This post contains no photographs of the Taj Mahal. I did take some, but the datacard was erased when an Internet cafe tried to copy the data to CD. But I'm not too upset about losing those images.
My friend Jen had warned me off staying in Agra overnight, saying there was little to see other than the Taj Mahal. It's easy to make a day-trip to Agra by train so I booked that. Agra has a bad reputation for touts, but it was less irritating that some of the towns that I visited. However at the station one group of autorickshaw drivers started arguing over who would speak to me first as I walked right past them.
Some people I spoke to before my holiday were underwhelmed by the monument. Others had described it as a highpoint of their trip. It reminded me of the Mona Lisa, which seems to receive similarly mixed responses. Either way, I couldn't visit India without seeing the Taj Mahal.
Sadly I found the Taj underwhelming. I'd seen its image so many times, in so many contexts, and for me the building didn't live up to that. The building was magnificent and beautiful but it didn't move me. I found other buildings, like the Amber Fort near Jodhpur, far more exciting. And it wasn't helped by all the people taking photographs.
Every visitor seemed to have a camera, and was looking for the perfect angle from which to photograph the Taj Mahal. It was as if they thought they might find some image nobody had seen before. I found myself compelled to do the same thing. The Taj Mahal didn't seem like a wonder of the world, it felt more like a photography contest. We were there to record an amazing building rather than to be amazed. It reminded me of a passage from Don Delillo's novel White Noise:
Several days later Murray asked me about a tourist attraction known as the most photographed barn in America. We drove 22 miles into the country around Farmington. There were meadows and apple orchards. White fences trailed through the rolling fields. Soon the sign started appearing. THE MOST PHOTOGRAPHED BARN IN AMERICA. We counted five signs before we reached the site. There were 40 cars and a tour bus in the makeshift lot. We walked along a cowpath to the slightly elevated spot set aside for viewing and photographing. All the people had cameras; some had tripods, telephoto lenses, filter kits. A man in a booth sold postcards and slides — pictures of the barn taken from the elevated spot. We stood near a grove of trees and watched the photographers. Murray maintained a prolonged silence, occasionally scrawling some notes in a little book.
"No one sees the barn," he said finally.
A long silence followed.
"Once you've seen the signs about the barn, it becomes impossible to see the barn."
He fell silent once more. People with cameras left the elevated site, replaced by others.
"We're not here to capture an image, we're here to maintain one. Every photograph reinforces the aura. Can you feel it, Jack? An accumulation of nameless energies."
There was an extended silence. The man in the booth sold postcards and slides.
"Being here is a kind of spiritual surrender. We see only what the others see. The thousands who were here in the past, those who will come in the future. We've agreed to be part of a collective perception. It literally colors our vision. A religious experience in a way, like all tourism."
Another silence ensued.
"They are taking pictures of taking pictures," he said.
He did not speak for a while. We listened to the incessant clicking of shutter release buttons, the rustling crank of levers that advanced the film.
"What was the barn like before it was photographed?" he said. "What did it look like, how was it different from the other barns, how was it similar to other barns?"
Standing in front of the Taj Mahal, I found myself thinking back to that passage. What did the Taj Mahal look like before it was photographed?
For me, the best views of the Taj Mahal were from outside the main complex. If you travel across the river, you can view the Taj Mahal from across the water (near the Mehtab Bagh). It's a less frantic location and the river makes a beautiful setting for the mausoleum.
The view from the Agra Fort is particularly striking. The mausoleum was built by the emporer Shah Jahan in memory of one of his wives, Mumtaz Mahal. The building work took around 21 years. Soon after work was complete, Shah Jahan was overthrown by his son, Aurangazeb, and put under house arrest in the fort. It's possible to visit the rooms where Shah Jahan spent his last 8 years, and see the same distant view of the Taj Mahal that he was left with.