Agra feels like a tourist town. The first thing anyone asks you is, “Have you seen the Taj Mahal yet?” Marble shops selling miniature Tajs (usually fake alabaster, be warned) are a dime-a-dozen, and everything Taj as a prefix. Taj Inn. Taj Restaurant. Taj Oil. Taj Tailors. Taj Taj.
The city has shut down all of the factories around the Taj because the pollution is tarnishing the marble. How much this contributes to the poverty in and around the city, I cannot tell. Factories would provide jobs for more thousands, but preserving the pride of the city takes precedence, even as its foundation crumbles. Piece by piece, the marble is replaced in the Taj every year. From the platform of the Taj, you can see the river and field below as they must have existed for thousands of years, until the Taj imposed, and later the Agra Fort beyond. A farmer herds his cattle along the banks. Men bath and wash their clothing. It’s a toss-up between survival and spirit. People must live and eat, but the Taj glows on the outskirts of the city and in the glint of every shopkeeper’s eye.
One way they have revived employment is through the “Save the Taj” project. We visited a carpet-making factory involved with this system. Artists in the city sketch and color the designs, and then send them to women in surrounding villages, the “weaker sector” as our tour guide called it, for creation. Every string is tied and cut by hand on a loom by these women. Months of work day in day out.
We also toured a marble shop. When the Taj was being built, marble carvers from all over the country migrated to Agra to contract out their skills. They stayed in Agra after the fact, and descendants from these families continue in the same fashion. We watched as a carver shaved down stones of alabaster, ruby, and turquoise to millimeters. He formed them into intricate shapes. Afterwards, he will apply a clear film of tape to fuse together all the parts of the peacock, the flower, or whatever shape he was creating. Another carver was chiseling out the spaces for these pieces in the marble slab. “It takes 10 years to become a master of this,” our guide said.
“What happens if the hole is made too shallow and the pieces stick up roughly from the surface?” I asked.
He didn’t seem to get the logic of my question. “It never happens,” he stated.
He led us through a gallery of table tops and boxes and I wanted it all. But, I knew knowledge of process and the group of all the designs made them more beautiful than they would be in my living room. He divined our birth stones. Mine was the black star stone – a symbol of love, peace of mind, and success. A fine progression, the last one especially good for his business.
In true tourism form, we scurried out after taking pictures, giving our insincere apologies for not buying a single thing.