Wednesday, November 12, 2008

The Crown Palace

I look around the lift, on the way down to the lobby: we’re an unprepossessing lot. In all fairness, it’s still dark outside, but the muezzin’s up before us. As far as the boys are concerned, there’s only one 5.30 in any twenty-four hours, and this isn’t it. No-one speaks, but “It Had Better Be Worth It” is ricocheting, loud and clear, off the mirrored walls. The Taj Mahal will be up for the photo-shoot, but the camera lens will need more Vaseline than a baby’s bottom, to soft-focus the bags under our eyes. Then I remember the magic that is photoshop, and chalk up one to technology...

Downstairs, Niraj is waiting for us, in his crisp cotton shirt and pressed jeans. You can’t not notice, that his face and chest are badly scarred by burns. I lean in to catch his words, watching his mouth, then look away, in case he thinks I’m staring, so I miss the next bit, and have to look again. This delicacy ping-pong continues, until I understand that it’s my problem, not his. Niraj, with his disfigured face, spends every day showing off the most exquisite building in the world, with no thought of irony.

Mano takes us halfway, up to the combustion-engine exclusion zone, where we hop into an electric tuk-tuk for the last lap. The ambience teeters between surly and laconic. The conversation’s not monosyllabic, though, because someone would need to say something for that...

The day dawns, as we join the queue. It’s fully light, but with a blue filter. The early birds are opening their shops for the tourist worms. We watch the stall-holders, with their whisk brooms, sweeping up dust from the shoes of yesterday’s customers, which they leave in tidy piles at the doorway, for today’s customers to walk through and bring back in. I love recycling.

Most of the silent queue’s as pole-axed as we are, except the talkative American lady behind me. She’s clearly a morning person, but she doesn’t have long to live. Then, just as I’m going to have to stab her, the kaleidoscope of fate turns, and the queue moves forward, so she lives to chat another day.

We’re herded into separate lines, men on the right, ladies on the left, and at first, I’m winning, because my team’s numerically challenged. The advantage is temporary, though, because the men’s queue processes at walking pace, a quick flick with the bomb-detecting paddle, then, Next Please! The ladies, however, are all carrying enough stuff to put Mary Poppins’ carpet-bag to shame, plus a family picnic in the other hand. I’m twitching irritably, watching kitchen sink after kitchen sink clatter onto the security man’s desk. Do these women know nothing? My capsule handbag contains a lipstick, a phone, a tube of mints and a hundred-rupee note, folded small, for emergencies. (In England, £1.25 would not get you out of many emergencies, I know, unless you were desperate for half a cup of coffee, but in India, Rs 100 pretty well has you covered.)

It’s the last Saturday of the Diwali hols, and the turnstile’s spinning. There’s a queue inside, for posing on the Princess Di seat and looking wistful, with your head on one side, but fortunately, we don’t want to. On Fridays, the Taj Mahal’s closed. The mosque on its left, looking from the gate, is still used for prayer, by the workers who live in the outer courtyard. The mosque faces west, which puzzles me, until I have a geographical epiphany, and work out that Mecca is only to the East, if you are west of Mecca...

Niraj shows us sneaky Hindu lotus blossoms, in the inlaying, inside the central dome. Shah Jehan was Muslim, but his mother was Hindu, and this is a wink to her. Niraj cups his hands round a section of curling fronds of petals and leaves, in the carved wall panels, and there is a perfect marble OM.

The four towers on sentry-duty, at the corners, tilt outwards, so that, in an earthquake, they would fall away from the central dome. They think of everything, these seventeenth century Mughal architects, don’t they? You used to be able to climb them, until fifteen years ago, when some thoughtless love-shorn desperado threw himself off the top of one of them, onto the unforgiving marble beneath. I trust SHE was satisfied. One more copycat suicide, and the authorities drew the bolts for good, to prevent a stampede of unrequited lovers. Not very nice for Mumtaz.

I thought this was the fairest of Indian monuments, but I was wrong. Not in the mirror-mirror sense, I mean racial equity for tourists. Foreigners pay Rs 750, and, last time, I thought Indian residents paid Rs 520, which makes the mark-up for pasty-faces a reasonable fifty percent. In fact, Indians pay Rs 20, you can do the maths yourself. Don’t be indignant, though – they have to pay two rupees, to use the toilets, by the exit, and we get in for free. I don’t find this out, until we’re leaving, or I’d have gone twice, to get my money’s worth.

Shah Jehan also built the Red Fort, at Agra, so we give that the once-over, before hitting the Jaipur trail. The Fort has twin towers, where the royal princesses slept. The first, for Jahanara, is of white marble. Its partner looks identical, but is made of red sandstone, painted to match. This was the bedroom of Gauhara, whom Shah Jehan was never able to forgive, because his beloved Mumtaz died giving birth to her. Explain that one, to a four-year-old...

On the way to Jaipur, we linger longer at Fatehpur Sikri, to complete a hat-trick of World Heritage sites in one day. It’s a whole city, built in the late sixteenth century, to be capital of Uttar Pradesh, but abandoned after only a decade, for lack of water. Even though I’m still not speaking to Akbar the Great, after yesterday’s revelations, there’s no denying its loveliness. I especially like the open-sided five-tiered palace, which looks like a Buddhist temple. This, the guide informs us, is where Akbar would retire to take the evening air and, “have joy with his wives.” Small wonder it needed to be five-storied, then.

Next stop, the Pink City.