A sudden spurt of enthusiasm, a car, few friends (optional) and a couple of hours is just enough to take you this destination. Even if you are over stuffed with Taj and shrug the idea because you have seen it so many times, you may choose to remain focused on driving down the Yamuna Expressway, where 100km/h is the norm. If you still get bored, you may quarrel, if the Nilgais you spotted along the way were stuffed or real. Sight of the majesty of Taj awaits you in the evening on any full moon night.
Shilpgram is the last checkpoint near the Taj on the eastern side up till which vehicles are allowed. A spread of even metal tar leads you to the East Gate of Taj. A few hundred meters from the Gate is Dushshehra Ghat from where one can take a boat ride along the Yamuna and across to Mehtab Bagh. Beyond this check-list, the prime destination is the forest guest house which offered a unique way to ‘Wah’ the Taj.
Any regular visitor is aware of the pathway to Taj, which is littered with a number of small and big, quaint and loud, inexpensive and ‘pounding the pouch’ places of stay. Closer to the gate are the typical tourist shops selling hats, footwear to bloomer pants –all ‘Indian’ of course, and the ‘piece de resistance’ - miniature Taj. It is hard to resist their pleasant cajoling in English, to sell their ware or to give you ride in their horse carts. Our destination too lay along this road.
Van Vibhag or the Forest Department Guest Houses are not for the lay visitor. They require official recommendation, prior bookings and planning - a long time in advance. Here government employees have an undue advantage. The walk to the guest house itself is charming. A cobbled street trails through copses of trees and overhanging eaves. The peacocks and peahens dart about as if we are intruding into their private space. A steep climb up a neatly maintained mound takes us to ‘Taj Kunj.’
Taj Khema adjoining the Taj Kunj and is UP Tourism’s commercial reply to the State privileged elite.
Khema is more urban in its space and structure but no less becoming than its neighbour. A neat drive way leads up to the reception and further into the dining hall which opens to an amphitheater like structure. One way leads to the tents, another to the rooms and third to the point from which to view.
The ‘Taj Nature Trail’ Runs along these two constructions and parallel to river Yamuna. We had chosen to be there on a full moon night and for an exclusive sight that no ordinary tourist gets to see. The vision that awaited us, of and from those places was one to behold! The line of sight stretches across a carpet of tree canopies only to be broken by a majestic edifice in the horizon. Untampered by a photoshop brush or a commercially gilded frame the Taj stands in all its superlative splendour. The rise of a gleaming full moon lights up the bulbous projections and the foliage beneath its skirts. It lies a little distance from where we perch, but in that secluded beauteous space, it was close, it was exclusively ours.
For all the paeans of love we sing of the king for his queen we perhaps fail to see the obvious. The edifice is but a symbol of bereavement and death. Yet, it is a wonder of the world, a pleasant picture to behold.
You marvel at what you think must be the Emperor’s intent in having it made. Maybe he really just embalmed his pain with beauty, sought to be grazed with life in death, and maybe, wanted to just to lie beneath the star studded sky, in peace.
As the night held its sway, the ever changing spacescapes and colours ensconced the Taj in myriad spectacular frames. The seclusion amidst known added our delight. As our eyes devoured and the mind spun a myriad stories of being and otherwise. We were imagining the place in monsoons. The drama in sky with clouds and the moon playing peek - a- boo, hot cups of chai and savouries – all called for an encore!
Taj Kunj is a simple clean and spacious place with fabulous landscaping and an elevated viewing location to recommend it. Literally meaning ‘tents’ in Arabic, Khema is an equally becoming and a far more democratic space to inhabit.
It offers a variety of rooms as also a paid ‘Viewing Point’ service for those who may not wish to stay. Food at both the places is basic, simple and favourable though not the only options.
More than any facility, these guest houses offer a ready retreat for an urban traveler. For someone who is not unwilling to tread the unfamiliar if provided with familiar comforts. All of us were seeking a weekend getaway and we found places which privileged solitude amidst chaos. A private indulgence, an uninterrupted preserve, a steady gaze’s delight.
The exclusive space made majestic the digitally writ mundane. The un-ticketed, un- curtailed and un-hurried access offered a richer and more consummate perspective than the capture in a touristy picture postcard. Like in magic movies it revealed secrets for it was the right place at the right time with the right people!
Aparna Mudium is with Indian Corporate Law Service. Sreedeep Bhattacharya is with C-PACT, Shiv Nadar University