North Tour: Agra: The place with the big famous white thing

Monday, 14 March

AGRA TO VARANASI: From what I’ve heard, the Mona Lisa shocks its visitors when they see it. Most people are surprised to find it smaller than expected, nonplussed as a canvas of its diminutive size awaits them. It’s one of those famous world spectacles about which its visitors have to have an impression.

Believe it or not, the Taj Mahal is like the Mona Lisa.

I don’t know how my expectations for a 20-story high iconic monument could have been any bigger, but perhaps it’s because of them that the sheer size of the Taj Mahal didn’t jar me as much as it did.

Not to say I wasn’t impressed. I joined the throng of snap-snatchers centering themselves along a grandiose plinth, grateful my height made picture-taking an easier task than it was for my vertically challenged friends. The pictures captured today are nothing short of spectacular, the kind you print out, frame, and center on your living room mantle.

My expectations for the Taj Mahal were fulfilled, just not exceeded. Perhaps my eight months in India caused them to mount more than they aught to have. But it’s hard to ask much more of a monument like the Taj Mahal. Going to India without seeing it is like going to Egypt without seeing the pyramids, like going to France without seeing the Eiffel Tower, like going to China without seeing the Great Wall.

I’m not sure which list of world wonders is most widely accepted these days, but if the Taj Mahal isn’t on it, throw it out. There’s a reason Agra is the tourist capital of India.

You can find pictures of the Taj Mahal across the universe. You can find recounts of its history written on other pages.

What you won’t always hear about the Taj Mahal, however, is the story of what goes on just outside.

Agra is either the best or worst place for tourists in India, depending on your viewpoint. Best if you enjoy bargaining, and have mastered the art of buying trinkets and souvenirs at prices far below their Western value.

Worst if you’re claustrophobic.

Peddlers engulfed us as we approached and departed from the Taj Mahal and the Agra Fort. Unless the windows and doors of our bus remained closed, arms would reach through showcasing (cheap) bangles, postcards, or miniature snow globes of the Taj Mahal. Walking around, sellers would match our strides holding their products in our noses until each of us gave a firm and unwavering “no”. If uninterested in any products, I found the best strategy to walk in a straight line with my head on an unending side-to-side swivel.

That said, if you know how to bargain, the souvenirs you pick up can be astounding in scope and price. The wallah will almost always start with a price that seems reasonable when converted into dollars or Euros, but is about ten times overpriced for the Indian rupee. If skilled, you can cut the price down to size, and buy an array of products at an astounding value. Much of what was picked up today will be distributed to friends and family members around the world.

But some moments are priceless. OK, Rs. 750 and Rs. 250 are two, the price of admission for foreigners at the Taj and Agra Fort respectively. (Indians paid Rs. 20 each.) But the memories made in their shadows are the most valuable from today. Unlike souvenirs, memories are monkey-proof – Agra’s primates can’t take them, only ingrain them deeper into us. I’m happy to report a purse one monkey took while half of us were napping in the Agra Fort grass was returned with minimal damage and nothing stolen.

Only in Agra. The tourist capital of India.



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