India 2016 | Rickshaw Run, Day 6: A Birthday at the Taj – 9 April

The second time around is just as great as the first. And that’s what I was thinking as we stood there looking at the Taj Mahal. Without a doubt one of the most iconic structures in the world, it simply never fails in its awe inspiring stature. The last time we were here, it was just Derek and I; we saw both the sunset and the sunrise. The sunrise, in particular, it seemed as if we were the only ones there. I sat on a bench, while Derek was barefoot in the mosque staring at it.

What fascinates me about the Taj is that (almost) everyone in the world has seen at least a picture of it, images of it on television and in the movies, online; and yet, it in no way can prepare you for how beautiful it is in person. The Taj Mahal will always rate as one of the wonders in the world you have to see. The only way to see it is to be there. Derek and I have had the pleasure of seeing it on two different occasions, three different days. And today, the one and only DaveRisner was with us.

We woke up before dawn; by sunrise, we had made our way to the Taj, just a ten minute walk from our hotel. The air was somewhat cool on this morning, the sounds subdued as Agra, a city cleaner than the last time were here, was just waking. However, there were people – a lot of them, along with horse drawn carriages, rickshaws and motorbikes, shop peddlers aggressively beckoning for sales of their wares, not to mention all the obvious tourists paying a visit to Shah Jahan’s ode to love. The white marble edifice stood tall and proud shining brightly against the new morning sun for all her visitors.

“This is what we call love. When you are loved, you can do anything in creation. When you are loved, there’s no need at all to understand what’s happening, because everything happens within you.” ― Paulo Coelho, The Alchemist

Entering the complex once we were through the line and security, and then through the massive red gate, the view of its opening inexplicably coincides with a slight intake of breath as the silhouette of the Taj comes into focus. Once through, almost three football fields in front of us, a reflecting pool with gardens on either side, leads us to the immense and magnificent structure. The closer you get, even with the restoration of the turrets easily in full view, the more in awe you become, overwhelmed by its construction, by its brilliance, by its symmetry, by its awesome beauty.

Once we were there, we ran into our friends Tamas and Jane, whom we had met in what now seems like ages ago on the overnight bus ride from Udaipur to Jaisalmer, who joined us for the Trotters Tour and our overnight camel safari through the Thar Desert. We also met up with Paul, Lisa and Anthony, who we would become close friends with for the remainder of the Rickshaw Run convoying across two rickshaws for the rest of the journey to Shillong. Reunions were a good thing on this particular morning. Fairly soon, we were deeply overcome with the emotion the Taj always elicits and I was deep in thoughts regarding its history.

The Taj Mahal has a storied history filled with deep, lasting love, though depending upon perspective, some would also say a bloody history as well. Commissioned in 1632, the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan had the 42 acre complex built with its centerpiece the magnificent tomb for his beloved favourite wife Mumtaz Mahal, who died giving birth to their 14th child. The principal mausoleum — the structure everyone knows — would take eleven years to build, and another decade for all of its other phases, which included a guest house and a mosque, as well as a mausoleum for his other wives. Some 20,000 artisans and architects were commissioned for the project, with 1,000 elephants transporting materials from all over India and Asia.There are stories, some say unsubstantiated that many of those involved in the building of the structure died horrific deaths. Legend has it that Shah Jahan wanted a Black Taj Mahal to be built across the Yamuna River to house his tomb. Whether that story is true or not, the building of the complex did almost bankrupt the empire, causing his son to imprison Shah Jahan into the Agra Fort, spending his remaining days with a view of the Taj, but unable to enter it. As it stands today, his tomb which lays next to his wife’s tomb, is the only visible element that is asymmetric in the entire complex, another example of its engineering marvel.

Today was a special day — my brother’s birthday. In four days, I would celebrate mine, but today was his day. And so Derek, DaveRisner and I shot a quick video sending our wishes to one of the best guys I know. As with so many of my family members, I remember the day George was born like it was only yesterday. I was only four with no idea of what the Taj even was, and my brother Les and I were in our family home on my mom’s side in Mallapally in the southern part of India in the state of Kerala. My mother was nowhere to be found. My brother and I were crying, missing our mother, with no idea why she wasn’t with us. In what seemed like an eternity but only days later, my mother emerged from the forest on the side of the large hill where we lived, beautiful in the sunlight reaching through the trees and its branches and leaves, with a baby in her arms. That was the first time I met my youngest brother.

Years later, I find myself at the Taj with two of my best friends thinking of that same brother.

We left the Taj, but not before seeing hundreds of parakeets talking on a tree on our way out.

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