Saturday, December 17, 2011

Taj Mahal; A teardrop on the face of eternity

"A teardrop on the face of eternity."

That's how Indian poet, Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941), described the Taj Mahal. After reading that simple line, there's no way I could even attempts a description myself... I thought of how Tom Robbins might describe it. Maybe, "A drop of dew of Aphrodite's clit."? Er, is that too lewd? Well, Tom Robbins can be like that, at times! Or, is it the wrong set of deities? Maybe I should say Sita's? Still, she is Hindu, the Taj Mahal is Islāmic... Anyway, I'll just let it go before I get in anymore trouble!

My plan was to get to the Taj Mahal while it was still dark, so I could enjoy every moment of dawn as it slowly lit the Taj. The Taj Mahal has three colors throughout the day, pink in the morning, white at noon, and yellow in the evening. I wanted to see them all. I got to the gate and realized I hadn't taken out any cash between Mumbai and here and only had a bit of Korean money I was keeping for when I arrived back in Incheon. I tried to convince them it was enough money to cover the ticket and them some, but they didn't want to touch it... A tingle went through my spine, thinking that I might have come all this way just to miss the sunrise. It coasts 750 rupees to enter the Taj Mahal, but only 20 rupees if you are Indian. This didn't really bother me at all, except that, right now, I only had about 30 rupees on me... I quickly headed back across the street but nothing was open. Just then, a security guard across the street unlocked the door to an ATM.

the next hassle is was my camera bag. Only small bags are allowed, my small camera backpack was just a little too big. Now, I was really getting stressed. I opened it to show them it only had my camera and lenses, and my documents, no explosives or cans of spray paint. It felt like a miracle but they let me by. I didn't even have to bribe them!

It was still dark enough that i couldn't really see where I was going. I could only make out the faint silhouette of massive walls and gates. I figured since I came through the west-entrance, The Taj Mahal should be to my left and passed through the huge gate. About half a dozen people were seated on the steps with cameras, and across the garden, at the end of the long pool, sat the Taj Mahal, barely visible against the distant horizon. I grabbed a spot on the stairs and gazed out at it, but something didn't seem right. In all the photos I'd seen, you could see the entire structure reflected in the pool, but from the view-point, it was just a sliver of a reflection. It also seemed just too far away, so I grabbed my camera and started walking towards it, until I came to a platform in the middle of the long fountain where I did find the classic view of the Taj Mahal. By now, the sky had just begun to light, meaning there was still about 30 minutes before sunrise. I was the only one who'd broken away from the growing crowd so I had the whole spot to myself, but I knew it wouldn't be long before the others caught on. I'd thought it would be important to get here early so that I could get an unobstructed view, but the Taj Mahal is huge. When people did slowly start filing by, by the time they'd made their way to the Taj, they weren't much more relevant than ants.

It was just as the sun began to brush the Taj's white marble with the pigment of morning that the other photographers began surrounding me. I got a few satisfying shots, then let someone else have what I thought was the best angle, not that there was really a bad angle to photograph the Taj Mahal from!

I thought I'd go have an up-close look at the Taj, when I girl from the Maldives started talking to me, out the blue(ish-pink). I'd taken a couple of shots of a green ring-necked parrot flying by and she thought it was great that all these people where taking pictures of the Taj and there I was aiming at a bird... She was really friendly,, but I think she mostly just wanted me to take her picture since she didn't have a camera herself. I didn't mind the company, though, and she gave me her email to send the photos to once her group was living.

I'm not going to bother going on about how stunning a place it was, the only thing I can say is that however amazing you think it is, it is and then some. I'll just say, I felt like Atreyu, in The Neverending Story, the first time he sees the Ivory Tower. I think I actually heard the same music playing on my internal iPod!

I walked around the grounds thoroughly, exploring the two mosques on either side, built-in perfect symmetry. I admired the detailed inlays of flowers and verses from the Quran that adorn the building. I walked around the walls, to the library, where there was a bit of rodent-wildlife scurrying around. Gazed up at the detail of the massive red gate.

When I was young, I'd been told that Emperor Shah Jahan had the hands cut off of the craftsman so that the Taj Mahal could never be duplicated, but this wasn't true. There is also legend that he'd planned to build a Black Taj for himself, but this is also false. I think some ruins of a burnt building were unearthed which led to the myth. It is true, however, that when his son seized power (the same son who his wife died giving birth to), he had his sick father locked up inside the Agra Fort, where he spent his last years gazing out the small window at the Taj Mahal. He, himself, described it like this,
Should guilty seek asylum here,
Like one pardoned, he becomes free from sin.
Should a sinner make his way to this mansion,
All his past sins are to be washed away.
The sight of this mansion creates sorrowing sighs;
And the sun and the moon shed tears from their eyes.
In this world this edifice has been made;
To display thereby the creator's glory.
After his death, his daughter moved her mother's tomb over a little and had her father'd tomb placed next to his wife, for whom he'd built the ultimate mausoleum. 

Late in the afternoon, I was taking a rest along the side of the Taj, when I noticed a guy trying to take a picture of two girls jumping in the air with the Taj behind them. After his third attempt and fail, it was getting too painful for me to watch, so I went over and offered some advice about how to catch them in the air. He looked at my camera, then handed me the girls' camera and said, in a Spanish accent, "Here, you look like you know what you're doing!" I got a couple of shots for them and we talked a bit. Carlos was from Chile and met the two girls on the train from Varanasi to Agra. They were best friends from Norway, Kristine and Jasmine. I was a bit confused at first, because unlike blonde haired, blue-eyed Kristine, Jasmine was very dark. I thought maybe she was Carlos' friend but she said her mother is Chinese from Singapore, her father is Irish, and she grew up in Norway. They thanked me for the picture and I wished them a fun trip, and went back to catch the Taj as it began fading to yellow.

About an hour later, on the opposite side of the Taj, now, I was sitting, and the same group of friends spotted me again. They came over and we chatted some more. They were all really fun and nice people, I clicked with them right away. The sun was going down and the guards were beginning to urge people out, so we left together, taking a few more shots on the way out. They weren't sleeping in Agra, but had already had lunch at the guesthouse I was staying in so we all went back there for supper. While we ate, they said they were catching an overnight bus to Pushkar in a couple of hours. My plan was to stay in Agra one more day, see the fort, the watch the sunset from across the river, behind the Taj Mahal. It's supposed to be an amazing view. I was also planning on heading to Rajasthan at some point, though, I thought these would be great people to go with. We called the bus company and there was one last place left on the bus. I quickly got my things out of the room and joined my new friends on their way to Pushkar.


  1. These are really amazing. I visited the Taj Mahal years ago with my dad, before I had a camera; when I went with my class to India this year, I was too ill to leave the hotel and so missed the Taj (even though I'd brought extra memory cards and film for the Nikkormat just for the Taj). But this series blew me away.

    Can I ask, what camera do you use and what lens(es) were on it at the Taj? And are you still using Photoshop as your primary editing software, or something else? The colors are incredible (to echo the previous comment).

  2. Hello Seon Joon Sunim,
    That's a shame you were sick! I was sick about every two or three weeks that I was in India, I think usually from water. It usually made for a rough day or two...

    I went to Italy once with only a small disposable camera, and I wish now I'd had something more.

    In India, I was using a Nikon D80. I upgraded to a D200 later but the D700 is the one that really has a desires up in flames! I had an 18-200mm lens (it's a bit of a soft lens) and a Tokina 12-24mm, designed for Nikon. This is a great lens, very sharp and barely any lens distortion. It's half the price of the Nikon wide-angle and almost as good. I think the Nikon lens might start at 10mm, though.

    I use Photoshop CS5 extended. I actually downloaded the free-trial version from the Adobe website and found a key online. I don't know how good that is for keeping precepts, but I could send you a link with a key generator if you want.

    I mostly only use the automatic contrast but also tone, and/or color and adjust the levels, but with some special shots I'll get into them a bit deeper. There's a decent HDR function I've been playing with recently. It's not authentic HDR but the results are good.

    I also downloaded trials of Topaz Labs and Noiseware from the official websites and find both of these plug-ins really helpful, especially for dealing with high ISO and noisy images.

  3. I loved the wide-angle shots. I use a 17-55 mm that's great for the middle-range shots that I usually take (or do I usually take them because that's the lens I have? hmmm....), but in India I was aching for 12 or 10 mm. Our school camera is a D700, and while my own camera's a Canon there are some things about the D700 I miss.

    I went the precepts-safe route and saved up for Lightroom, which I like as well as anything. It was a lot more intuitive for me to use than Photoshop, not to mention much less expensive (which was part of why they came out with it, I think). It's clear you've got more technical savvy than I do!

    The thing about editing photos is that you can make a good shot better, but you can't make a bad shot work no matter what, I've found...which is my way of saying you obviously had great shots to begin with!