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Of Monuments and Marketstalls

I woke up at 5:00 in the morning to go and see the Taj Mahal. It was worth it. Wrapped in every piece of clothing that I had with me, I made my way through the dark empty streets of Agra towards the Taj compound.

Details on the Tomb of Itmad-Ud-Daula in Agra

Details on the Tomb of Itmad-Ud-Daula in Agra

I had spent the first day of my vacation on an overnight flight to Delhi, followed by an early morning train and a busy day wandering the markets and minor sights of Agra. I saved the Taj for a sunrise viewing on my second morning.

The Kau Ban Mosque at the Taj Compound

People have always told me that the Taj is hyped up and touristy, but also worth it. I think I had this idea in my mind that I was missing a piece of India until I had made it to the Taj. And now I’ve seen it, and I’m not quite sure I know India any better than before.

The Hawa Mahal in Jaipur

Over my first few days traveling Rajasthan I saw some of India’s most recognizable sights, from the Taj Mahal to Jaipur’s Hawa Mahal (maybe that second one is a bit less recognizable). It was lovely, but just as lovely as all of these ancient tombs and palaces were the strolls through dusty markets and the sidewalk chai shops that you experience through taking a step back and looking around.

A flower vendor in Jaipur

There were also bus loads of tourists who had shown up for the Taj sunrise alongside me. As we entered through the main gate we caught our first full-frontal view of the white domes. Everybody clamoured for a position at the front of the viewing platform, pushing each other out of the way and glaring aggressively when someone blocked their shot; Everybody trying to squeeze in the best experience with the limited time and energy that they had.

I spent five hours at the Taj Mahal. I was tired and exhausted, but I just couldn’t seem to leave. Every new angle, every colour shift as the sun rose higher, every step made me want to stay. Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore said that the Taj was ‘a teardrop on the cheek of eternity’, and while I’m not quite sure what that means, it was definitely impressive.

Relief details from the Taj Mausoleum

But what did I learn from seeing the Taj? What did I gain? How has my relationship to India changed? For foreigners, the white marble minarets are often synonymous with our idea of India, but when I think back on Agra I think of the crooked narrow alleyways full of mithai shops and the busy lanes selling gorgeous wedding saris amidst piles of rubble and trash. I think of an aggressive tourism industry and overpriced rickshaw rides, of damp guesthouses and six beggar women all trying to sell me the same plastic Taj Mahal snow globe. I think of the fact that almost none of my Indian friends have been to the Taj Mahal, and that the Taj took up five hours of my seventeen months in India and all I have to remember it by are photos and memories and a 20-rupee keychain.

The bazaars of Agra

Jaipur was bustling. There’s a Rajasthani proverb that asks ‘What have I accomplished in my life, if I have not seen Jaipur?’ Jaipur was my first introduction into Rajasthan, and I was blown away by the grandeur of everything. Amber Fort, just outside of Jaipur, was beautiful and elaborate and amazing, but the local government-run girls school I passed by was just as elaborately covered in detailed murals. The Hawa Mahal, originally built as a windowed facade for the palace of the royal women, was whimsical and I spent hours sitting in the rooftop cafés opposite it admiring its details.

At Nahargarh Fort in Jaipur

Less elaborate was the lone rocky path up a hill on the outskirts of town leading up to a Surya temple. I climbed up early in the morning, taking in the city views as I passed lone sadhus and stray cows. Monkeys lined the path, and all alone as the sun rose it was hard to tell that I was in the largest city in Rajasthan. Later that afternoon I stood on the ramparts of Nargarh Fort, perched on a hill high above Jaipur. Looking down at the square cement-block houses I tried to imagine each of the houses making up a tiny portion of this country.

On the outskirts of Jaipur

That night was Shabbat. After two jam-packed days exploring the sights of Jaipur, I felt like there was still so much to do and see. Taking 25 hours out of my vacation to sit and read and look without photographing was frustrating. But as I spent Shabbat afternoon wandering through the back lanes of Jaipur by myself, without the pressure to photograph every single thing, or the need to find the cutest cafe with the best rooftop view, I was free to look and really see.

Lac bangles for sale in Jaipur

Jaipur is nicknamed the Pink City, because in 1876 the Maharaja had it painted pink to welcome the Prince of Wales during an official visit. Today, all buildings on main streets in the Old City have to be painted pink by law. Which looks nice, but also gives the whole city the distinctly tourist-friendly vibe of a well-run strip mall. But Shabbat afternoon, aimlessly wandering with no map and no GPS, I explored the real streets of Jaipur - streets not pinkwashed for tourists, where the real business of Jaipur took place. By not having the pressure to see everything, I was able to see so much more.

Tourists at the City Palace in Jaipur

There’s a prayer sung at Shabbat dinner on Friday nights called Eshet Chayil, or 'Woman of Valour'. It goes through all the esteemed traits of womanhood in alphabetical order, but comes to the conclusion that 'Sheker HaChen, Ve’Hevel HaYofi, Isha Yirat Hashem, Hi Titpalel’ - grace is false, and beauty fades, but a woman who fears G-d, she