Day Two: White Marble and Legends

There’s a grinding of gears from the front, and the bus pauses, then jerks forward sharply, sending all of us lurching out of our seats again. One of my hands clutches the camera; the other holds a death grip on the seat back. I click frame after frame out the side window, hoping for maybe a miracle or two out of several dozen blurred nothings.

The bus swings to the right as we switch lanes again, this time venturing for a short period into the oncoming lane and threading between motorcycles and rickshaws that honkingly announce their displeasure at this sudden behemoth with “TOURISM” splashed on its windshield.

I surrender to the inevitable and stow my camera away as the bus finally wobbles back over into its rightful land, trying not to sigh as potential photographs slip below my window and whisk away down the road.

As we shudder to a stop at yet another checkpoint, the navigator scrambles out of his bucket seat and climbs into the cabin with us. We are perhaps halfway between Delhi and Agra, on our way to see India’s crowning jewel, the Taj Mahal. What we were assured would be a three-and-a-half, perhaps four-hour journey has proved to be much more than that, and our enthusiasm is waning.

The navigator beams and addresses us in careful English. He speaks Hindi, and is not as experienced in English as he is in Swedish, his fluency there the result of dozens of bus rides with vacationing Scandinavians. That so many Swedes are making pilgrimages to the Taj Mahal that a poor Indian bus attendant would be able to master their language is a mystery I decide against trying to fathom.

“Here there is new culture,” he says, waving vaguely out the left window at the empty grass fields there. “In India, every 60 kilometer, new religion, new culture.”

We thank him, and he smiles broadly to see our understanding. It is these interactions that teach him a new language, and that his words have been comprehended is a source of great pride for him.

As the bus picks up speed again, I wonder about this regionalism. It is strange that a religious people that so value universalism would be so divided – the distance one has to travel to find a new culture is the distance most people I know would be willing to drive for a good pizza. But in the broad scheme of things, it is really only recently that these roads and highways physically united these villages, and their history goes back much, much further.

It is a thought that nags me as our guide joins us to take us on a tour of Agra and the Taj. The history he gives us is unlike any that I learned in textbooks, beginning with phrases like “800 years ago…” and then dissolving into legend. He tells us of rings being swallowed by fish and discovered by fishermen just in time to save the life of future rulers, and that Krishna was “probably an alien.” It is a fascinating indoctrination into India’s ancestry, but I realized suddenly that the guide is not spinning us a nonsensical yarn to placate our American prejudices – the history he teaches is, to him, truth.

The next morning I will ask Peter, the missionary we are here working with, about the stories. “Most of India probably thinks that the story of Aladdin is historical,” he says dismissively, gesturing towards me with a slice of fresh papaya. “These guides, they learn these stories growing up in their villages. They don’t know what truth is.”

If he’s right, I envy these people their history. Americans have done their best to dramatize their forebears into flat cartoons, a treasure trove of tightly-frocked Puritans, hardy explorers in coonskin caps, and dusty cowboys with eyes crinkled from staring at an unblinking red horizon. But we are too close to them still. No matter how fervent our imagination, they remain men, not gods.

The Taj Mahal feels like it’s traveled from that other place, a building thrust out of not time but imagination. It seems strange even to touch it, that it can’t possibly be real, a massive tomb built to hold a king of untold riches. And yet it remains firmly there as we approach, its marble glowing a soft cream in the golden sunlight, painstaking handwork on a massive scale. A steady stream of visitors push through its doorways, bumping past delicate windows of thin mica, pawing at the semiprecious stones carved into its walls, taking flash photographs despite giant placards posted on every surface, ignoring the angry shouting of the guards.

How are we allowed so near to it? I recall my visit to Stonehenge, where the barriers keep spectators a respectable distance from the history, lest we destroy what time had missed. But the world’s grandest building is somehow much more available than a pile of carefully-placed rocks.

Standing on it, it’s easy to see that it’s just the sort of building that inspires stories of kings and gold rings and aliens. I’m glad that someone saw fit to let us get so close.