Nothing prepares you for the first sight of Taj Mahal. No book, no traveller’s account, nor any published image catches your breath the way a glimpse of the marbled monument does, when it jumps off the horizon. Unfortunately, neither does anything prepare you for the bureaucratic rudeness, corruption and shabby callousness that greets visitors to India’s most fabled tourist attraction.
The Taj attracts close to 3 million visitors every year. It is on Unesco’s list of world heritage sites. It brings in twice as much revenue through tourist visits for the Indian government than any other monument in the country. And yet, the authorities (the ministry of tourism, the Archaeological Survey of India, and the security forces assigned to the monument) go out of their way to take the sheen off this grand monument. Forget tourism, forget history, forget safety, forget heritage—the only thing being practised here is self-interest and thuggery.
Information about how to get around the site, the facilities available and locational dos and don’ts is scarce and misleading. The official website is not much help either. The infrastructure is inadequate and crumbling. Officials do not help and the place is teeming with touts selling everything from mementos and shoe covers to guided tours and postcards.
There are no information signs for visitors, who must stand in long queues
On a recent visit, we found ourselves at their mercy soon after we step out of our car. We were asked to disembark a little distance away from the monument – rightfully so – to minimise the polluting impact of motor emissions, but found smoke-spewing motorbikes and scooters plying freely! There are battery operated vehicles ferrying tourists to the Taj. But finding one is a Herculean task: there are no designated bus stands, ticket counter or an information kiosk. You are thrust into the midst of a swarming crowd rushing helter-skelter and people scrambling for a seat. The buses, meant for a maximum of 8-10 people, are filled way beyond their capacity. A group of guides and security personnel commandeers the vehicles for their clients (those who have booked a guide or have paid off officials). But if you are an ordinary tourist wishing to explore the Taj Mahal independently, it’s like finding a foothold on a crowded Mumbai local train. And all around us, there are officials in uniform staring sternly into the distance, averting the gaze of helpless tourists.
The few available vehicles are commandeered by touts working hand-in-glove with security guards
We finally find a bus. But a uniformed attendant blocks our way. This is meant only for ‘VIPs’, he says. When we protest, he smirks and says that it makes no difference to him what people think. Several attempts later we squeeze into a bus and are deposited at the end of a long queue of people waiting to enter the monument. Some boys are herding the men and women into different lines. There are no signs, nor is there an information desk for visitors.
The is no information desk for visitors
We go through a narrow metal frame and put our bags through the scanner. A young female security officer pulls us out and asks to open our bags. Out go note books (but not books), post-it stickers (odd!), pens, playing cards and an iPad with a keyboard. The iPad, she mutters, was not the offending item but the keyboard attached to it was because we could use it to key in a command! When we suggest iPad commands do not need a keyboard, she turns a deaf ear.
Where does one deposit the bags that we can’t take into the monument? Keep them with a local shopkeeper and pay him a small sum for his services, she says, or walk back 1.5 km to where you boarded the battery-operated vehicles and rent a locker. Feeling harassed, helpless and angry at the manner in which we have been dragged into a chain of unofficial payments and pay-offs, we dump our bags with the shopkeeper. But there is little to be done and so we move on hoping that things would improve hereon, but the ride is further downhill.
There aren’t enough audio guides, those available fail to work and the ugly Indian tourist is all around. Slippers are strewn across the green grassy garden even when a signboard firmly asks people to not do that. When we reach close to the mausoleum we are told that our tickets do not allow us direct entry into the main building. For that we should have bought the more expensive tickets. But how do we know that? Everybody does, a disinterested man tells us with a shrug. Later we find out that the tickets priced Rs 750, meant for foreign visitors, allows speedy access. But the Rs 20 tickets meant for Indian visitors don’t. Of, course “VIPs” get special treatment, whatever their ticket denomination, because they are either chaperoned by influential tour guides or assisted by prominent hotels. There is no way of knowing if this is how things are meant to be or whether this is another private revenue source for local authorities.
We leave, disgusted, as do several other families. The Taj Mahal that is already turning a shade of yellow (or were they black spots?) seems to be staring back at us, aghast at the spectacle unfolding in its courtyard.
Photo credit: Mekhala Singhal