I wanted to skip the Taj MahalIndia, with its bustling chaos of people, animals, cultures, and foods, is one enormous, living monument, so why bother with an overcrowded building? On the insistent urging of some fellow travelers, however, my partner, Jen, and I changed our itinerary and veered for Agra.
Passing through the pink sandstone entry gates, all our misgivings evaporated: Cliché or not, the Taj Mahal must be seen. Every admiring accolade you've read about the Tajthe perfect symmetry of the structure; the way the marble glows rose at dawn and saffron at sunset; the semiprecious-stone inlay fitted so tightly that the seams are imperceptibleit's all true. Equally inspiring is the story behind the structure: Shah Jahan, crowned king of the Mughals in 1628, at the height of the empire, built the Taj as a final resting place and monument for his wife, Mumtaz Mahal, at her deathbed behest. And since the Taj got a face-lift in 2002with the removal of decades-old stains and grimeit is as sparkly and impressive as ever.
Jen and I had to wait to take it all in. The moment we stepped onto the Taj's marble platform, a young Indian family approached and asked to take our photowith them in the picture. Slightly uneasy, we agreed. After a moment, another family approached, then another, until a queue of enthusiastic Indians had formed. A guide later explained that, among some rural Indians, bringing home glossies of themselves with their "Western friends" gives them village bragging rights. One uninhibited group placed Jen and me amid the clan of 16, holding the baby, naturally; seconds before the flash went off, a hand appeared from behind me and pinched my smiling cheek. To this day, I keep a copy of the photo, a souvenir nearly as memorable as the Taj itself.