.
We have the proof of how good is the security around the monument: they won’t let Mihai enter with a flashlight! We read in the guide that the marble is translucent and in the morning we checked it out.
Even a guide asked to borrow it to show to his clients, but this didn’t impress the soldier. We were not allowed! (but it looked so beautiful with the garnets and the marble lighted from inside).  And now, at our second visit, he had to promise he will not use it. I don’t have the patience to wait for them to shake the rocks out of their shoe, and hurry to take my place in the center of the gate for the touristic photo.
Ten, twenty, thirty, a hundred! Ready or not, here I come! 
They catch up with me and we try to have our picture taken. The light is perfect, with a pinkish hue. Though we can see the gardens now, we’re not according them even a look, all attention concentrated on the Taj. We climb the central platform of the fountain and we’re taking classic pictures. An Indian with a blue shirt and white dhotti offers his service to take our family pictures: he tells us where to stand, to change positions, stand up, sit down, he stops other people from getting into our picture, he hides in the arch of the staircase for a better angle. He’s good! His kindness is rewarded with a hundred rupees ($2).
After some jumping pictures, I leave them to their devices and try to take advantage of the sunset light. I realize that I forgot my shoe covers and walk in my socks. I’m next to the building and look at it only through my lens... this is an interesting angle...catch the sun under the kiosk... a river panorama... On the steps of the minaret there are some Indians who look at me.... “weird these tourists, they come, take pictures, but they don’t stop to enjoy...” I’m trying to capture the bronze tip with the crescent moon, but for this I have to lie down; I place my shoes with the soles facing each other on the floor, and while I take a picture, I hear them talking, I presume approving my gesture (the mosque, the tomb are holy places, and we have to follow Moses example, take our shoes off)

Ha, ha, haaa I found you and I took your pictures! But I was happy too early, the battery is exhausted....and ooooooh, how many pictures I could have taken! Who laughs last...but no, I won’t give up, turn off, turn on the camera, shake the battery and take some more pictures, but in the end I have to stop. Without the camera, I see people, not as many as I imagined. A father takes pictures of his four children climbing the platform, their mother smiles happy and tired. I see their bare feet and follow their example. The marble is cool and imperfect, slightly uneven, like it was used more in some places. I look at things that this morning were lost in mist; I can see them, a little bit clearer, more colored, and they continue with other ones. A symbolic monument, so simple and so detailed... who has the merit? The one who ordered and paid for it? Did he pay for it, or was it the loot from wars? The one who conceived it? The ones who build it? The one who inspired it? It has no importance now, they are all dead.
I go around it trying to absorb as much as I can...the soldiers are still there allowing the foreigners to enter and the Indians to stay in line, such a long one that I can’t see the end. I ask myself if I want to enter again, but I refuse, I don’t want to change the morning’s images, with marble in space and pigeons in flight... it must be very crowded... and sudenly I realize... that’s why the marble was warm, from the ones who breathed and stepped on it the day before.
I find my family and we start toward the exit. We thank God that He gave us the possibility to come and see what we never imagined, and that we could do it on Maria’s birthday. The South Gate’s platform is almost empty, some tourists and Indians are there. The sun has set, but there is still that reddish light. We sing “Happy Birthday!” to Maria. Behind us it looks like the air has hardened in specific shapes.

We say good bye and leave. The Taj has hidden behind the gate and I don’t think that I am ever going to look for it, to take it out from its hiding place...
Dinner, luggage, going to bed early, we have to wake up at 5:30 to go to the train station... I can’t fall asleep, my mind races over the buildings, the lights, all the untaken photos....hee, hee, hee, in the end I win! 

1 comment:

  1. Ileana,
    You are a wonderful writer. Thank you for making this so real. It does indeed resemble a lot Alhambra form Malaga, the same lacy crenelated architecture,(Spanish and Maur style mix). Very unique, hard to imagine how many people and how many days have been dedicated to that kind of work!


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