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.