A diamond in a dirt heap
THE TOUR GUIDE HAS seen the Taj Mahal 150 times before, from every angle, in every season and every light.
But still, when the poem in white marble comes into sight through the arch of the protective barricades, Vishal Ghai gasps with awe.
So do I. It is a vision of sheer beauty and grace.
Over the past decade, Ghai has led 15 groups of awed visitors each year around the dramatic marble structure. He never tires of explaining the engineering miracle that created the building and telling the love story that inspired it.
'It is a teardrop on the cheek of time,' whispers Ghai, a Delhi-based guide specialising in Mughal art and architecture.
True. But getting to see this magical architectural gem is not a pleasant experience. It is a diamond in a dung heap. The ethereal beauty of the wondrous structure is girded by filth, poverty and touts.
Nothing can detract from the splendour of the building itself, set amid manicured lawns and landscaped grounds. Getting inside is another matter.
Apart from the nearby Red Fort and a couple of minor monuments, Agra has nothing to offer tourists except dust, dirt and municipal bad planning on an impressive scale.
The four-hour drive from New Delhi is a white-knuckled experience not for the faint-hearted. Somewhat surprised to be alive, I am driven into the squalid but cheerful suburbs of Agra. Welcome to the Fourth World.
Scrawny cows, presumably sacred, scratch themselves against buildings.
Tiny donkeys carry immense loads and grinning men. Camels arrogantly strut in front of carts. There's something mysterious in the air; all the animals are defecating and urinating over the streets and under trees.
I step with extreme care. There are few footpaths, just expanses of dusty pounded earth that merge into the potholes that form the road. I reach the bridge crossing the moat that leads to the steel-studded gates of the Agra Fort.
An awesome array of crippled and deformed beggars and urgent able-bodied hawkers descend on the visitors.
There's a boy with feet the size of pillows, a woman with no legs, boys with hideous handicaps, men dragging themselves to display tangled limbs and gaping cancers.
I gulp, stare determinedly upwards at the noble ramparts and stride with as much haste and dignity as I can muster into the heart of the Mughal empire.
The might and power of the Muslim rulers who governed northern India for two centuries, plus what is now Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran and surrounding lands, throbs from the iron-hard stone. Inside the gate, tranquillity descends.
Here, among the splendid arches and courtyards which was home and the seat of government for Mughal rulers in the 17th century, blossomed a legendary romance.
Shah Jehan was 22 when he met a teenage bead-seller at a courtyard bazaar. Mumtaz Mahal was a commoner, but he chose her for his queen. In 19 years of love, she had 14 children, and it was in her final childbirth that she died. As a testament to his devotion, Shah Jehan began work on what was to be the world's most inspiring tomb. It took 20,000 men 22 years to complete.
It is more than a mere statement of enduring love, but a startling feat of engineering.
Marble was quarried in four-metre blocks hundreds of kilometres away. A steep, three-kilometre ramp was constructed so the marble blocks could be set in place on the onion dome that tops the Taj Mahal.
From a marbled eyrie atop the ramparts of the Agra Fort, Shah Jehan could gaze across the Yumana River to his creation, where his beloved lay. The story of love ended in tragedy. The third son of Shah Jehan and Mumtaz Mahal rose against his father.
This monster, Aurangzeb, poisoned his own son, blinded all his brothers with hot steel knives, and locked his father up for the last eight years of his life in the marble cell in the Red Fort.
His eyesight failing, Shah Jehan sat staring across the plain at the spires, domes and minarets of the memorial to his love. He died looking at the Taj.
A daughter later buried him there, alongside Mumtaz.
To get there in the modern day, I leave the Agra Fort, once again running the gauntlet of the desperate and deformed. Should I give them money? 'No, no,' advise the guides. Otherwise I would be swamped by a pleading army of handicapped beggars. I harden my heart and dash past.
A hire car takes me to a small compound crammed with honking, reversing, turning, chaotic vans, buses, cars and trishaws.
The idea is that I get out of my vehicle and board a shuttle bus that runs on environmentally friendly fuel and will take me to the gate of the Taj.
It is a total shambles, with a score of vehicles trying to manoeuvre in and out of a narrow gate. Nobody seems in charge.
The bus takes me to a narrow, stall-choked lane. I fight past hawkers and the inevitable beggars to enter.
It is not cheap. Entry to the fort costs Indians about $1, foreigners pay $85. An international visitor pays $150 to enter the Taj Mahal, compared with $4 for Indians.
Getting inside, even with a ticket, is a sad joke. Tourists are forbidden to take sharp objects, tripods, mobile phones and sweets. I squeeze through a wooden gate like an airport security screen. Two uniformed guards diligently search every man's camera bag and give a far-too-personal body search.
It takes a long time. The queue grows as guards empty camera bags and refuse entry to people with forbidden items.
Given sexual sensibilities, women are not searched, but waved through. They have to empty their handbags at a later checkpoint.
Once past this infuriating and pointless stop point, I walk along the sandstone paving. I approach a large battlement with twin arches. As I walk through the gatehouse, the vision of the Taj Mahal comes into stunning view.
It is heart-grabbing in its beauty. The symmetrical complex rises at the end of long gardens and a lotus pool. People stand, sighing, speechless . . . it is a wondrous experience. Agra, the filth and the beggars are forgiven.
Vishal Ghai has taken at least 3,000 tourists to the Taj on more than 150 trips.
'Many people are left numb and speechless,' he says. 'The first glimpse sends shivers down their spine.
'Every time I go, I think how privileged I am to be able to see its beauty and explain the intricacies of how it was constructed.
'People usually do not complain about sanitary conditions, but it definitely comes as a shock. They don't expect to find chaos outside the most beautiful structure in the world.'