Many of you probably already know the story of the Taj Mahal. Back in the 1600s, emperor Shah Jahan’s 3rd wife Mumtaz Mahal died while giving birth to their 14th child. So grief stricken was he that his hair was said to have turned white almost overnight. He commissioned the best architects and craftsmen in the land to work on her mausoleum. The result is one of the most beautiful buildings in the world.
What many of you may not know is that as construction of the Taj dragged on and its costs spiralled upwards, Shah Jahan’s son Aurangzeb overthrew him, so Shah Jahan spent the last 8 years of his life under house arrest, looking out the window at his monument to his love for his dead wife. Which is why it’s known as “a monument to love”.
From that first glimpse of it from my hotel I was amazed. Everyone knows what the Taj looks like, it’s one of the world’s icons like the pyramids in Egypt. So it was cool to be seeing it with my own eyes.
My plan for that first afternoon was to find a hotel (check), find a rooftop restaurant (check), find a bhang lassi, and with my lassi enjoy the sunset over the Taj Mahal.
A lassi is yogurty milkshake available in a variety of fruit flavours, mango, banana, etc. A bhang lassi is a lassi which contains bhang, which you might know by its more common name of marijuana. Back in the 60s when the hippies started coming to India, bhang lassis were the cocktail du jour, but I’d never had one and never seen them on the menu. But I’d heard you could still get them at the cafes in Agra near the Taj Mahal.
My lassi quest was cut short though, when a money changer told me that the Taj Mahal was closed on Friday, the next day. I couldn’t believe that the taxi driver and the hotel staff hadn’t told me that already, since I’d told them all I was planning on visiting the Taj the next day.
It was already 4pm so I headed straight to the Taj Mahal complex to get inside. There were hundreds of Indians queuing up to get through the usual security checks – metal detectors and vigorous pat-downs.
Once inside the place was crawling – mostly with Indian tourists.
Still, the complex itself is huge so it’s easy to find some space and even a quiet patch of grass to relax on and enjoy the scene. I spent a couple of hours there, mostly staring at the Taj Mahal and admiring its details and its symmetry.
I stayed there until sunset and watched the Taj change colour from white to yellow to gray.
I joined the crazy long queue to go inside the Taj itself, but inside there’s not much to see. It’s really dark inside and in the center is Mumtaz’s cenotaph.
One funny thing about the Indian tourists is that they all line up for a photo but no one smiles. My friend Barnaby wrote an article about this. His hypothesis was that Indians keep it real. I dunno. They seemed to be having a good time at the Taj, but the smiles would erase and they’d look extremely bored when they’d pose for a photo.
I really enjoyed my visit to the Taj. Despite being crowded I still found it peaceful. The hassles from vendors selling crap souvenirs outside the gates melt away when you’re inside. I love how symmetrical the design is, and marvelled at the attention to detail and the amount of work that went into it 400 years ago.
I left the Taj and walked back towards my hotel. Along the way a waiter beckoned me into his restaurant, and I asked him if he had any special lassis. “Sure my friend, of course, anything is possible ha ha”. And there they were on the menu, “Special Lassi”. When I sat down and ordered one, the waiter made sure I knew what I was getting - “You want a bhang lassi?”. It took an eternity to arrive, and I downed it and knew that it would probably take an hour or two to kick in. Well about 3 hours later I felt a slight twinge, but that might have been the beer I was drinking or the sleep deprivation of the previous night. By now it was about 10pm and I fell asleep anyway. Verdict: a dud. So next time I’ll have to ask for an extra strong special lassi.
The next day I went to Agra Fort, which was the palace of Emperor Shah Jahan while he reigned (and his father previously). My favourite part was the fountain around which the ladies of his 300 strong harem would bathe - “topless concubine ladies” as my guide put it. Adjoining that was the royal bedroom, naturally.
After Shah Jahan was overthrown by his own son, he was kept under house arrest in another part of the palace, from where he could mournfully see the Taj Mahal 2km away. Presumably it wasn’t as smoggy back then.
Back to Delhi
I needed to be back in Delhi by about 6pm to catch a 9pm flight. Unfortunately there were no AC buses and the trains didn’t leave til 4 or 5pm so I wouldn’t make my flight on time.
I also didn’t have 2000 rupees to spend on a taxi, as I had a little bit of rupees left but I didn’t want to change another US$100 bill because that would leave me with way too many rupees and it’s not easy to change them back.
So a travel agent had a unique solution – we’d share the taxi to Delhi as he also wanted to go, but we’d first do a bit of shopping in Agra along the way. i.e. visit various shopping malls, where I would feign interest in the wares, and the taxi driver would get commission for taking me there, which would help pay our fare to Delhi. I was a bit reluctant as it can be difficult to say no to the salesmen, but I gave it a go.
Well, the plan backfired on me in the end, as the 3rd place we went to accepted credit cards so I went a bit nuts buying a bag and a shirt at ridiculous tourist prices, simply because I could use my plastic rather than have to change rupees. Oh well.
The rest of the trip back to Delhi was a blast. Cruising in the AC taxi talking shit in the back with Ravi (not his real name), stopping for beers and smoking up a storm. He was a really funny guy and had a ton of stories, unfortunately I can’t remember many of them now.
Indian family life
A recurring question here is do you have children? No? Why not? (Is this guy gay? is what they are thinking). Here having children is very much a part of being a man.
As Bruce explained it to me, the typical way of life is to have an arranged marriage in your early 20s but keep living in your parent’s house. Have kids quickly, and your parents will help raise them. Many of the guys in their mid-20s still act like they’re 18 or 19 – they still go out drinking and partying.
Finally, when you’re actually ready to have kids yourself, say in your 40s, well by then your children will be having kids under your roof, so you can have a hand in raising them.
The whole system is quite efficient if you think about it – you get to have your kids when you’re young and fit and virile, but you don’t really have to bother raising kids until you’re older, wiser, and richer, when you raise your grandchildren.
So when I usually say that I’m not ready to settle down with one girl for the rest of my life and that I want to have a few girlfriends first, the answer is “ah ok”. But after a few beers, the unguarded Indian response might be “So what? I have my wife, but I also have a couple of girlfriends.”
Ravi (from my ride back to Delhi) is separated from his wife, but they still get on as friends. But what she and no one else in his family knows is that he has a girlfriend, and they’ve been trying to get pregnant for the last while. Why? Cos they really love each other and he doesn’t have any kids with his wife so his girlfriend wants to give him one. And now, thanks to IVF, they’ve got triplets on the way! But it’s a big secret which he’s been trying to get off his chest to the rest of his family! Good luck with that mate.