A visit to the Taj as a ‘foreigner’

My first visit to the Taj Mahal was with my parents when I was twelve years old. My father had…

A visit to the Taj as a ‘foreigner’

(Image: iStock)

My first visit to the Taj Mahal was with my parents when I was twelve years old. My father had rented a private taxi from Delhi, and we made the popular tourist loop covering Agra, Fatehpur Sikri, Mathura, Jaipur, etc. I had a clear expectation of what it would look like based on hundreds of photographs I had seen in books, magazines, tour guides, movies and posters.

I will forever remember my first impression of the beauty of the Taj standing at the main entry to the premises. I was in awe. My expected image could not compare with the real thing. It was like a dream, as if I was floating in clouds and the structure just sprouted like a white lotus. I could probably just stand there and look at it for a very long time.
I do not remember other details of our trip except for a family photograph taken sitting on a bench with the Taj in the background.

The second time I saw the Taj was in 2004 when I visited Delhi on official business while working for Sony-USA and took a Japanese colleague, Mr. Tanaka with me to show him one of the seven wonders of the world. Naresh from Delhi drove us to Agra in his car and was our guide. We left Delhi in the afternoon and spent the night at a modest hotel in Agra, so modest that there were not even brochures of the Taj in the lobby. We headed towards the Taj Mahal in the morning after breakfast.


Now that I was an international traveller and had seen many tourist attractions all over the world, I was anticipating seeing large signs saying something like “Home of the Taj” or “Taj Mahal 2 Km” in English or Hindi with an outline of the mausoleum and arrows indicating how to get there. Nope, there was nothing like that. The city, houses, roads all looked very unin- spiring and outright dirty in places. No sign of Taj anywhere.

Fortunately, Naresh knew his way around Agra, and we soon arrived at the site. My first reaction was one of disappointment. Once again, no sign of any kind and everything seemed filthy. In the parking lot there was a camel taking a mid-morning break sitting across multiple parking spaces with a dump of his manure nearby, attracting flies. There was a row of gift shops next to the parking lot. As soon as we got out of the car we were surrounded by a crowd of people, both beggars and touts, who started to pester us with all kinds of offers, pleas and suggestions.

I was feeling embarrassed because Mr. Tanaka had taken me to see the Buddha statue in Kamakura near Tokyo during a recent visit to Japan and it was such a clean, scenic and serene place. The first impression of the site of Taj was like a pigsty in comparison.
We walked about 500 meters to the main premises with the touts following us. No vehicle was allowed close to the main gate because pollution from exhaust gases damage the marble.

The ticket office was manned by two guys in khaki uniforms. I noted that there was a two-tier system in admission tickets, one for Indians and one for foreigners. I do not remember the exact prices but the price for Indians was very nominal, and the foreigners had to pay about twenty times more. The guy at the ticket counter asked each person for his/her citizenship. Naresh was the first one in our group and said, “Indian”. He was obviously Indian in both his attire and mannerism and went in by paying the fee for locals. Mr. Tanaka said, “Japanese” and had to pay the higher price for admission.

Finally, it was my turn. By that time, I was very frustrated at the way things were unfolding. I decided that I would not pay the higher “foreigner’s” admission price and get in by declaring I was an Indian. After all, I looked like an Indian. If they wanted a foreigner’s price from me, they should have presented the place like a tourist attraction in a foreign country a la Eiffel Tower or Colosseum.

I told the guards I was Indian. Unfortunately, they did not buy it. I do not know if it was my attire or attitude or just a glow of skin from eating American fast food for all these years that gave it away. They asked me to step aside to an adjoining room for further questioning.

They grilled me asking not only where I lived but the exact address and where I worked and my relationship with Mr. Tanaka. Fortunately, I answered them confidently, not necessarily truthfully, without even blinking my eye. Surprisingly, they were still no convinced. Finally, they dropped their bombshell question, “Who is the current Chief Minister of West Bengal?”

Frankly, I did not know. However, I did not hesitate at this point and said equally confidently, “Jyoti Basu”. The correct answer would have been “Buddhadeb Bhattacharya”. There were a few seconds of awkward silence and the two guys looked at each other. They probably did not know either. Just for abmoment I thought about the shame and embarrassment I would encounter if they knew that I was bluffing and did not allow me to enter or imposed some hefty fine for lying to them. All these things happened with Tanaka waiting nearby. Eventually, one of them broke the silence and said, “Jane de” (Let him go).

I heaved a sigh of relief. Fortunately, the inside of the compound still looked as magical as before. We strolled around with wide eyes like kids in Dis- ney world. I told Mr. Tanaka the stories about Emperor Shah Jehan’s unfulfilled dream of a black Taj Mahal on the other side of river Yamuna and his imprisonment in Agra fort by his son from where he could see the Taj every day. He was thoroughly impressed and took dozens of photographs.

He was intrigued to learn that the four minarets at four corners of the base were slightly tilted outward so that they would fall away from the main structure in case of an earthquake. We discussed in amazement the engineering challenge of creating the perfect symmetry of the main dome constructed hundreds of years ago without the help of computers, cranes and modern machinery. We marvelled at the intricate design and inlays throughout the exterior of the mausoleum. We walked along the pathway next to the reflecting pool.
Of all the wonders of the world, the Taj to me is still the most wonderful.

I always tell anyone going to India, “Regardless of what else you see, make sure you visit the Taj Mahal”. I hope that the cleanliness and welcoming signs have improved in recent years compared to what I saw. I was feeling happy when we left. I stopped at the ticket office on our way out and paid the guard the difference in ticket price between a “foreigner’s rate” and an “Indian rate”, explaining that I had fooled them earlier. He was a little baffled but smiled and did not give me a hard time.

(The writer, a physicist who worked in industry and academia, is a Bengali settled in America.)