Massive Monument Madness
I first visited India in 2009. My mate and I spent a couple of days exploring the old colonial haunts of Mumbai, before picking up two Royal Enfield motorbikes and spending the next couple of weeks successfully (just) avoiding death-by-bat-shit-roads as we made our way south to Kerala via Goa, and a number of places which no longer appear to even be recognised on a local map.
My next tryst with the enigma that is India was in 2011. I arrived in Delhi, got shit-faced with a couple of Kashmiris and a bottle of Jonnie Walker (I don’t even drink Whisky), and headed immediately up to Dharamasala to spend a couple of weeks with Tibetan monks and watching Eagles ride thermals on walks through the hills. I then made my way to Varanasi for Diwali on the Ganges, before jumping across the border into Nepal for some mountain time.
I’m fortunate to have just spent another month in this land of variety, difference, acceptance, indifference, noise and peace (oh and increasing Nationalism, along with what feels like the rest of the self-serving/destructing world). Finally, on my third visit, I have gazed upon the one thing people always ask me if I have seen when India comes up; the Taj Mahal.
I’m now ready and prepared, almost anticipating the next time someone asks if I’ve visited the gargantuan white Disney-esque profession of love from Shah Jahan to his favourite wife. Yep that’s right, favourite. Not one true love; favourite wife. Of how many I don’t know. When they ask I will say yes, I have indeed visited the Taj Mahal.
Should they be foolish enough to ask what I thought of it, I might give them a version of the below.
As a human creation there is no doubt the Taj Mahal is awesome in a literal sense. The size of the striking marble mausoleum is one thing, the quality of the craftmanship quite another. There’s soo much detail and precision in shaping the still reflective stone used in its construction. It’s a clean and meticulously maintained haven in the dust, dirt and din of Rajasthan. Despite this impression, quality and silence-inducing beauty, as with most “monuments” built by humans I found myself underwhelmed.
I’ve never been a sightseer. I’ve never planned my trips to tick boxes of things I should “see”. I’ve been to Australia quite a few times now (for someone who lives the other side of the world) and I’ve never seen the Sydney Opera House. When people ask me if I’ve “done” a place, I’m still not sure what that means.
Adventure travel for me is almost always about the serendipitous moments shared with people who live somewhere, who share time and space with you and welcome you into their world, connecting you with the environment you’re in. Whether that’s on the side of the road, or in a little un-famous tea-house. But it’s not my indifference to following the crowd that causes my dilemma with massive monuments.
Buildings like the Taj Mahal demonstrate through grandeur and fine detail, our human ability to create very special things. I also find them confronting manifestations of extreme wealth. In the case of the Taj Mahal this vast expense and beautiful creation is a monument to one person from another. It is a remarkable demonstration of love (sort-of, but that’s another debate), yet I can’t seem to find connection with these things when the wealth used for the celebration of the few could be part of a solution for many.
Just outside the gates of this monolith of marble are people begging. It’s always been this way. Everywhere. Even now despite huge “progress” India is fast re-enforcing its inhuman caste system under Mohdi (the progressive economic hero) and the Taj Mahal for me represents the historical existence and modern currency of an ever-widening gap between the haves and have-nots.
I salute Shah Jahan. More accurately I salute the craftspeople and artists who created something so beautiful. But that level of wealth, even in the 1600s or whenever it was built, could have been used for real, scaleable and effective social change. Or a war, that’s the other thing the rich like to do right? Go to war to spend and make money killing all the people who might want to steal the money. Or to steal the money. Shah Jahan had a few of those too.
Of course, now the Taj exists it draws millions of tourists and their economic injection every year, which is great (and the conservative justification for all these things). But with that level of wealth, wouldn’t a greater act of love have been to use it to lift up those under his authority and create greater equality among people? He probably had enough money to do both. Idealistic I know, but entirely possible, then and now. Sadly rich people need poor people, otherwise they wouldn’t be “rich”, and they wouldn’t be able to go down in history as the man who built a massive marble monument in the name of love. For one of his many wives. Madness.