Love storiesJanuary 18, 2007 at 9:00 AM • Filed under India 2007
The hope was for a glowing red sunrise viewed against the cool marble of the Taj Mahal. But the clouds were stubborn and it was overcast on the morning I visited Shah Jahan's colossal tribute to his dead wife in Agra. I entered the Taj complex through a red sandstone gate and strolled alongside a pool of water that terminated at the mausoleum. I gazed up and expected awe but only felt perplexed as to why I felt so little emotion gazing at one of the seven wonders of the world. It was gorgeous, yes, but sad in its opulence...
I took comfort in the words of one of my favorite writers, Aldous Huxley, who felt that the Taj suffered from "a poverty of imagination." Confused as to why he was not taken with the building, he wrote, "Am I, or is the world the fool? Is it the world's taste that is bad, or is it mine?" I say, blame all the photos of the Taj, which rob us of the bliss of seeing such an unusual structure for the first time.
It is possible to walk inside the Taj and view the tombs of Shah Jahan and his favorite wife, Mumtaz Mahal, for whom the Taj was built. Their love story graces all the guide books. While it was chilling to realize that their bodies were below me, I soon ended up watching the only person allowed behind the gate that encircles the tombs. He was dressed in tattered white cloth and hunched over a broom. He did nothing but sweep the floor around the tombs and then wipe the tombs down with a cloth. His sandals were falling apart and his hands grubby with dirt. Back and forth he swept and swept, and rubbed with the cloth, and picked up the dried bird dung dropped by the pigeons above. When greeted by some youths in either Arabic or Urdu, he snapped something back at them and continued his work - his necessary and important work.
Many myths surround Shah Jahan, king of Mughal India in the mid-1600s. His love and power are legendary, but if you read between the lines you learn that his drinking was also legendary, as was his opium-taking, as was the size of his harem. He also enjoyed vicious elephant fights and bloody tiger hunts. His royal hangman was always at his side. His wife, lying dead now inside the Taj Mahal, gave birth to 14 children. She urged her husband to engage in some of the most brutal attacks on Christians ever witnessed in eastern India. What I am trying to say is, when you encounter a myth, peel back its thick skin. The fruit inside may be heavily bruised.
In Khajuraho, 150 km to the east, I found a different kind of love story - thousands of them, sculpted onto 1,000 year old temples. The temples are covered with stone bodies engaged in all sorts of erotic positions - some, sadly, involving animals, others involving servants assisting with the copulation of their masters. These mysterious and evocative temples are why people visit Khajuraho, which would otherwise be a dry, dusty outpost in the middle of the state of Madhya Pradesh. The town is more laid back than Agra and Delhi, a welcome change, although the harrassment of travelers by the shopkeepers and bored teenage boys still challenged my nerves. Trying to outwit one boy, I said "Czechoslovakia - no speak English!" when he asked me where I was from. But to my shock, he replied, "Dobri den!" - the Czech word for "good morning!" I realized that sometimes you can never win in India.
I met a lovely 27-year-old woman from Spain at the train station and we shared a room. Cristina was a wonderful traveling companion for the day. We viewed the temples together, but then shared an extraordinary experience.
Our cycle-rickshaw driver was peddling us to some temples when he stopped at a tent where many people were gathered. Music was playing and women in colorful saris lined the narrow road holding kerosene lamps above their heads. "Prime minister comes here," our driver told us. Manmohan Singh! I had seen his photo many times and could not believe it. So Cristina and I, the only whites in the crowd, took a seat under the tent, with the men, and waited an hour, sensing the excitement in the crowd. At one point, I realized that this was a village gathering similar to the ones at which Gandhi spoke. Gandhi-ji! I looked at the people surrounding me, decendents of the courageous men and women who followed Gandhi's call and inspired the world with their non-violence. I felt enormous gratitude and deep emotion. I was sitting in a remote and dusty Indian village, waiting for the arrival of an Indian politician, wiping away tears.
Eventually the Prime Minister arrived. But he was not wearing the turban that Manmohan Singh, a Sikh, always wears. The band began to play, children danced, and the politician spoke in animated tones to the crowd. Later, I was to learn that the rally was celebrating the train service that will soon start in Khajuraho, and that in one year international flights would come here. Cristina and I wondered how that will affect this sleepy village -- good news, bad news, who knows -- and particularly how it will affect its water supply as more fancy hotels are built. And later, I was to learn that the "prime minister" was only the Prime Minister of Madhya Pradesh, the state! It did not matter. By participating in the rally I had engaged in yet another love story. I had fallen in love with India.
Next I go to Bandhavgarh National Park, one of India's best tiger parks. It's in the middle of the jungle, so I may not be able to find a computer. And from there I go to a farm in central India, near Chandrapur, where Internet facilities may be scarce. So it may be a while before I post again - or maybe not. I have received some beautiful e-mails from many of you out there. Please know that I have read every one of them, and though I don't have time to respond, I can only press my hands together in prayer position and bow in gratitidue, in gassho, for your messages. I hope you know what they mean to me.