Yesterday was my birthday, a significant one, too.

I’ve never actually revealed my age on this site, mainly because it pains me to be pigeonholed.  I do act stupidly young or stupid at times; why not leave the age question blank?

March 21, 2011, marks a turning point in my life.

Ready?  This chick just turned 40.  Gasp!!

40 is ancient.  To a 20 year old.  40 means I forget more years than I remember.  Supposedly.

Categorize me now.  Love it, I hope.  Or maybe you knew all along?  I fooled nobody.

On this auspicious birthday, I treated myself to the Taj Mahal and Agra Fort.  Seeing the Taj has been a dream of mine for over ten years. Did it measure up to this birthday girl’s expectations?

Taj Mahal

I woke at an ungodly hour to touch the spiritual.  4:30!  I complain about sleep a lot, yet you’ve got to understand.  Cougars need their rest to prowl young boys at night.

I was the first tourist to arrive at the west gate, vaguely wondering if there weren’t many coming.  Agra is a confused city.  A jaunt down the street will tell you how.  Merchant stalls, abandoned cars, a pile of tires, then a HOTEL!  Off to the side, in an alley, usually fashioned from a smelly apartment building about to be condemned.  That’s Agra.

So, I hadn’t seen any foreigners.

Only thing worth snapping before dawn

By 6:15, the ticket window opened.  I peered behind me and there they were. Foreigners multiplying like a locust hive.

Ticket prices are not budget-minded.  750 rupees for foreigner entry, equals to $16.00 CDN.  The ticket window guy will also sell you entry to Agra Fort, 50 rupees off!  That sounded good, so I agreed. Somehow 50 rupees off amounts to paying a final 1,000 for both.

Uh, think I was just duped.  I wore my salwar that day, but this pushed me to picture stripping it off and yelling in protest!  I come to your country, wear your clothes, and you rip me off??! Truth was this great Indian couple I spent Holi with encouraged me to scam back, by standing in the ‘Indians only line’.  Apparently, I look very similar to north-eastern Indians.  This explains the salwar.  When it came to buying though, I chickened out.  My Hindi is far too non-existent to pull a ruse of this magnitude.

Taj in background, birthday girl up front

It was pushing towards dawn by the time staff let us through what I call cow gates.  I had forgotten there would be security and a search through people’s bags.  Being second in line, for sure I would score a shot without pesky people in the way.

A security woman in a faded brown uniform stirred the contents of my bag, pulling out two items that were a no-no.  A whistle and my Swiss army knife.  Okay, fair call on the knife, but a whistle?  Did not understand that one.  Maybe she was afraid I would blow it at rude travelers.  And she would be right.  She demanded I venture outside the gate and submit them to a deposit locker.  My place in line just dwindled.  No way. I wanted that shot.

I did what any girl would.  Use sympathy.

“Can’t you just keep it here?  Please???  It’s my birthday today.”

She softened.  “I keep for you.  Have a nice birthday.”  Whee!  I’m in.

Speechless

I did lose, because a few visitors already sprinted ahead of me to catch a silent Taj.  Guidebooks say you have 10 to 20 seconds to catch that shot.

With that near disaster, I managed to get some decent shots.  What angered me is how long staff delayed entry.  Sunrise was already upon us and I longed to see it as the day began.

The Taj is downright breathtaking.  The exterior, that is.   As a commoner all her life, I was propelled into the past.  I became a peasant girl hauling potatoes on an overworked donkey who took a wrong turn and discovered paradise on earth.  This harkens back to fantasies of a peasant girl meeting her prince.  It could happen right there.  On the lawn of the Taj.

One of four minarets

The marble shimmered from salmon to gold to eggshell white as the last vestiges of night gave way to daylight.  As you witness it come alive, you don’t feel anything negative.  You drink in perfection, which is what so many of us strive for, sometimes all our lives.

Then I realized, hey, this is a mausoleum.  Princes don’t fall in love with peasant girls; they are buried here.  It’s that kind of paradise.

On the birthday side, the irony is not lost one me, entering a dead king’s tomb.  Many guidebooks revealed that Shah Jahan was actually a vain man who feared the afterlife more than he loved ol’ Mumtaz Mahal.

Mosque or masjid

Maybe this is what Shah hoped to capture.  His immortality in a single, impenetrable structure that has stood much longer than he lived.  We chase down aging, afraid of growing soft.

Not me.  40 means it’s never too late.

The detail as you walk towards the building is astounding to the naked eye.  A patchwork of intricate marble work, delicate lines of calligraphy by Abd ul-Haq is song through words.  The scale left me drowning in wonder, quiet and breathless.

Full frontal view

Honestly, the gravity of Taj is staggering; sometimes it’s best to close your eyes momentarily before devouring more.

I met a lovely French Canadian guy who joined me on this birthday expedition.  He pinned me at 27.  I almost kissed him.  As standard, we couldn’t snap photos inside, but Google can satiate your curiosity.  Some tourists did break that rule, clicking away near the exit.  One even caressed the Pietra dura jali inlay in quite an erotic manner.  Yikes.

Close-up of exterior

The interior is what disappointed me. I know how silly that sounds.  Obviously, the main attraction are the tombs. I was sad that many of the other corridors were cut off.  There is a basement entrance that has been sealed since 2000 due to security reasons.  The minarets are closed to the public.  I know this is about preservation, blah, blah, blah.

I wanted more.  And came up with an uneven octagon that goes around in a circle.  As suddenly as you enter, you have to leave.

Golden light

Not sure what I expected inside, the inlay work stuns you, the tombs elevate a resting place to the highest aesthetic ideal.

Just more meat, I suppose.

Correct me if I’m wrong, at one time a ticket entry would allow multiple visits, it also use to be free on Fridays.

These days you have a limited amount of time to explore a powerful place.

Gateway to the Taj Mahal

I’m grateful to have seen it, but overall the interior and ticket price takes away from the experience.  And the stickler fact that I was denied a sunrise viewing did not impress me.

Nupur, my Holi friend said her father grew up in Agra and use to play cricket on the grounds in his youth.  Back then, the Taj was not surrounded by stone walls, but open to all.  Imagine that?  I wish some of that spirit still existed.

Now, I’m speaking as a regular traveler.  For my birthday?  It was just the right kind of gift.

Agra Fort

After a rest at my hotel, Agra Fort was next.  It hadn’t dawned on me that Agra Fort served an array of functions.  Security, home, vault, and a gathering place for the Moghul court.  I wound through palace after palace, and every single one would trump the last one.

Exterior

I’ve always been partial to architecture of this nature, be it Moghul or Byzantine.  The domes, minarets, all capture that sensation of being close to creation, which is the intention.

Simply put, Agra Fort was stunning.  I saw more examples of Moghul architecture than I probably ever will.

3-D example of Moghul architecture

At 94 acres I only saw a fraction of the property and what I did see was beyond satisfactory.

You get a sense of how they lived.  A world filled with debaucheries, holy tenets and ostentatious demands give birth in your imagination as you tour each palace.  There are mosques, halls for the odd harem or two, bedrooms overlooking pools, and a moat.

Princess for the day: Throne of Jaha

Once you reach the upper areas, a clear view of the Yamuna river and the Taj Mahal materialize.  The Yamuna was once considered holy waters.  Today it is dried up, taken over by swampy sludge.  Use your cognitive powers: half-shut your eyes, concentrate, and you will see the water gushing past.  Even hear it.

My ticket cost 250 rupees and thankfully, security was lax.  No hinderance this time.

Moat overlooking Yamuna River

I may be stoned for this, Agra Fort stretches and delivers a bit more than the Taj Mahal, giving the average commoner a glimpse into royalty at it’s most genius.

Go! It is worth weaving through aggressive touts and the crowds.

Shah Jahan’s bedroom. Gold!

That was one hell of a birthday.  Wonder where I should celebrate number 41?

Where was the best place you spent your birthday?  Exotic locale or not!