It's hard to believe that only five days ago, I was waiting to go see the Taj Mahal.
But I'm getting ahead of myself. So let's back up.
On Monday morning, after three days of wedding craziness, I flew from Mumbai to Delhi for a whirlwind final two days in India. Given the short amount of time, I'd booked a private car and driver (thank you, TripAdvisor!), and my driver Sunil picked me up at Delhi airport. Don't you just love coming out of an airport and seeing someone holding a sign with your name on it? It's the little things that make you feel special sometimes!
So from there, it was about a three-hour drive to Agra, the majority of which I spent curled up sleeping on the back seat. Oh, sleeeeeep. How I have missed you. Sunil occasionally pointed out things to look at, like wild camels, brick factories, and an abandoned house overrun by monkeys!
Once in Agra, we met my guide, Arif, who brought me to the Agra Fort, also known as Red Fort. As the second-most visited site in Agra (after you-know-what), it's also a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and it's fan-freakin'-tastic. Seriously, even if the Taj Mahal weren't here as well, I think it'd still be worth visiting Agra to see the fort. More than a "fort," it's really a 94-acre walled city, which was where the emperors and their families from the Mughal Dynasty lived (the best-known emperor being Shah Jahan, who built the Taj Mahal). Anyway, it's red (duh) on the outside, but there are beautiful marble buildings on the inside, too. It's got palaces and mosques and a moat, and views of the Taj from across the Yamuna river. I definitely had some "wow" moments there.
Afterwards, I was dropped off at my beautiful hotel, the Courtyard by Marriott Agra, where I enjoyed absolutely phenomenal service. No bucket showers in this one - it was just straight-up great. I ended up having a wonderful conversation in the bar with the head chef, Vicky, who patiently explained the rules of cricket to me (I still don't get it). Then he told me about his dream of opening his own restaurant in Canada someday, and I told him, sincerely, that I hope to visit it. He was just such a positive, nice guy, and I find it wonderful being around people like that. Such good energy to pass around. After about an hour, he asked me what my favorite food in all of India had been, and when I said mangoes, he promptly disappeared into the kitchen and came out with a plate of sliced fruit just for me. One more great memory for Indian mangoes!
After that, I retired to bed for another early start on Tuesday. As mentioned, I was particularly excited about seeing the Taj Mahal. It's been really high on my bucket list for quite some time, and I was so worried it wouldn't live up to expectations.
Sunil and Arif picked me up and we drove the few miles to the Taj. Arif picked up our tickets while I watched more monkeys climbing trees. We got there right at 6am when it opened, and while it was unfortunately too cloudy for a real sunrise, it fortunately wasn't too crowded or hot (a mere 30 degrees celsius!).
We walked through the entrance, and.... I don't even know what to say. I'll be honest: I cried. Partly because it's such a mythical place, partly because it's so beautiful, and partly because I'm a big crybaby. But the essence is, I was really touched. Arif took one look at me and said, "ah, sometimes my female clients get quite emotional when they see it for the first time."
Yes. Yes they do.
I have to give him lots of credit for taking dozens of pictures of me (including on the famous Diana bench!), and for pointing out so many details of the precious stones inlaid directly into the marble (the precision is incredible), and the perfect symmetry. Everything is symmetrical, so much so that when they built a mosque to one side of the mausoleum to face Mecca, they built an exact replica on the other side of the mausoleum too. Those buildings are gorgeous in and of themselves, and they're just the side attractions. And you see that photo above of me smiling in front of another red sandstone building? That's not really a building at all--that's the entrance to the garden that leads to the Taj.
The Taj Mahal is often called the world's most beautiful monument to love, because the Emperor Shah Jahan built it as the final resting place for his wife, who had died giving birth to their 14th child in 1631. Her name? Mumtaz Mahal (or "my crown palace"), which was the name Shah Jahan had bestowed upon her at their wedding. Theirs was a great love story, and when she died he was devastated. He lived out his life across the river in Agra Fort, watching the mausoleum be built over 22 years, and finally dying in 1658. The symmetry of the entire compound is all organized around her tomb, which is in the very center. When Shah Jahan died, he was buried next to her--it's the only non-symmetry in the entire complex.
I could have sat there for hours, just looking at it. Though it was quickly time to go, and leave Agra behind for one last quick look at Delhi on my last day in India.
But I hope I never forget my breath catching in my throat when I came through that entrance, tears welling up, and words failing me. I hope we can all keep marveling at what's out there in the world. There is so much beauty.