Special to the I-O by Cindy Habets Peterson
Approaching the gates of the Taj Mahal is definitely an event for the memory archives. In the cool, crisp light of pre-dawn in Agra city, the heat and sweat and chaos that are India fell away. We were about to see one of the Seven Wonders of the World.
As we walked hand-in-hand towards the gate, two stern guards barred our way. Each eyed us as if we were potential international terrorists. Machine guns in hand, one of them spit out:
“Taj Mahal is closed.”
But there must be some mistake. We traveled all the way to India, rode around in 100-degree heat for the last two-weeks and this – the climax of our first journey through India is closed? But here I am, getting ahead of myself, and giving away the end of the story. We had better start at the beginning.
Even as we landed in Delhi, I couldn’t shake my feeling of uneasiness. Travelers tend to have polar reactions to India – either they love it or they hate it. Which one would I be? Only one way to find out, we planned a two-week tour through the Northwestern state of Rajasthan. Famous on the world travel stage for the majestic desert forts of the maharajas, intricately carved Hindu and Jain temples, orange sand deserts, spices and jewelry, Rajasthan lays out it’s wonders at your feet. We felt it would be a perfect choice for our first foray into the potpourri of language and culture that is India.
We traveled by train from Delhi Jaisalmer City in the outer reaches of Rajasthan, a mere 60 miles from the Pakistan border.
In Jaisalmer, we were joined by our faithful driver, Anil (trust me, you do NOT want to drive in India). Over the course of the next two weeks, we would our way through more and lesser-known sights in Rajasthan, haggling at the markets, and learning to read menus in Hindi.
Our travel plan led us back into the Golden Triangle, as it is known, between Delhi, Agra, and Jaipur. These three cities are the most visiting in India, with Agra’s Taj Mahal as the crowning glory of them all. We arrived in Agra with less than 48 hours remaining until our departure from India. As usual, Anil had a plan for us.
“So tonight, I take you to a secret place, best place for sunset and seeing the Taj Mahal, OK?” he said. “OK, then tomorrow you wake up very early by yourself tomorrow to see Taj Mahal inside. OK?
This sounded like a good plan to us. It had been a long, sweltering day in 100-degree heat, stuck in a car whose air-conditioning had mysteriously stopped working two days ago. We were nearing the end of our time with Anil, and had planned a celebratory dinner for all of us after sunset on this, our second-to-last day in India.
After a short rest at the hotel, we were off to the secret sunset viewing place. A little skeptical that a “secret” place can be discovered in a country of more than 1 billion souls, we went along with our trusted Anil’s plan. A the time we had no idea this would be our first and only opportunity to lay eyes on the famed wonder.
We drove what seemed like miles across town to one of the few bridges over the Yamuna River, which glides along the outer wall of the Taj. Once over the river, we doubled back and soon found ourselves at the end of a quiet street. A solitary street vendor selling warm drinks and sweets eyed us suspiciously as we strolled by. And suddenly, there it was. We stood in awe for a few moments, just gazing at the beautiful white marble shining golden in the late-afternoon sun. The air was still, and the entire building was reflected perfectly in the glassy river water.
The river was low, and slow moving. We walked across the silt that held the river afloat during rainy season. By the time we were at the water’s edge, the Taj Mahal loomed over us. Only by the trail of people-ants marching around the walls gave it any perspective. Anil was right, this was a secret place. We were all alone. Well, almost. Our only company was an entrepreneurial camel owner who plodded over from his resting spot along the bank to inquire “Pictures? Pictures?”
When we nodded no he trudged off, shoulders slumped.
A breathtaking monument, the Taj Mahal was built in the 1600’s by Shah Jahan, emperor of the ruling Mughal Empire. He ordered the Taj Mahal built as a tomb for his wife, who died in childbirth while giving birth to their 14th child. The enormous main tomb is entirely of white marble and semi-precious stones, and is a sight to behold – even from afar. Since it’s completion in 1648, it has become a symbol of both India and everlasting love.
Thrilled with Anil’s secret place, we celebrated with a huge meal and some contraband beers that evening before retiring early. We were both already wide awake before our alarm at 5 am the following day, eager to set foot inside this wondrous place ourselves.
The only redeeming time of day in India during April, that morning was crisp and the air clean. The streets were deserted and our 2-mile walk to the Taj Mahal gave us a brisk morning wakeup. About halfway into our trek, the first rickshaw driver pulled up, blocking our path.
“Where are you going?” he smiled cheerfully. “I will take you!”
“We’re going to the Taj Mahal” Bill explained, “But we prefer to walk. Thank you.”
“But the Taj Mahal is closed today! Please, get in and I will take you to see many beautiful sights in Agra.”
Bill and I exchanged glances. We had heard this scam before, and as seasoned travelers were not about to fall for it. We said “No thank you”, smiled, and continued on our way. He zoomed off, shaking his head at us. We just shrugged and continued on our pleasant walk, eager to get to the Taj Mahal before sunrise.
After only a few minutes, a second driver appeared, same inquiry, same story – the Taj Mahal is closed today. This time we looked at each other warily. Could it be true? Only one way to find out, we continued on until we reached the gates and our favorite two Indian guards, who gave us the unfortunate news.
We couldn’t make sense of it – what happened? We woke up poor Anil to get an explanation. As it turned out, that day happened to be a Friday and the Taj Mahal (along with every other mosque in India – as it is considered to be – is closed on Fridays). We knew this, somewhere in the cobwebs of our travel knowledge. Anil had simply forgotten what day of the week it was. “Every day is Saturday in India” - Anil’s favorite saying during our journey, turned out not to be quite true in reality.
We were leaving Delhi on a flight the following day. We tried desperately to change our tickets, but it would have cost us hundreds of dollars. We had to accept that we would not be seeing the Taj Mahal, at least not on this trip to Indian soil. But we still had our memories of the secret sunset spot, and will never again forget that the Taj Mahal is never open on Fridays.
When you are traveling, things may not turn out exactly as you planned it. But sometimes, what you didn’t see makes a better story than what you did see.
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