The Northern Indian city of Agra is not one you’ll hear much about until the day you choose to visit its biggest attraction – a 17th century marble mausoleum that continues to attract millions of tourists every year.
Completed in 1653 on a 42-acre expanse, the monument sits at the South bank of the Yamuna river; a name that initially piques my curiosity when we first hit the tarmac on the Yamuna Expressway.
Our day begins with a string of introductions and pleasantries, first with Mohammed Farouk – our chauffeur for the day – and later to a couple of interesting personalities. Farouk has the look of a fresh-faced 16-year old adolescent and speaks halting English with the occasional wry smile. "You see that on the side? Big, big lake. Very nice place." He says he’s married with one kid (and none on the side).
Our road trip is a long and arduous one. We knew this beforehand; so we are not complaining. We are soon joined by someone to take us around. "Hello. I am Prashant", he screams in a high-pitched voice that makes you want to stand three meters away when he starts speaking.
"And I’ll be your guide for the day."
Prashant has a firm handshake and speaks with the street-smart confidence of a snake oil salesman. He begins to give us the history of the place and he won’t stop until he’s interrupted by the odd question.
I have read chunks of history about the medieval Mughal Emperor – Shah Jahan – and his obsession with Mumtaz Mahal, a Persian princess whom he eventually married as his third wife.
So I know what Prashant is on about.
But we are technically his guests, so we don’t want to say something that will make him abandon us in the milieu of prying strangers who imagine we are carrying wads of foreign currency. Plus, there could be some tiny bits of trivia that the guy who wrote that Wikipedia page left out. We keep calm and try to fake the kind of attention curious kids pay when listening to a bedtime story.
It’s not long before the briefing changes to the DOs and DON’Ts; a prerequisite checklist of sorts that we are supposed to follow. No foodstuffs are allowed inside the mausoleum, no cameras or loud, unbridled excitement.
Shoes will only be allowed if covered with extra gear, so you part with a few rupees for the same. "Don’t try to buy stuff off the streets. Most of it is fake", he says. "Hold onto your wallet like it’s the only kidney you got left. Don’t smile to strangers. There's lots of scheming pick-pockets, here."
A couple of hours since we first buckled up, we finally arrive at the Western gate of one of the seven wonders of the world (there are four gates, each with a unique historical attachment).
The place is a beehive of activity as everything with an ounce of life looks animated. Cows foraging for fodder, monkeys playing with dead oranges, elderly women selling shiny little things (we heeded to Prashant’s advice), masquerading paparazzi scheming for the next deal and teenage girls selling freshly-peeled cucumber.
We stop at the first of the many check points as the briefing goes on (he does sound like he’s not going to stop anytime soon). We are soon ushered into the well-kempt lawns and neat forecourts to an imposing aura. The place is teeming with hordes of tourists, both local and foreign. Some are taking selfies. Many continue to marvel at the magnificence of a place regarded as the finest example of Mogul architecture.
It’s compelling history, workmanship and trivia will simply leave you mesmerized. It didn’t fluke its way onto the world’s seven wonders list – it earned it through the ingenuity and skillset of different architects; the sweat, blood of an estimated 20,000 masons and laborers from places as far-flung as Turkey, Iran and Central India.
After 22 years of sleepless travail, Emperor Shah Jahan is said to have been so impressed and proud of his milestone that he did not wish his blueprint replicated anywhere. So he had his minions cut off the hands of the lead architects and artisans so his love monument would remain the only one of its kind.
World over, association of the mausoleum with love remains contested given the history and events in the run-up to its completion. Circumstances under which the 20,000 laborers ended up at the palace are unknown (they are said to have been slaves), while their eventual fate remains shrouded in mystery.
Women’s rights activists doubt the kind of love that saw Mumtaz Mahal go through 14 pregnancies in 19 years, despite only being the pick of the emperor’s harem. It is, perhaps, the reason some continue to advance the school of thought that says Emperor Shah Jahan built the mausoleum out of guilt following an agonizing bout of postpartum hemorrhage that claimed Mumtaz’s life at the tender age of 34.
In the end, it’s such controversies and mysteries that fan the never-ending desire by tourism aficionados to check out the 300-year-old architectural marvel. Presenting: The Taj Mahal, the world’s greatest love monument.