It was a pre-dawn start to the day but it already felt warm and sticky- the sauna of senses overload we had come to accept that was India.
We all piled into our coach to see what “one who comes to Agra has to see”- the Taj Mahal. It was built by Shah Jahan for his third wife, Mumtaz Mahal when she died giving birth to their fourteenth child. The nurses and midwife in our group muttered darkly amongst themselves when we were told this.
We avoided all the Taj Mahals in their swirling plastic snow globes, the fridge magnets, the fans and the books and began the long walk up a paved road, flanked on either side by tall trees and locals practising their head stands. There was a huge, carved entrance- they do like their entrances in India. We saw many spectacular ones leading onto empty car parks and fields. Then suddenly, out of the swirling early mist the shape of the famous dome and minnarets began to take shape.
It was smaller than I had expected somehow and it was all very ….nice. Lots of tourists composing classic selfies- me holding the dome, me pointing at the dome, me making a heart shape around the dome, me doing the Diana pose. Me, me, me.
A combination of Persian, Islamic and Indian architecture. Inside you could walk around and look at the spot where the two lovers are buried, somewhere deep inside the ground. The place where a local suddenly swam into view and told you facts you had just been told by your guide, whispered your name into the heavens so you could listen to the echo and then hold his hand out for a tip. “Rip off, rip off, rip off” whispered the dome.
Later on that day, much later, possibly breakfast time, we were taken around the fort at Agra where poor old Shah Jahan had been sent by his son who wanted the kingdom. He was able to sit inside his marble bedroom and peer out at the Taj, mourning for his Mumtaz until one day they were united for all eternity. Taj Mahal? Tick.
We had an evening meal at Sheroes restaurant. Unassuming from the outside and battling with regular but still surprising power cuts, we met the remarkable young women who ran this not-for-profit enterprise. They had all been victims of acid attacks in their local villages.
Some had been on their way to school, some were asleep in their parents’ home, some going to their office jobs. All had been targeted because either their family had had some dispute with another local, or they had had the courage to rebuff a man attempting to marry them against their will.
These girls had travelled from all across India to become part of this supportive community which received them with love, trained them in hospitality and handicrafts and encouraged them to believe that they could once more be worthy of love.
We were welcomed in and served a tasty meal, during which we watched a video showing some of the awful circumstances these girls had survived. To then meet the girls in the video was a very humbling privilege, as we listened to them again, tell their story with quiet dignity. Their smiles spoke to our hearts as we exchanged hugs and hope and we were all very much moved by their bravery.
India is changing fast. From tomorrow, it is becoming a plastic-free country, I was informed. I hope so but more than that, it was encouraging to hear that acid attacks are becoming less frequent now, that the girls have a better chance of marriage and a family, if that is what they want and that more and more perpetrators are being arrested and imprisoned.
To learn to love yourself again and to walk through the world with dignity is the greatest testament to love’s enduring nature of all.