I felt so beautiful wearing a surrey, the traditional dress of India. Five meters of fabric was wrapped around my waist, brought across my body and draped over my shoulder. I was mesmerized on how the dress contoured my body yet still felt as comfortable as an oversized cotton t-shirt. Amin is the owner of The Silver Hut, where I went to buy my surrey. He pulled out a jewelry box filled with broaches which were used for decoration as well as function. The broach helped gather the fabric together near my left shoulder to secure it in place. As Amin helped me fasten the broach I looked at my reflection in the mirror. I was a westerner dressed in some of the most elegant attire in the Hindi culture. Would I be considered flaunting how fortunate I am if I wear this? Would the women of the Hindu culture find it disrespectful that I enjoyed playing dress up in such a beautiful gown? The surrey cost $60 USD, which is a little pricey for a souvenir. Without a second thought I handed over my visa.
The next morning as I was getting dressed I admired the way the dress sparkled like a prom dress. I immediately felt guilty knowing how much more extravagant my surrey was in comparison to the others I’ve seen the locals wear. As a visitor in a new country, I try my best to conform to their culture to respect the people who live there. With this in mind I reached for my light purple sweater as I stepped out of the door, just in case I felt the dress was a little too over the top.
When Amber I stepped out of the hotel, our Tuk Tuk driver, Sonny was waiting for us just as promised. “How do you like my surrey, Sonny?” I spun around for him and he smiled in approval. We met Sonny our first night in Agra and continued to use his service for the entire trip. He was more than a tuk tuk driver, I looked at him as more of our Hindi Grandpa. He drove us to the Taj Mahal and we arrrived minutes before sunrise. Women in beautiful surreys flooded the Taj Mahal grounds. I did notice that the prettiest surreys were worn by westerners. The local Hindi people stared in admiration.
By the third day we became used to all the staring but the stares we had today were entirely different than what we usually got. In our street clothes (maxi dress and a chunky sweater), local boys in their teenage years would crowd us and observe our every encounter. At first it felt a little intimidating but we realized fairly early that they were simply curious. Many often ran up to us asking for a “selfie” which was especially surprising when they didn’t have a phone. Still, they insisted we take the selfie with them using our phone, so we did but when we were wearing our surreys no one approached us. Instead they watched from a distance and the look on their face looked peaceful almost as if they were staring with respect. A different night while stopping by Amin’s store again, my friend Rosa asked him, “why do we get more respect wearing our surreys?”. In a culture where we thought it was important to cover our entire bodies as women, there was confusion on why it was ok to show off our midriff while wearing the surreys. Amin told us this outfit was a very conservative outfit and the type we chose were very elegant and could be used at weddings.
My worries about whether the local hindis would approve immediately went away. Women would smile when they saw us dressed in the surreys and one even greeted me with a bindi red dot, representing that you’re conservative. Little girls couldn’t take their eyes off our dresses and I smiled at them as their mom pulled them forward by their little wrists.
Once we were inside the Taj Mahal, the area inside was very small. As Amber tried to move past a family, I saw her touch the little girl’s arm as she said excuse me. The little girl’s shoulders raised up towards her ears and she smiled one of the biggest smiles I have ever seen. That’s when a really harsh reality hit me. When I think of that little girl I have two thoughts. How can we all come from a place where it’s easy to admire beauty rather than envy it the way most people do in the United States? And my final thought, what if she never gets to wear a surrey as beautiful as ours?
I bought this dress as a momento, another clothing item that will go next to my kimono and German dirndle. A momento that I may never get to wear again. A momento that would be so highly treasured in the closet of a young Hindi girl. I watched as she walked away, with her head continuing to look back at us.
I wonder if the Emperor Shah and Mumtaz Mahal ever felt this way? He built her tomb with all the finest gemstones from around the world showing off his wealth. Marble and sandstone was pulled from all over the world and carried to Agra, India on the backs of elephants and camels. The Taj Mahal was the first of the new seven wonders with nearly 30,000 visitors each day. Big gates made of sandstone line the edges of the Taj Mahal. Over two hundred apartments are connected to the entrance. The east gate was used for royalty and music would play to greet them. The west gate was used for the locals. At the top of the gate you can see 22 crowns, each representing the 22 years it took to build the Taj Mahal, the 22 families that handcrafted the mausoleum and the 22,000 workers that were used. Although my tour guide didn’t tell me why the number 22 was so significant, I later looked it up and found out that the number 22 is a powerful number representing precision and balance.
The Taj Mahal is very balanced. The entire mausoleum looks much larger from afar but smaller as you get closer. Four poles surround the Taj Mahal Dome all leaning outward incase a natural disaster was to occur, the poles would fall outward and away from the tomb. Years ago you used to be able to climb to the top of each tower but too many people were taking their life from these towers because of failed romances or unwanted arranged marriages.
The Emperor was a Mughal Emperor and Queen Mahal was a beautiful Persian from Iran. They we’re both Muslim so a mosque was built beside the dome facing west. A replica of the mosque was created for symmetry on the right side but wasn’t used. It’s possible it could have been used as a guest house. Taj Mahal means “Crown Palace”. The dome you see on the outside actually has a smaller dome inside of it. This double dome feature creates a massive echo when daily prayers were recited. The Shah had nine wives total some which were also buried on the same grounds but Mumtaz Mahal was by far his favorite hence the Taj Mahal. The smaller domes are tombs for the other wives and his favorite servant.
The foundation of the Taj Mahal was used from olive oil mixed with water, hardening like iron. The inside of the Taj Mahal was built and then covered in white marble. The entire building would collapse from being too heavy if it was built entirely out of marble. To prevent the Taj Mahal from being replicated the Emperor Shah supposedly had the workers’ hands cut off.
One evening while having dinner on the rooftop, we met a man named Jim who proudly showed us his picture in front of the Taj Mahal side by side a picture of him in front of the Taj Mahal 50 years ago. He told us that back in the day you were able to explore the grounds in ways you can’t anymore. Underneath the Taj Mahal lies a city, seven stories deep. A 2km tunnel lies under ground connecting the Taj Mahal to the Agra Fort. This tunnel was used to evacuate all the women and children from Agra Fort in case of an invasion.
Plans for another Taj Mahal were drawn for a black Taj Mahal to be created across the river, the tomb for the king. Although the foundation had been built, the Shah’s son prohibited it and imprisoned his father in Agra Fort where he could only view the Taj Mahal from his window.
Mumtaz Mahal and the Shah had 14 children together but she died after childbirth at the age of 39. When she passed away, the Shah banned music and for a time he stopped wearing colorful clothes and jewelry. His son was frustrated from being deprived and overthrew his father. From there the kingdom began to crumble but the symbol of love that radiates from the Taj Mahal lasts forever.