Failure to launch at the Taj Mahal

LISA SCOTT
Last updated 13:53 01/10/2012
A WONDER: The Taj Mahal

THE TAJ: A monument to love and the most romantic of World Heritages sites.

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"It's the most beautiful thing in the country," yelped the Australian standing beside me, "but they'll still find some way to f--- it up." His Kelpie-haired wife scratched at a bite on her leg, narrowed her eyes against the glare, and said nothing.

Indians pay 20 rupees (NZ45 cents) to get into the Taj Mahal. Foreigners pay 970 rupees. Maybe this is what makes them act so badly - that and the prickly heat rash of unfulfilled expectations.

To be honest, I wasn't really surprised when the economist failed to propose. A monument to love and the most romantic of World Heritage sites, the Taj Mahal is a voluptuous memorial, kissed by sunrise and sunset in pink and gold. Visitors sigh upon first seeing its beauty. It was a pity then that amid this perfect setting, the object of his affections wasn't looking quite so lovely.

I believe things might have been very different on the proposal front if it hadn't been for my suppurating mosquito bites, ringworm and worse - four inches of natural hair colour dulling my aspect.

It's 40 degrees Celsius. Sitting in front of one of the wonders of the world, my stomach roiling from a roadside samosa, striking a sulky Princess Diana pose, I looked like a leprous raisin.

Inspire great love I did not.

It's such a shame. Beautiful and empty, like a giant marquee made of marble, the Taj Mahal so lends itself to thoughts of summer weddings.

The calligraphy on the pishtaq arches recalls the elaborate writing on wedding invitations, the intricate jali screens look just like wedding lace, and the great white domes of the Taj-like cakes covered in marzipan, or the bell skirt of a bridal dress against a blue, blue sky.

I waited for hours for the economist to pop the question, turning winsomely towards him every time he spoke, flashing an engagement smile as we walked in and out and around the stone- cold mausoleum.

I sent him telepathic messages that the time was ripe. I talked at length about the beauty of a love so abiding that it withstood even death: Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Catherine Earnshaw.

Nothing.

In my defence, it's impossible for European women to look glamorous in India. Veins swollen, beetroot in the face, we lumber about palaces and ruined forts, while Indian women wearing jewel-bright saris lit by 1000 tiny mirrors glide like tropical butterflies, giggling and hiding their smiles behind the corner of a crimson dupatta.

Indian women are the most exotically feminine on the planet. Tinkling ankle bracelets announce their gorgeousness. With golden nose rings, hennaed hands and feet, and jasmine pinned into their hair, Indian women are even more ornate than the jasper, jade and lapis lazuli inlay of the Taj walls. They are splendid. Looking upon us sweating behemoths with compassion, their pity is no sop to our discomfort.

THE TAJ is under threat from acid rain, as there is an oil refinery on the banks of the Yamuna River belching out poisonous fumes.

The surrounding area has recently been declared a no- pollution zone. Stable door closed, horse bolted.

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Built by Mughal emperor Shah Jahan in 1653, grief-stricken at the death of his third and favourite wife, Mumtaz Mahal, who died giving birth to her 14th child, the Taj Mahal's construction was a bit like that of a Commonwealth Games' venue. Discrepancies in completion dates arose because of differing opinions on the meaning of the word "completion".

Estimates of the cost varied wildly, but back then, you could have someone beheaded. With this incentive no doubt in mind, a labour force of 20,000 completed it in 12 years. The Shah's other wives were left to quietly organise the construction of their own smaller mausoleums nearby. Nobody ever goes there.

Myths abound about the ethereal Taj Mahal. The most enduring is the legend of the black Mahal. There never was a mirror Taj Mahal built of black marble on the opposite bank, but for some reason, people persist in believing this. However, the scurrilous myth that Lord Bentinck (governor- general of India from 1833 to 1835, charged with turning around the loss-making Honourable East India Company and famous for his ruthless financial efficiency and disregard for Indian culture) planned to demolish the Taj Mahal and auction off the marble possibly arose because he had been doing this at other monuments.

In an example of how much sharper than a serpent's tooth an ungrateful child is, Shah Jahan was usurped and imprisoned in Agra Fort (Qila i Akbari, not to be confused with Delhi's Red Fort, Lal Qila) by his own son.

Qila i Akbari has strong, high walls surrounded by a 3.6-metre moat. The hewn stones are, according to the Book of Akbar, chronicling the reign of the third Mughal emperor, "polished like the world-revealing mirror, and as ruddy as the cheek of fortune. So joined together, the end of a hair could not find a place between them." Ramparts possessing a battlemented parapet, merlons shaped like sloping oblongs to foil arrow-fire, Agra Fort is designed to be impregnable.

Thus confined and with no hope of escape, Shah Jahan's view from his prison window was and is dominated by the Taj Mahal crowning the banks of the Yamuna River.

Every morning and every evening for the rest of his life, the Shah gazed out at the splendour of his cenotaph. The dying sun glinted off the crescent-topped finial. He had plenty of time to think about the wisdom of his choices, day in and day out, the Taj Mahal shimmering in the heat haze like a hallucination of matrimony.

Staring at the cold marble and remembering her warm embrace, I expect he kicked himself for not demonstrating his great affection for Mumtaz while she was still alive. He probably thought what a shame it was that he hadn't made a public declaration of his love and got down on his knees before her, even if on that day she was a little puffy, a tad red in the face and squitty from a roadside samosa. Regrets, he had a few.

I have finally reached World Heritage Site overload. It's not the Taj Mahal, but the decrepit shanties of the surrounding town and the avaricious locals.

Amid the half-finished construction, the paucity of technology - no internet, no ATMs - Agra grasps onto tourists with all the desperation of remoras fastening to sharks. Tuk- tuk drivers, touts and toddlers harass you ravenously the minute you step foot outside your hotel, clinging to your legs, beseeching.

Bargaining and haggling, holding out dead camera batteries vacuum-packed for resale, the locals eye you with a covetous longing. How they would like to sink their teeth into your creamy skin, suck out the marrow of your wealthy Western life and devour you whole. Get in, get out. See the Taj, pop the question and leave on the afternoon train. By night these hills will be swarming with Orcs.

The economist hasn't noticed my extreme pique at his lack of bended knee. Last night we even stayed in the honeymoon suite of a local hotel - no proposal, but His and Her towels. He is either the cruellest man on the planet, or the thickest.

Perhaps a "marriage proposal" is a mythical creature: a Cockatrice, a Shellycoat. People believe in them, but nobody ever sees one.

This is an edited extract from Travels with My Economist by Lisa Scott, published by David Bateman Ltd, RRP $29.99.

- Sunday Star Times

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