Daily Archives: May 30, 2009

The City of Love

We spent our time in Agra lounging in the shaded outdoor restaurant. We read, we walked around barefoot, and we petted the emaciated kitten who tickled our feet while eating. This is the sort of safety and relaxing we expected from our few weeks of vacation before school. We ask the manager to rent us a car or send some more mineral water up to the room, and he says slowly, “Don’t worry chicken curry,” and our request is filled.

Sounds of the city float in from the street – someone playing or singing a song, cows mooing, clamor of a cart, the generator that sits next to the street kicking in. On our last night in Agra, I was sitting in the courtyard reading in the waning light and I heard a louder commotion echoing closer. I went to investigate.

“What is that?” I asked a group of hotel employees chatting in a circle of lawn chairs.


I rushed upstairs to tell the others and grab my camera. As we are leaving, the boy who brings us water was waiting near the door.

“You must be very careful,” he warned, sternly. “The men will be much drunk and may cross over the street to greet you. Do not talk to them.” Again, the aid and protection of strangers surfaces at the most unexpectedly important times. This hotel especially has undertaken our well-being with vigor.

What approached us in the dark was like a moving vigil, but with trombones. Men marched blowing into brass instruments and holstered bass drums. Their notes blended with music emitted from speakers attached to a shiny cart leading the procession. Among the musicians others carried swinging bright lanterns, four per pole. The groom sat sternly upon a horse near the back of the train. Illuminated by the lanterns, his face remained somber among the swirl of beats and laughs and colored robes. Behind him a circular light show spun its colors, also on wheels. Truly, a wheel of fortune.

“Agra is the City of Love,” the jovial silver shop owner had said to us earlier in the day.  Our departure was full of it, both ours for the city and in this unexpected march of vows.

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We weren’t planning to go to the Baby Taj Mahal. Everything about it screams deflation: the name, the size, the kitsch. But our driver insisted, and we hadn’t gotten up at 6 am for nothing. So we paid our 150 rupees.

The rubble and stitch of the city outside evaporated as soon as we entered its walled parameters. The Baby Taj is breathtaking. Its intricate marble embellishment compensates for what its miniature size lacks. Every surface of the building is carved with decoration. It towers over the river below; from the front, the face of the earth drops off and its white outline superimposes against the morning blue sky. The lawn is maintained. Water pools in small aqueducts drawn like the visitors in lines to the temple and the mosques on either side. In these places, you can tell why they are sacred.

For more years than I care to admit, I had the misconception that buildings in India didn’t have doors. I mean, they don’t really. The temples like these are mostly open-air arches, and sticks and spare cloth comprise the shanties surrounding them. Of course the modern buildings have doors and locks and it’s not as if like we have just been camping out on free concrete slabs this whole time.

However, the free structure of the Baby Taj, and of the other temples and tombs we have visited, invites communion from anyone, anytime. I glide through the rooms of the dead, which somehow repel the light and heat and noise. I run my hands over the fading flower collages and the chipped marble. I don’t know who is buried in the raised white tombs. What I am recalling in this portal is not the dead, but my own thoughts. I try to gather them for later use. Every moment, even in the present, is an act of remembering

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