Taj fatigue

So, just under six weeks after arriving in India, we’ve finally made our way to Agra to see the famed Taj Mahal.

It was a strange experience. It’s kinda like seeing the Mona Lisa in real life – you’ve seen so many photos etc that the real thing is… not anti-climactic, but perhaps shorn of the impact it might have had if you just wandered up having never seen it before. In any case, the Taj is rightly famed for its beauty, and the one thing that the photos don’t capture is just how *huge* it is. It must be a good 30 metres high, a graceful sweep of gentle curves carved in translucent pearl-white marble and set in perfectly kept gardens.

But it’s a strange place. It’s almost *too* perfect. The icy beauty has nothing to do with life or nature – it’s as coldly perfect and distant as the night sky. After all, at the end of the day it’s a tomb, and it’s as much a monument to a king’s pride and folly as it is to love and grief. The king in question – the Mughal emperor Shah Jehal – had 20,000 workers working on the bloody thing for 22 years, and his plan to build an identical monument in black marble across the river finally tipped the populace against him – his own son overthrew him and turfed him in prison at the Agra fort, where he whiled away his final years looking across the river at the edifice that ruined him.

The rest of the historical “sights” here are equally impressive, and equally strange. The fort, which we visited yesterday, feels as much like a mausoleum as the Taj does. It’s full of buildings built in broadly the same era as the Taj, some in a similar white marble and some in red sandstone. Again, the craftsmanship is exquisite, but the whole thing feels vast, empty and lifeless. It’s almost impossible to imagine that people might have once lived there. Walking through it, you feel only the weight of cold stone all around you. I found it amusingly ironic that the only living things that now inhabit this masterpiece of human construction are animals – monkeys, pigeons and the occasional miserable-looking dog.

Forts from which to fight their wars and tombs to house them when they’re dead – these are the things that seem to preoccupy the minds of kings. A strange way to approach life.

As for the rest of Agra, well, even in the country of extremes that is India, Agra is a study in contrasts. Outside of the cold perfection of its historical monuments, the city is… well, it’s a shithole, basically. It’s by far the poorest city we’ve visited, the first place that I’ve seen kids with the swollen bellies that are a sure sign of malnutrition.

So I got to wondering. The Taj charges 750 rupees for admission. This equates to A$25 – not a small sum even in our terms, and a whopping great fee by Indian standards. The Fort charges another 300, and the rest of the monuments – of which there are plenty – charge upwards of 100 each. When you multiply this by the amount of handicam-clutching gimps who are bundled through the turnstiles each day, it means that a shitload of money is coming into Agra, all day, every day. And yet the roads are full of potholes, there are no jobs, the people are poor… only the cows and goats look happy.

It all begs the question of exactly where the money goes. Sure, some of it goes to paying the people who polish the marble, cut the grass, etc etc. But there must be a heap left over, and in a country as systematically corrupt as India, I don’t have a lot of confidence that most of it isn’t lining the pockets of various bureaucrats. It adds up to a sorry situation – a huge amount of money going to the upkeep of monuments that, for all their beauty, are cold, dead things, while outside, the living starve on the streets.

The economy here has been so skewed and stunted by the tourist dollar that it appears that there are few other ways to make a living than by reliance on the largesse of the West. No new industrial developments are allowed in Agra – they might besmirch the Taj – so unemployment is rampant, and apart from those who work for the tourist dollar, everyone appears to be dirt poor. For all that the Taj and the other monuments provide Agra with its lifeline, its sole raison d’etre, they also seem to hold it back. A strange Catch-22, really.

So all in all, I’ll be glad to be out of here. Tomorrow we get on a train to Varanasi, just two more Westerners who’ve blown through and then left Agra to continue struggling with its magnificent marble millstone.

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