The hidden face of the Taj Mahal

 

If you followed our adventures in India and read our last two articles, you should know that we were traveling by motorbike in Ladakh and Himachal Pradesh. We had been in India for already one month and we had one more week in this country. So what to do?

Izabela had already been to India many years ago so she had already visited the Taj Mahal and the sacred city of Varanasi… But not me. And these were two places where I’d always wanted to go. I was feeling that it would be a pity if I would miss them during this trip, not knowing if or when I would come back to India. So she accepted, for me, to go there again. I was feeling excited! After experiencing the quiet and remote Himalayas, I was really curious to see one of the new seven wonders of the world, and experiencing the messy, crowded and spiritual city of Varanasi (but this story will be in another article).

So it all started with a train trip from Delhi to Agra. Railway stations are, in general, very interesting places. All the different classes of the society are usually present in the right same place. As a traveler, spending time there is a good way to go deeper into the understanding of the local culture. Moreover, they are a fantastic playground for photographers and there are often very nice scenes to be captured.

We were lucky to be there when it was the golden hour. So as you can see on my first photo below, the light was giving something extra to the atmosphere…

 

Taj Mahal, India, Agra, Pollution

 

But what really grabbed my attention were few situations which were looking somehow weird! Some people were doing very strange things – from our European point of view at least. Like this woman below who seemed to be completely lost…

 

 

She stayed many minutes right here, in the middle of the rails, looking right, looking left… Besides, the colors of her dress were standing out from the rest of the scene. So she was the center of the attention. This situation, as I said, looked weird.

I also crossed the way of another person who looked stressed, or worried, in the way that she was oddly staring at something…

 

 

The people in the trains, on the other hand, were looking serious or concerned. I really like for example the next image because of the light, which is beautifully painting on those faces… But still, everybody did not seem to be having a good time. Maybe their lives were hard, or maybe the trip in the train was just not an easy moment to spend… It was, as you can imagine, extremely hot outside!

 

 

The following image touches me a lot, and is very interesting in the way it can be read, with its contradictions that break the rules. In the western countries, when we read an image, we instinctively assume that the left side evokes the past, nostalgia, death… and that the right side evokes the future, hope, life…

And yet…

One train, one direction, two human beings seated next to each other, two lives that rub shoulders without meeting… Two beings, back-to-back, at opposite ages and two destinies embarked on a same trip…

 

 

On one side, a very young child, looking to the left of the frame, trapped in a space that seems to be shrinking. A sad expression on his face, resigned and turned towards the past, he seems to have no future. But he looks at the sun, at the light. Look at how he seems to be clasping the grid with his fingers, as if he wanted to hang on to something or to someone that we don’t see, or simply to this light that floods him, to his life, the one that awaits him and that he wants to grasp.

On the other side, an elderly woman, who’s looking in the opposite direction. Her future? With a peaceful face expression, she almost cracks a smile… And yet, she’s looking at the shadow that seems to go towards her, which will perhaps make her disappear, as the half lowered store blind above her head suggests… while the one of the child is lifted. The little girl she was is behind her and turns her back. Her future is the twilight of her life. She also seems to be looking at someone, but she does not grasp the grid, does not even touch it. She simply raises her hand as a sign of goodbye, like an acceptance of the situation, of her disappearance…

Two beings, two looks, one moment, one light, a simple photograph but a metaphor of life…

 

It was the end of the afternoon and we soon had to get on the train. So I took a last shot with this beautiful golden light…

 

 

And by the way, to get back to something more funny, here is a scene that, on the contrary, made me laugh a lot! You can easily guess why… ^^

 

 

We were in our cabin, that we were sharing with a very nice lady. It looked very similar to the kind of trains you can take in China, or in Russia. At least in the second class. We know that the third class in India is messy, not comfortable, crowded…etc Something that I’d love to experience one day! But this time, we had 13 hours of train to reach Agra from New Delhi, and we were feeling tired because of our month with our motorbikes… So we needed a relatively good night to visit the Taj Mahal on the next day…

 

 

 

 

TAJ MAHAL

 

So after this night in the train, we arrived in Agra city early in the morning, and we checked-in in our hotel. We left our bags in the rooms so that we could visit the Taj only with our cameras… The weather was cloudy, so it meant no golden light whatsoever. But I didn’t mind. I often like this kind of weather because it gives a moody atmosphere to the place, and it was also not too hot, which was really a relief for me!

The Taj Mahal has been designated as a Unesco World Heritage Site in 1983 for being “the jewel of Muslim art in India and one of the universally admired masterpieces of the world’s heritage”. It has also been elected as one of the new seven wonders of the world in 2007.

I think it’s important to tell you quickly the history of the Taj Mahal if you don’t know it… It is a marble mausoleum built by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan to house the tomb of his favorite wife who died while giving birth to their 14th child. More than 20 years and 20,000 workers have been needed to build the entire complex. The emperor is also buried inside with his wife…

 

As everybody who comes to visit this place, we first saw it from the most iconic viewpoint…

 

 

It is true that this mausoleum is beautiful… One can only be moved by seeing it and even more when one knows that it owes its existence to the love and the immeasurable sorrow of a man for the woman he deeply loved.

This moody weather was not bad, I was liking it. However, I was just a little bit disappointed that one tower was in maintenance… Not a big deal neither, it has to be restored or maintained sometimes.

We first walked around, enjoyed the complex without so many tourists in the morning, and I was looking for nice places to capture as well as possible this amazing monument!

Then I saw a splendid door on one side of the Taj Mahal, in a mosque actually, from where we had a gorgeous view on it. It really impressed me!

 

 

Look how beautiful it is. This door is such an incredible frame! It really magnifies the beauty of this marble wonder…

I only realized later that it was actually one of the most iconic view of the Taj Mahal too. I had already seen dozens of pictures from this door… But I did not realize that at the first sight.

The next image is also very beautiful to me. I just love how all the birds fly around the top and this moody weather again! This is unquestionably a wonderful human-made construction!

 

 

What I did not expect to see however was monkeys! They are absolutely everywhere in India!

 

 

Here, they really add something wild and exotic to the place! In this picture, I love the eye contact with the baby, as if it was scared of me, and the mother who was apparently thinking of a way to escape from the danger that I represent.

Then, my attention has been caught by the river behind. I was actually curious to see what the landscape looks like around the Taj Mahal.

What I can say is that I’ve been surprised!

 

 

What was that?

What kind of event could gather so many people in this river next to the Taj Mahal? I was so curious about it and nobody to explain what was going on, even though I had my little idea… I was somehow feeling frustrated that I couldn’t go to photograph that! Because it would mean to get out of the Taj and to pay the entrance ticket again if I wanted to come back. What a pity… So I told myself that after the visit, I would definitely go there!

We were still in the Taj Mahal complex and we wanted to explore more the surroundings. Again, what caught my attention was all the monkeys! I’m really fascinated by these animals and I always try to photograph them. But you know what? These ones were not looking so nice…

 

 

What a gaze at me! It looked obvious that these monkeys were not in the mood to play with me! As soon as I was getting closer, they were getting really upset…

I should have understood faster what these eyes meant because once, I just had to pay for my stupidity!

 

 

I got furiously attacked by one little guy who really did not appreciate the proximity!

Don’t worry, absolutely nothing happened to me! I just ran back and he left. But this picture, even though it is not sharp because I’ve been surprised… is one of the funniest I have from the “kings of the Taj” !

So after this experience, I left them alone, of course…

I kept searching for a last interesting photo to take of the Taj Mahal. I was actually looking for something original, even unique if possible, because this monument has already been photographed millions of times. So having the same photos of everyone was not so satisfying.

But finally, I found a little puddle of water where I could have a superb reflection… The colors of the floor and in the water were very beautiful! And the final result looked totally like a painting. This is from far my favorite image of it !

 

 

I was pleased with what I shot, and we’d spent enough time exploring all the surroundings, so it was time to leave. Even though we were going back to the hotel, I knew that I would see it again from outside. You probably remember that I said to myself that I should go to the river bank, and see what was going on with all these people bathing… I just decided to wait until later in the afternoon, with the hope that the light would be nice, and that these people would still be there.

Meanwhile, we came back to rest and have a beer on the rooftop of our hotel. The view from it, by the way, was amazing!

 

 

So I had an idea and I asked Iza if she wanted to go for a lunch somewhere in a restaurant with a better view from a rooftop. She agreed and the idea was to see if we could get an interesting sight of the Taj Mahal from a totally different perspective! So we entered many restaurants, asking first if we could see the terrace on the rooftop… and we found what we were looking for! While we were waiting for our food, the sky turned really dark and threatening, but a very little sun ray just hit the Taj Mahal. I shot that and… WOW! I just love this image. It is so dramatic! The contrast in this scene is captivating and the Taj Mahal, shining so brightly, seems to be here recalling the greatness of the Indian civilization…

 

 

Then it started to rain so we ate our lunch… But as soon as it stopped raining, I went to the other side of the rooftop, and guess whom I met… The “King of the jungle” was here again! Looking at his kingdom from above! This scene was just surreal and apocalyptic. The sky was dramatic and the city… chaotic!

 

 

I could not expect to live something as powerful as that when I was thinking about going to the Taj Mahal. When I was looking at the classic photos of it, it was boring, because we all know what it looks like. But being there is totally different. Most of the photos usually don’t reflect the atmosphere of the place, the oppressive heat outside, what Agra looks like and how chaotic this city is… This is all part of the travel experience that we may forget when we come here. This is not just a building that we’ll visit and photograph. People also live here, and the environment in which they live is rough! It is messy, noisy, dirty, poor… And THIS contrats so much with the ideal immaculate image that we all have of the Taj Mahal. To be honest, I was expecting that the money from the millions of tourists who come every year would benefit to the locals and to the city…

But I was not even expecting what I was about to see. It started to be late in the afternoon and the sun was bursting out from behind the clouds. So it was time to go to the river bank and see if there was still this gathering.

I arrived there and what I first saw was absolutely beyond my imagination… I just could not believe what I was seeing !

So I memorized this moment, and the next image I will show you tells actually a lot…

 

travel photography blog

 

First of all, I was shocked! Probably like you…

So with this photograph, I wanted to crystallized this vision, but also to share with you another image, less beautiful but faithful to another reality, which is way more shocking and revolting too.

On the one hand, you have the magnificence of a monument among the seven wonders of the modern world. On the other hand, another approach, another facet, revealing the fragility of a building that must be maintained, restored, as if to preserve the illusion of a past greatness which rises on a floor full of abandoned plastic bags and litter.

And in the middle of that scene, a man. Dressed in white and black. White like this splendor, vestige of a bygone era, to which he turns his back. And black like these scavengers attracted by the rubbish, to which he’s facing…

How can one be capable of such refinement, such elegance, such beauty and at the same time such neglect, such renunciation until decrepitude?

Here, no blue sky nor immaculate whiteness, pools with pure lines, well-designed gardens but just… behind the scenes… A story of greatness and decay, our story…

 

 

In their rituals, and for a long time, Hindus have thrown flowers, seeds or food to the rivers because they were the primary water source for them. Hence, the rivers were sacred and these offerings were placed as gratitude for life and sustenance. But at that time, people used to throw only bio degradable things…

Nowadays unfortunately, they dump every kind of plastics or metal items.

 

 

So the Hindu rituals are not to be blamed, but ignorance, bad behaviors and poverty are the main causes of this disaster. We live now in a society where pollution is a threat, as well as the global warming which is more recognized and studied. But most of these people may have no clue about that…

 

 

When I shot this picture, this woman was actually looking in the direction of the Taj Mahal. But as you probably noticed, she’s also looking at the left side of the frame. Her look is touching as well because it seems to be resigned, weak or powerless against this situation, as if she was looking at the glorious time of this era that she would never know…

 

I kept observing and recording, and strangely… a peaceful feeling took hold of me.

 

 

These Indians were innocently worshiping their gods and following their traditions. Soon or later, awareness will arise and things will evolve for the better, I hope…

One last spiritual moment recorded and I could move on…

 

 

I finally left this place like this man, looking down. Many questions in my head, maybe too many. But one thing is sure, a trip to India will never let you unscathed…

 

 

 

 

I hope you enjoyed the article and the entire story. Every photo has been carefully chosen here to tell as well as possible how I’ve experienced this journey… I try to improve more and more my story-telling as I find photography the best tool for me to express my feelings on how I live these travels. I’d be curious and grateful to have some feedbacks from you if you took the time to read the full article!

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Thank you for your time and your support! My next article will be from our experience in Varanasi, so stay tuned!