Taj Mahal: What The Postcard Didn't Show
It was almost a year ago when I went to the Taj Mahal. The one-day trip went beyond all expectations, and it was one of the most intense days of my life.
It began in Delhi early in the morning. I just had my big fat Indian wedding. I’m American, but my husband was born and raised there in a Punjabi family. The morning was cold and smoggy. My friends from the USA, Europe and Australia were there for the ride. They came to my wedding and we thought the Taj Mahal would be the perfect way to bring all the celebrations to a close.
Since the Taj Mahal was about five hours away, I assumed that the smog would eventually thin out, but it didn’t. It actually grew worse as we drove on. There was a burning chemical smell in the air that closed car windows couldn’t deter. My lungs felt like they were on fire with every inhalation. The fumes made me feel like my head was trapped inside a diesel barrel. Until that day, I never knew air could be so dirty and that people could actually breathe it in. Keep in mind that I’ve been to many polluted cities around Asia, including Bangkok and Kathmandu. This was by far the worst I had ever experienced.
About two hours into our road trip we stopped at a tourist restaurant/truck stop. It looked like hell on earth. The land was cracked, barren and dry. There was very little greenery and nature. Suffering people were everywhere begging on the streets, either looking emaciated, high or deformed in some way. I wondered if they could still smell the chemicals in the air after living there all their lives. I wondered what the drinking water like, but there was no way I would try it. This whole land was toxic, and it made me appreciate my clean green home in Oregon more than ever. I’m not sure if most Americans can even imagine the severity, for I have never seen it so bad in my own country. Not even close.
As we pulled into the parking lot, I saw several Indian men sitting on the side of the road with several chained up monkeys that were dressed in tattered & dusty circus clothes and makeup. They looked like the worst imaginable Hollywood stereotypes of weary and enslaved hookers. But they weren’t even people. They were monkeys! I was disturbed and hoped that I would never encounter such a reality again. I even felt horrible about the cobra that the same men kept in a basket. I just wanted to set it free, even though snakes usually freak me out. I felt really bad for this trapped life form. In moments like these, I question life and the world. I hope that death is really a relief and the heaven that cultures around the world have longed for it to be.
We got to the Taj Mahal and it was a fantasy island, a monument of incredible wealth and artistry. Its glossy beaming pillars of hand carved stones were stunning, picturesque and added to the whole image of what India is to me: a place of extremes with very little in the middle. The postcard image of the Taj Mahal is exactly what I saw, but there is this whole other world just outside it’s gates and ticket line. It’s a world of poverty, starving street children, environmental disaster and ignorance that the pretty framed picture does not capture. It was memorable and I’m glad I did it, but I mostly see other images from that day when anyone asks me what it was like. The greatest castles and holy monuments will never impress me as much as social justice and a clean and peaceful world.
What made this trip more challenging was that some of my American friends had never been outside the west before and they were having a hard time processing all of these severe examples of life. It brought out their darker characteristics that I usually don’t get to see. It was hard for me, but it was still a little bit easier than what they were going through because I had seen similar situations throughout most of my 20s all around Asia. This was all new to them. I had to be a tour guide and counselor all in one for my friends that day. God bless ‘em for coming so far just to experience my wedding.
During the long drive home, we passed through a town that my new mother-in-law told me to look out for. In Hindu mythology, it was the place where Krishna was born. My husband Sam pointed it out as we drove by and I had to laugh or else I would have cried. In Hindu culture, it is important to treat the land, air, soil and water with respect because it is alive and holy. Yet that day I saw the paradox of Mother India. Without any exaggeration, Krishna’s hometown was another dump that was taken over by an oil refinery. There was a high tower at the refinery that had a large and very evil looking flame shooting out from the top. Don’t get me wrong. I love fire and practically worship it, but the flames had a weird green tint to them that made me feel like I was looking straight into Tolkien’s Eye of Sauron. Tolkien had it nailed. The dark side doesn’t mind killing the earth to have the power, and this oil refinery was a fully embodied example of what The Lord of the Rings was talking about.
Luckily a dear friend named AJ was there for the journey. We went to high school together, and one of the reasons I appreciate him is because he uses the same darker shades of humor to process the more intense moments of life. Not everyone can appreciate this about me, but sometimes it’s the only way I can get by and it was the same for him that day. We were an hour outside of Delhi when he started to play “In The Ghetto” by Elvis on the radio. It made it all the better, and all of the sudden things weren’t so serious. The best was that I couldn’t even sing the falsetto “In the Ghetto” chorus because my voice had almost completely shut down because of the pollution. I just squeaked along to the lyrics, but I did it with all my heart and that’s what really mattered. It was my release from the horror that I had witnessed that day.
So yeah, I’ve been to the Taj Mahal, and it literally left me breathless in more ways than one. My best advice? Bring a dust mask and some tissues to wipe the tears away, as it is not for the weakest of lungs or heart.