Living in Agra for three long years of my life the Taj Mahal became the most normal part of life.
That monument that brought a million people to India, was just another spot in the horizon from my window. I worked at The Oberoi Amarvilas which offers some of the worlds most spectacular views of the Taj, I saw it day in day out every moment of the day it shone in its white glory.
To tell you the truth all that charm of the monument wore off very very fast, it was then the only reason I was earning my bread and butter.
I’d been to the Taj quite a few times as a child, as relatives and my parents colleagues came in from all over the world we took them unfailingly everytime to Agra. The National Highway route to Agra was something I almost knew more than the roads in Delhi. As a child the taj was a wonder; large, looming and romantic. He built it for his wife, his late wife in her memory and then he too died gazing at it from a distance. This was my version of the taj till I grew into a cynical and critical adult. Then I cursed the man for his wife’s death, I told myself that having 14 children itself was the worst curse possible, then I learnt from one of Agra’s most accomplished guides that; Mumtaz Mahal died while accompanying her husband to Central india for she knew he had his eyes on one of the princesses somewhere there, so to keep an eye on him she travelled in her 8th month of pregnancy and while giving birth on a barren plateau she passed into the void.
What was it in the end? A mausoleum? A glorified mausoleum was all that Taj ever was and ever will be.
In these cynical jaded rants of mine I came to despise seeing the building( that’s all it was for me anymore, a building)
Until that one day when I made a trip to Mehtab Bagh, a little known garden across the river where rumours run thick in the tress, where the sand of the riverbank whispers stories of the ever elusive Black Taj Mahal. My first visit to Mehtab Bagh incidentally was on a Friday, the day the Taj is closed for business, and in the thick of the monsoons. Having gotten off an auto I bought a 5 rupee ticket and casually sauntered in, not waiting for anything miraculous and treating this like yet another unkempt garden of the indian world of archaeology. I walked straight down the path and then the path naturally curved to the right as I turned I looked up from my smartphone which of course always kept me busy I looked up and I stood transfixed in my spot. I just stood.
Breathing heavily I didn’t dare blink for I felt I may lose this image once and for all, there stood in front of me a starkly white building, almost glowing for the sky was a fierce grey behind it, luminous against the choppy water of the Yamuna which was full till its seam for it was the monsoon. And then there was me.
I slowly started walking till I reached the end of the garden where between me and the Taj flew only the river. And I sat down. I sat till I couldn’t look no more, till I heard whistles for sundown and the cops came with their lathis. That was the day I fell in love again. With the Taj Mahal and I found my place of solitude in the world Mehtab Bagh.
I write this piece equally about the two you know?
That ancient garden changed my life, it was my version of the secret garden, the place where I tread softly for every inch held my dreams, my hopes and my vision. Days I was sad I was in Mehtab Bagh and days I was happy I used to jump in front of the taj attempting one of those perfect pictures. I went there with friends I went there with lovers and I went there alone. Everytime meant something new something unique and something different.
I grew up in Agra, in between the streets of old city gorging on Nizamiya ki biryani and 10 rupai ke beef kebabs with ulte tawe ke paranthe and hot gulab jamuns. We had a favourite place called Shanu ke kebab, he had a little cubby hole in the market square and used to sit outside with a sigri in the evenings. He made the most delectable beef seekh kebabs in the world. 20 rupees for 4 of them and I could sit for hours and order. Then there were those funny anglicized breakfast places in the budget part of town, where all the hippy foreigners stayed on a shoestring. Where pancakes tasted like rotis and omelettes were just plain old yummy. Then of course was my favourite place of agra, Costa Coffee, that place was home for me. Those baristas have seen me through three crazy years with new friends old friends foes and everyone else. Ive sat there in the pouring rain getting drenched with just my mug being protected. I would walk up and sit outside, within a moment or two a mug of a cappuccino extra shot slim milk would sit in front of me. In the mornings a croissant too and sometimes a packet of lays.
I am pulled into a crazy state of nostalgia when I think of those days, we used to say “ chhote chhote shehron mein hum bhi bade log hote hain”. Restaurant owners knew us, so did auto walas, shopkeepers would stop us and give us our usuals without us having to ask.
There are parts of Agra that are so unexplored, being part of The Oberoi Amarvilas I had the chance of visiting the Wildlife SOS sanctuary. Nestled in the lush green environs of Khitam Lake, Wildlife SOS is a rehabilitation and rescue center for the diverse society of the dancing bears of India. With large habitats for these injured and insulted animals, Wildlife SOS tries to give them a better and a more normalized life. The bears often suffer from blindness and repetitive body movements after having been captive in dark constricted spaces. Along with the bears they also have a peacock called Danger who tends to attack people at random, a Great Dane they found wandering on the roads called Devil and one hyperactive Guinea fowl too! Visiting the sanctuary I found a place I could turn to when I needed to look for the unconditional comfort that only animals can provide.
Catharsis. Fatehpur Sikri. The ancient city a few kilometers outside Agra has had a major role to play in the life of all those who have ever visited it. A sight to behold emboldened by the Buland darwaza, this UNESCO World Heritage Site renewed my faith in the forces that lie beyond us. The tradition of tying a “dhaaga’ in the tomb of the great Saint Muinuddin Chishti has existed for years, the intricate marble trellis that surrounds the sanctum sanctorum is peppered with dhaagas of various colours. Showing us the hope that humankind puts in prayer and in wishes. Each thread tied with utmost conviction, holding someones dreams within its knots. Some of us are lucky that these dreams get fulfilled some of us hold on to the hope that someday they will be fulfilled. It is said that once your wish has been fulfilled you have to come back and remove any one of the many threads. I tied one in 2010, and in 2013 had the extremely blessed opportunity to remove one, for my wish came true. On this trip back, I met a young man all of 8 years who offered to be my guide to the city, Sul Mohammad was his name. With a prominent lisp this little one told me the story of Akbar, his wives, his prayers for a son and in his poignant tale he told me that Islam, Christianity and Hinduism could all exist together as he pointed to various symbols of all three religions in the architecture. How an 8 year old could understand this and talk so eloquently I still cannot fathom. But he gave me some perspective in life. And I do believe that’s the most important gift anyone could give to another.
Living at the edge of this town trying to be a city has been the most defining time in my life. Let Agra do that to you too. One day when you get the time, not half a day not a few hours and certainly not just the Taj. Let Agra do its magic.