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Taj Mahal
Roger Wolens writes about the delights of India – environmental and otherwise

A visit to the Taj Mahal must always be a top priority for any visit to India, and deservedly so.

Its outline is so familiar to everyone that you might expect it to be a rather hackneyed or cliched tourism experience. Not so.

You cannot experience the full majesty and romance of the place unless you actually go there.

And you cannot think of ‘majesty and romance’ without remembering the famous, enigmatic newspaper photographs of Princess Di looking wistful and alone as she gazed into the middle distance and sat casually in splendid isolation on one of the marble benches, with the Taj Mahal as a stunningly emotional backdrop.

Now that was a cliche.

Splendid isolation you will not find at the Taj Mahal- one of the world’s major tourist attractions.

Sure they would eliminate visitors for a Royal visit, but you can imagine the entourage that would have accompanied Di. They were all carefully kept out of shot as she posed for the official photos.

And only by going there can you realise what a contrived photograph it was.

This was no snapshot capturing the princess in an unguarded moment.

This was a carefully staged publicity opportunity that created all the headlines and sympathies that were so carefully calculated.

Who says the camera never lies?

Our tour escort was careful to make sure that we visited the sparkling white marble mausoleum when it was shown off to best advantage in the crystal light of late afternoon.

Its translucent beauty almost glowed, and familiar though the image is, no photography does justice to the fabulous inlays of black marble and precious stones.

I would wager that no-one has ever left the Taj Mahal disappointed.

Indeed, India is full of impressive temples, shrines, forts, palaces and other historic sites.

Carvings in stone and marble, ornate ceilings encrusted with mirror fragments and jewels, lotus pools, magnificent pillars, exotic locations – they seem to lie around every corner.

No expense was spared when these monuments were built, with projects involving tens of thousands of labourers over many years.

It was all worth the effort, though you cannot help but feel some shame for the desecration and destruction many of the works of art subsequently suffered at the hands of the British Raj.

Looting of national treasures and jewels was rife. Intricately inlaid and gem-laden architecture was simply torn apart by the greed of the Empire builders.

This is the true home of the Queen’s incredible Koh-I-Noor diamond, but the point is not laboured by the guides.

They are too busy keeping your schedule filled with other sights and experiences.

Making friends with the cobra

As well as the expected excursions, they will stop the coach to let you buy from local fruit stalls; meet curious villagers; answer the urchins’ incessant cries for ‘pen, pen, pen’.

There is no shortage of pens. They are available everywhere for about 5p. The kids just like to have a memento – and the hotel shampoo miniatures are particularly well received.

The guides also made an impromptu visit to a sugar cane farm where every member of the huge family has a task in converting the crop into various products; ensuring the whole plant is recycled.

Even the dead leaves are used for fuel to boil up the sugar, make molasses and various other sugar goodies. They give you raw cane on which to suck like a stick of rock, and wave you off as if you were long-lost relatives making a surprise visit after years apart.

The guides will ask you not to patronise the men with the dancing bears as they are trying to stamp out this cruel tourist enterprise; but you will find no shortage of performing monkeys and snake charmers.

Indeed, the deadly cobra quickly becomes such a familiar part of the street scene that you soon find yourself walking within inches of its menacing, hooded head with never a thought that it might strike.

They just stand there, poised and posed, ready for the inevitable camera.

One optional excursion that I would not recommend is a visit to the son et lumiere at the Red Fort.

In manages to convey the basic story quite effectively, but the accompanying sound and light effects are pretty basic.

In fact, I fell asleep while they were on about Genghis Khan, and did not wake up until they were talking about ‘Viston Churchill’.

It seems I had slept through 800 years of history. Quite a kip.