The Taj’s Southern-facing wall is glowing, reflecting the orange October sunrays blasting in from the Eastern horizon and breaking through the morning haze. She is unrestrained from above, scraping the clouds with the tip of her onion dome; from below, her base is framed by a line of one hundred bobbing heads silhouetted against her marble exterior. Now, at 6:11am, the gates are open and the tourists flood in.
Professional-grade cameras hang securely around their amateur photographer necks; stylish stiletto heels poke holes through the mandatory and universal white shoe-nets; age-old Hindi words are butchered by every accent and inflection… no one can pronounce her name.
These tourists are the try-hards . They wake up at 5am to make the Taj line by 6, they munch on their breakfast cereal in Ziploc bags while waiting for security check, and they page through their expensive guide books as they step through the iconic South Gate. They’re the Taj Mahal door-busters; there is no effort lacking from this crowd. A Chinese woman spins slowly as her five family members incorrectly wrap her brand new purple sari; two Spaniards stand before the ancient calligraphy and flip franticly through their translation dictionary; an American mother lays on the ground to capture the perfect angle of her daughter “holding” the Taj with her 7-year-old fingers.
They press grimy toddler palms onto the pure white marble walls, ignoring the inlayed stonework design underneath. For them, the Taj is a purely visual experience. Their perpetually snapping cameras do not capture the tomb’s history or purpose. Most of these folks are unlikely to produce the names Mumtaz Mahal or Shah Jahan when referencing the ancient Mughal emperor and his late wife on account of whom the Taj now stands. They will not recite the circumstances of construction, or Shah Jahan’s monumental dedication to the deceased mother of his 14th child. With their heads turned 90 degrees upward, few will identify the interior ceiling as a false dome typical of Timurid revival architecture or the black bands of calligraphy on the walls and floor as poetic Quranic excerpts. With their eyes glued to the northern wall, they fail to notice the mysterious adjoining Moonlight Garden nestled quietly behind them on the Yamuna’s opposite bank.
“It is the Taj’s image that India uses to market itself to the world,” asserts Dr. Basu of St. Lawrence University, and these people are the ideal consumers. They are among the 7 and 8 million tourists who will visit the Taj Mahal this year, as estimated by the Uttar Pradesh Department of Tourism. They constitute the majority who will visit in the colder month of October. If they are a typical group, just over ten percent of them will be joining the Taj from overseas today. They are predictable, standard, and altogether individually insignificant. However, they contribute something important to India in the form of economic benefits; worldwide, India ranks 14th for tourism’s contribution to GDP, according to the World Travel and Tourism Council. The Taj Mahal is the nation’s largest tourism attraction. In return, these travelers will leave here today with approximately 200 new photos on their cameras and a story to tell their friends back home. They can check “India” off of their bucket lists.
They’re bumbling, confused, and frantic; but beyond all of this, they’re still here. They came to India today and they are giving the Taj Mahal some precious moments of their lives. Although each of their respective afros and ponytails now add to the mass of bobbing heads blocking a pure view of the Taj, this place would not be the same without them. Without the guidebooks and pamphlets, or the hotel shuttle-buses and camera-film kiosks, the Taj would not be the spectacle it is today. They add something here as they take their photos and memories away with them. Without these people to love it, the “Seventh Wonder of the World” might not seem quite so wonderful.
Emma Cummings-Krueger studies English-Writing and Environmental Science at St. Lawrence University, with a concentration in Java Barn concerts. She is a Minnesotan with a well-hidden accent, an avid soup and momo (dumplings) eater, and a secret stray dog petter. While in India, Emma is exploring the impacts of climate change on public water access and use.