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Nonfiction Matters
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The Road and the Taj

The city of Agra, home to the Taj Mahal, is about 3 hours by good drive from Delhi — which suggests a range of choices: get up early and brave the day, go by train but then live by its schedule, or go to Agra and spend the night, moving on to other Mughal sites. We choose the first — which in the end proved to be a good choice which taught me more than I expected. Like many of you I’ve seen plenty of images of the Taj, films shot at the Taj, etc. But, again surely like any of you who have been there, I really was not prepared. It was almost too much — too perfect, to beyond description, too much a vision — a pearl as a building. I was not quite sure why I felt as I did — is it that I needed to come back many times, see it in all kinds of light and conditions, so that it was not just one too-perfect a vision? But then I got my answer

We went on to Agra Fort — the huge red sandstone fort first build by Akbar, then used by his grandson Shah Jahan; I found it fascinating in every respect. In particular, you see at once the difference in personality between Akbar and Shah Jahan as the grandfather built an imposing and impregnable fortress, while the grandson, who layered the walls of his area in white marble, created a pleasure palace. And when his best beloved wife died, he ordered the creation of the Taj, which you can see in the distance beautifully framed by the windows of the fort. The fort offers history — the Taj is the creation of a particular personality, it reflects his world view. Coming straight to the Taj it is pure beauty — more a sculpture than a building, a perfected example of use of space. But coming to it from the fort, it was created at a specific time by a person you begin to understand.

And then we drove back. The Delhi Agra road is India — dusty polluted, with carts drawn by camels, oxen, horses, in some places cows or dogs wander about, many of the farm vehicles look like the rusty and rotting depression era tractors that remain on America farms only as a kind of vehicular antique show. And yet truck after truck passed carying new tractors, new wheels, streams of concrete mixers, SUVs, on the side of the road were huge signs for buildings about to go up — exurban housing developments similar to those you might see outside the Chicago suburbs — as well as many large new technical colleges under construction. You realize that Inida is itself and is changing rapidly at the same time in the same place. It was fascinating and wonderful and curious and different. And the, exhausted, we arrived home.


  1. Wow! There is no clear line between history and now. However there are some places where the pace of change is so visible. What you report both at the Agra Fort and on the road back toward Delhi is an amazing presence of ancient history and a sense of history happening right now. Thank you for sharing glimpses of your journey!

  2. In Mid December, I visited the Taj at Sunrise. A beautiful time of day. No crowds. It’s an amazing powerful experience to see it, to touch it. Same for the Fort Agra. What was equally as powerful experience was the 5 hour drive back to Delhi. it was fascinating and scary at the same time. Passing modern buildings, ramshackle huts, villiages, shopping stalls on the sime of the road. Along for the ride were trucks, camels, carts pulled by oxen, motorcyles with families on them, bicycles, tractors pulling carts with 30 people hanging off the back, autorickshaws piled high with 12 people stuffed inside all sharing the same highway. Forget about traffic lights or lanes, when the guy walking his goat wanted to cross the highway, he did, and somehow survived. Traffic jams worse then anything I ever felt driving in NY or LA. Rich or poor, the people were wonderful and welcoming. It was a great trip. Go!

  3. Marc Aronson says:

    Matt: nice description, we took the the same ride and saw it exactly as you did.