I think I just threw up a little in my mouth. No, literally, I think I did. Not even the seven layers of scarf around my mouth and nose can mask this kind of eye-watering stench. It is like nothing I have ever smelled before. Far beyond the regular Indian stink of urine soaked trash, this new smell is somewhere between rotting diaper and eggy sewage, a hint of sticky curry-perspiration and a definite undertone of animal. Not the live kind.
My husband and I are coughing into one another’s shoulders, gasping into days-unwashed sleeves for a whiff of even half-fresh air and yet our rickshaw driver doesn’t even seem phased. His round, grinning head just nods slightly to the putter putter of his bicycle wheels as he squints back at us with a happy smirk and an “Ah, yes, welcome, welcome, Agra verrrry beautiful!”
No its not!
My initial thought was to spend a few days in Agra. Sipping Chai from a rooftop café, playing endless rounds of lazy backgammon with my husband and I’d get around to the Taj whenever I got around to it. But its 7:30 am on our day of arrival and after ten minutes of being here all I can think about is leaving. But first we kind of have to see the sights, after all we’ve come this far. We make a mad dash.
Cambodia’s Angkor Watt, or because long ago I devoted some serious adolescent energy to climbing 200-something stairs to the top of the Temple of the Sun at Teotihuacan in Mexico. Or perhaps it’s the Fifty-dollars it has cost us to get in (more than we would normally spend in three days) but for me the Taj is astoundingly unimpressive.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s a beautiful building but it’s just that, a building.
As the gates open we are ushered through from the foul, sullied streets of a crumbling Indian town to a pristinely surreal world of cold marble and golf-green like lawns. It’s an oddly disquieting sensation, though I do relish the momentary relief from odors unknown.
It appears that people really only come to the Taj for one reason. The photograph. The majority of the foot traffic on the grounds is concentrated on the area just inside the second gate, a small bench overlooking the long walkway, on which Princess Diana was famously photographed. Lines form and tourists eagerly await their turn to strike a pose, finger atop the Taj’s bald dome in an unimaginative play on perspective.
Heading to the back of the compound we encounter one of India’s many filthy rivers and the stink returns. Looking over the exterior walls of the Taj grounds we watch thick black tar-water oozing by. A dead dog here, a floating rat there. I can’t help but recall the photograph a friend recently showed me from his last trip to India, taken from this very spot. In it a small dog attempts to drag the bloated corpse of a rotting man from the river’s inky shallows.
After an hour or so of sliding on socked feet across the shiny marble floors and taking photographs from every angle possible, my husband and I loose interest in this over-hyped world wonder and go for lunch.