Arriving at our sceptical hotel late night after a 6 hour journey through the heart of Northern India, what greeted us was not quite what we were expecting. As soon as the taxi door opened the air lay thick with particles so dank that you could barely see the street light above. An eery orange hue gave way to a dark, starless sky. I closed my eyes and imagine 1930s London, where coal fires and heavy air suppressed the city into a close and oppressive night. Next was the smell. Open sewerage flowed under our feet as we crossed the makeshift bridge-path through the entrance of our hotel, so vile that two of the group physically wretched.
It was over three weeks since we arrived in India, and having travelled overland across 4000km of this fantastic and mesmerising country this was by far the worst pollution we had encountered. It certainly was not what you would expect from such a focal point of Indian tourism. We were in Agra. Home to one of the wonders of the world, the Taj Mahal was constructed following the death of Mughal Emperor, Shah Jahan’s wife, Mumtaz Mahal. With little time left in the day we struggled through dinner, both through latent smog and inherent proximity of sewerage, and crashed in apprehension of an early start.
The alarm pierced into life at 5.30am. To truly witness the Taj is to observe the sunrise. Acquiring tickets, and hastily reaching the queue, we were only 10th in line for entry which gave us a fantastic opportunity to get an empty glimpse of the structure and take time to make piece with our journey before hoards of other tourists arrived. I was selfish as we prised through the gates. I immediately left the company of our team and raced towards the river. I was after a secluded spot, to be alone, to think, and to observe the rise of the sun through the towers. As the monkeys parted before me, seemingly arrogant and discontent at my presence, I removed my shoes and settled at the steps of the mosque on the southwestern portion of the park. I am not a religious person, but something struck me sitting there. It was so quiet, so peaceful. The gentle hum of vocals and traffic noise blended into a hypnotic buzz with no discernible tones. Maybe it was the smog. The air was still so thick you could almost taste it. But it was this that created the scene before me. I sat, alone, as the sky changed from red, through deep oranges and yellows, and some 45 minutes later into a crisp blue morning. The time flew. I was lost in the etherial and spiritual scene and as other tourists began to make their journey to this side of the Taj, I felt vacant and detached from their presence, still in awe of the sight before me.
Something was missing however, and that was company. I had let myself down in that moment of haste to get to my destination. I had forgotten why I came to India, and the principle behind the construction of the Taj Mahal rang in my head and still does. I had a truly spiritual and extraordinary experience sat on those steps, but there was no one to share it with. In particular there was one member of the group, whom having grown closer and closer to, I knew would have truly felt as lost as me sat in the shadow of that mosque. A monument built out of love, out of passion, is not something to sit and capture yourself. It is about sharing that moment with those closest to you. No matter how detached I was from my surroundings during that sunrise, I will not forget the feeling of loneliness and guilt knowing that I could have shared that experience with a person I truly care about. I implore you, should you get chance to visit the Taj Mahal; head early, get there for sunrise, and run to that mosque if you have to. But take someone with you. Someone you love, care about, or simply want to share that moment with, because it is that memory together that will be the most important thing. It is an other-worldly place, etherial, spiritual and calm. It cannot be described sufficiently in words, and thus you need to have that experience with someone such that words are surplus. When you meet eyes, smile, and remember together, that is all the storytelling that is required.