The paradox of seeing world-renowned landmarks, monuments, artworks, and buildings in person is that they tend to look familiar yet strange. Because of all the images you’ve already encountered that depict the famous thing, there’s no mistaking it when you lay eyes on it in three dimensions. But, at the same time, it’s often smaller than you expected (Mount Rushmore), or it’s taller (Michelangelo’s David), or it’s utterly lacking in giant apes climbing up the side (Empire State Building).
It’s like the time I saw Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys of The Americans (a couple onscreen and off) at Flaming Saddles. If she had been wearing a Lone Ranger mask and a hazmat suit, I still would’ve been like, “Omg, it’s Felicity!” Nevertheless, she didn’t look in real life quite like my conception of her. Like most celebrities, she has a teeny-tiny frame supporting an oversize head—or, at least, that’s how she appeared to me. Maybe her head is proportional but looks bigger because it’s the most recognizable part of her, even without her season-one-of-Felicity curls. (I had no thoughts about Matthew Rhys.)
What I’m saying is that the Taj Mahal is like Keri Russell: beautiful yet smaller than you’d think, though topped with a large dome.
But the most surprising thing about the Taj Mahal had less to do with size than atmosphere. It sounds tranquil or even transporting to gaze upon a showstopping white marble mausoleum that was intended as a tribute from Mughal emperor Shah Jahan to his favorite wife, Mumtaz Mahal, but that has become instead a symbol of the glory days of an era when longboats floated down the Yamuna River between elegant gardens perfumed with jasmine and oleander—am I drifting toward exoticism? I’ll stop.
The point is that the reality differs from what I had imagined. When I visited Agra with my husband, Frank, in early October 2016, it was around 35° Celsius, which comes out to about 240° Fahrenheit.
Though we showed up first thing in the morning, the Taj Mahal site was already mobbed with tourists jockeying for perfect selfies (i.e., recreations of ones they’d seen on Instagram) and locals trying to make a buck, either by asking for one directly or offering services as guides and snappers of souvenir photos. We had to wear paper booties to walk on the marble. Irritable monkeys screamed at anybody who approached a set of steps leading to the main structure. I was still recovering from the previous day’s bout with “Delhi belly” and kept praying, Dear Lord, please don’t let me barf all over this priceless icon of world culture.
I’m not saying the thing isn’t exquisite. Monumental yet somehow as delicate as tatted lace, the Taj truly inspires awe and totally made me buy that Shah Jahan was very into Ms. Mumtaz.
It’s just that the experience is a lot. In fact, a lot of India is a lot—the heat, the traffic, the population density, the gastrointestinal distress, the outrage exhibited by certain monkeys. But also the history, the natural wonders, the outsize contributions to art, music, and religion. It’s a place that teems and overwhelms, in good and bad ways. “Incredible India” is the country’s official tourism slogan, but my more truthful edit would be: India—We’re a Lot.
Frank and I ended up hiring one of the freelance snappers of souvenir photos at the Taj—not because we wanted to, but because our guide made it seem necessary. I assume he benefited in some way.
We paid for 30 pics or so that were printed off somewhere nearby and were ready for us in a little album at the end of our visit. Our photographer had a penchant for silly poses, but I was in no mood, so it was up to my spouse to leap and crouch and wave his hands in the air in a manner suggesting he just didn’t care. One picture uses a trick of scale to make it appear that Frank is holding the monument from his pinched index finger and thumb, as if the Taj were a Christmas ornament.
Don’t worry: We also ended up with several non-stupid shots of the two of us standing in front of the dome, minarets, reflecting pool, and garden—thus doing our part to increase the world’s stockpile of images that capture the look of the Taj Mahal and none of the feeling.