Seeing the Taj Mahal through child’s eyes
As a child I was obsessed with the 1,001 Tales of the Arabian Nights. I read every story I could find; practised sliding my head back-and-forth, palms together above my head, like an Arabian dancer; and painted murals on my bedroom walls of genies materializing out of bottles and fabulous, turret-topped maharajah palaces. Stories of the “exotic and mysterious east” have always fascinated me, and travelling in India is often, truly, a dream come true for me. But this manifestation of fantasy reached a new level recently when I visited Agra, the Taj Mahal and Fatehpur Sikri, and stayed, as a guest, in the resplendent ITC Mughal Hotel.
The Taj Mahal is everything and more than you imagine. It is one of the few times in life when no matter how much you have heard or read; no matter how many photographs you’ve seen; no matter how much hyperbole you’ve been exposed to: actually standing in front of the Taj Mahal exceeds every expectation you could possibly have by 1,001 miles.
It is the world’s most beautiful building. “A teardrop on the face of eternity,” as Rabindranath Tagore said. Nothing prepares you for the size (enormous), the colour (translucent white), the symmetry (perfect). I have seen it before, six years ago, but when I walked through the gate I was just as flummoxed as the first time. It’s a bit like falling in love. You feel bowled over, and unsure of yourself. You’re not sure which way to look — but you can’t get enough. You try to measure the size of the experience and your feelings, and you can’t. And you try and separate the myth from the reality, and it’s impossible.
The story behind the building of the Taj Mahal — which is, after all, a mausoleum — is part of the structure, part of the experience. The Mughal emperor of India, Shah Jahan, began building it after the death of his beloved favourite wife Mumtaz. She had just borne him their 14th child (six survived). The statistics about the length of time it took to build, the number of workers, the amount of marble (quarried from Rajasthan) are as remarkable and I will not repeat them here.
For me, the Taj Mahal is all about the sheer magnificence in an overburdened land: it is located in Utter Pradesh, one of the hottest, poorest and most overpopulated states in India. Around it is extensive grounds, surrounded by a buffer area that is meant to protect the Taj Mahal from smog: no industry and no cars are allowed within several kilometres.
But then, when you get away from the Taj Mahal zone, and enter the city of Agra, you are confronted with the reality of life in U.P. Agra is famously chaotic in a land of chaotic cities, and the infrastructure is a disaster. I always recommend that people visit Agra — don’t let the stories of challenge deter you — but stay somewhere really fabulous, like the ITC Mughal. If you’re going to splash out just once in India, this is the time and this is the place.
The ITC Mughal is a destination hotel. I was there for four nights / five days and only left for specific site-seeing trips. Otherwise I was very content to wander the grounds, enjoy the spa (Asia’s largest) and the many restaurants, bars and seating areas. The hotel is spread over 35 acres and has a long and winding walking or jogging trail around the gardens; a Taj Mahal Observatory with a charming swing seat; two swimming pools; an evening market and luxurious rooms. But that’s not the whole story.
Staying at the ITC Mughal was like being immersed in my childhood fantasy world. Rich colours interspersed with expanses of cool white marble. Sensuously curving lamps emitting Arabic patterns. Massive settees with plump cushions. Throughout the hotel, every decor detail is inspired by the Mughal era and especially the reign of Akbar, the greatest Mughal Emperor. The massive lobby is called the Akbar Mahal, and the bridges to the two wings are named after his wives, Mariam and Jodhabai. (TIP: Watch the film “Jodhaa Akbar” to get a Bollywood-ized version of this period in history.)
My suite, in the Mughal Suites wing, was decorated in black to honour the Black Taj Mahal that Shah Jahan planned to build (but never did, because he was imprisoned by his son). ITC Mughal manager Sanjay Sharma took me on a tour of the hotel and showed me detail after detail that was inspired by Mughal art, culture and architecture. I began to see the hotel itself is a work of art. Mr. Sharma’s passion for perfection, and his evident love for this hotel, made me truly appreciate it, like I have never appreciated a hotel before. He invited me to watch the evening ritual, wherein staff members placed candles throughout the lobby to the sounds of chanting. It was enchanting.
Also enchanting, in fact intoxicating, was the Kaya Kalp Spa. The entire spa is also inspired by a fantastic idea of Arabic culture. For me it was a magic carpet ride to bliss. I had a two-hour Pomegranate Treatment that included a scrub, massage and facial, all using pomegranate infused products; and I also used the whirlpool, steam room and sauna several times.
The women’s side of the spa includes an opulent lounge area, with four beds, draped and lit, and surrounding a soothing marble water fountain. After the extreme heat of the sauna and steam, I melted onto one of the beds and drank tea while being mesmerized by the fountain. I felt I had entered my fantasy world completely. Another perfect moment in India.
And all the while, you are in the shadow of the Taj Mahal at the ITC Mughal. One morning, I took my tea to the Observatory, and relaxed alone on the swing seat, while watching the morning sun light up the dome of the Taj Mahal. Flocks of birds flew together in graceful patterns, flashing metallic. The sounds of the city waking up drifted in on the morning breeze. Another Incredible India moment.
And above and beyond all of this luxury … the ITC Mughal will always be fondly remembered by me as the place where I first met in real life (IRL) my cyber-friend writer Shelley Seale — after at least three years of online friendship only.
Shelley arrived with her mother and a small group of friends at 10 p.m., and I rushed to the lobby bar to meet them. I also went with them to the Taj Mahal the next day, and saw them off in the evening — when they headed back to the U.S.A. Shelley is a beautiful writer and a beautiful person who also loves India. Her book, The Weight of Children, is about the invisible children of India and I highly recommend it: she is as compassionate as she is beautiful and talented.
Finally, one of the best experiences was yet to come. My first visit to Fatehpur Sikri with a wonderful guide, Ajay Narayan Bari. He’s soft-spoken and erudite, and knows Agra inside and out. But that experience and the photos I took of that extraordinary place will have to wait for another blog!
Thank you ITC Mughal for hosting me and giving me the most magical experience of Agra possible.
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