The Taj Mahal is one of the great wonders of the modern world and although I’m not normally given to romantic notions, the thought of visiting this beautiful marble structure brought out the philosopher in me. I was looking forward to contemplating the vaulted dome and drawing inspiration from the ornate spires that extended up from the walls but unfortunately as is often the case in life, things didn’t quite go as planned. I managed to survive the turbulent taxi ride through the narrow cobbled streets and despite the lack of pavements and alarming number of cows, dogs and people mingling with the traffic, we didn’t hit anything. My coping strategy was not particularly brave, I simply shut my eyes until the raucous honking of car horns was replaced by a rhythmic humming of a single car engine. When I opened my eyes I found we had reached a long empty highway and the taxi driver thought it was his turn to shut his eyes. I meowed like mad, nipping him on the ear periodically in order to ensure he stayed awake and by the time we reached our destination my nerves were run ragged.
With renewed enthusiasm, I hopped out of the taxi and made my way towards the huge ivory-white edifice looming before me but an orange man with a loud shirt kept smiling at me, throwing me compliments and trying to make conversation despite my obvious unwillingness to participate. This smooth operator was an unofficial tour guide trying to sell me his exclusive VIP services and apparently despite his mastery of English, he could not comprehend the word ‘no’. After scaring me into agreement with his tales of evil pickpockets and ferocious muggings, I let him escort me more as my personal bodyguard than anything else. Apparently the palace was commissioned in 1631 by Shah Jahan, the fifth Mughal emperor of India, after the death of his wife Mumtaz Mahal during the birth of their 14th child. It was built on the banks of the Yamuna River and took 22 years and 22,000 labourers to construct. When Shah Jahan died in 1666, his body was placed in a tomb next to that of his beloved Persian princess.
As I wandered around the palace and its surrounding buildings, I admired the way the walls and ceilings were decorated with artistic calligraphy, elaborate geometric forms and detailed depictions of flowers and vines carved into the stone inlays. Bizarrely, there was a distinct lack of signposts or information boards throughout the complex which proved to be a potential problem when I realised that my tour guide had abandoned me. Thankfully my superb sense of smell enabled me to navigate my way through the crowds of tourists as I trotted towards the exit. I should add that despite my remaining on full alert for pickpockets, it appears the only crook on site was that dodgy tour guide. I waved goodbye to the police officers guarding the outskirts of the palace and spotted my crazy cab driver with a friendly smile on his face and a bowl of water in his hand. I gave him an appreciative purr and gulped the fresh water hoping it would give me courage for the wild ride back to my digs.