Author: Ian Anderson, Johns Hopkins University
Bleary eyed and stiff from a very uncomfortable seat, I woke up at the tail end of a 12 hour train ride across Uttar Pradesh. I was Traveling from Varanasi to Agra, sharing a cabin with two Uruguayans who had already come down with a very bad case of indigestion. Needing some fresh air I decided to open up the cabin doors that separate the cars and take in the view of the countryside before our train reached its destination, Agra.
Agra is known for the Taj Mahal, a tomb built by Emperor Shah Jahan for his favorite concubine, and one of the most recognizable buildings in the world. I, like millions of tourists, came to the city to see if the building was as beautiful in person as on a postcard, a rite of passage for any traveler who finds themselves in India’s northern Hindi belt.
The city is home to over a million people and historically important; it once was the capital of the Mogul empire. However, few learn this traveling here. The city portrays itself as caretaker of a shrine to love, selling a fantasy to those who come for the most famous landmark, sustaining itself off the money from international tourists.
Leaving the train station I immediately heard the sound of rickshaw drivers trying to sell their service. Unlike other cities where you will hear a plethora of locations and prices, all rates focused around trips to the Taj, no alternatives provided. Being an adventurous lad (I also miscalculated how much money I had for the trip and did not want to deal with international ATM fees) I decided to walk to the monument. As I made my way through the city commercial and civilian drivers alike would stop to ask I was lost, genuinely confused why a westerner decided to walk. I finally arrived and toured the stunning complex, with beautifully manicured gardens and the most impressive modern security screening system I have seen in India. I decided to end the day like any normal American abroad would, grabbing a late lunch at Pizza Hut.
Eating my Hawaiian pineapple pizza and nursing sangria, I thought about the day. Apparently, there was going to be a laser light show on the tomb’s ground next week, complete with actors singing and dancing in mogul attire.
Every single restaurant, store front, and hotel in Agra is Taj Mahal themed. It as if the entire city has grown around, and dedicates itself to, serving the landmark. Although there is nothing wrong with a tourist economy, conflict can arrive when one begins to believe the consumerism, falling for an imagined reality. People visiting Agra may believe every Indian hangs a picture of the Taj in their home, right in-between Gandhi Ji and Mata Ji based on their tourist experiences in the city.
Agra isn’t the only Indian city that uses preconceived notions of itself to attract tourists. Living in Varanasi, one of the most important centers of Hinduism allows me to people watch some very, very interesting westerners. These tourists dress in full traditional Indian garb, eat street food, spend their days trying to learn and recite Hindu mantras, and renouncing Western decadences, all while walking, bathing, and praying at the many Ghats that line the river bank. Again, this is a much smaller portion of what Varanasi actually is. It has computer shops, banks, and shopping malls. The teenagers here enjoy going to the cinema or playing cricket, and it isn’t unusual to see women wearing jeans.
When we talk about the developing world it can be easy to misconstrue it as “mystical” or tied around the monuments of the past. These places are still vibrant with locals having many of the same worries and desires as the West. Just because a place is famous for something doesn’t mean it drives daily life. Philadelphians do not begin their morning to the sound of the Liberty Bell, New Yorkers do not end work by saluting the statue of liberty en mass, and not everyone in Palo Alto has a brunch appointment with venture capitalists to discuss their software startup.