AGRA, India -- To reach the grounds of the monumental Taj Mahal, you don't need to climb a mountain or a hill or even a large rock. Instead, you approach the Taj at ground level, a sweet, brief illusion that you're equal to this most wondrous of man-made wonders.
Commissioned in the 17th century by the Mogul Emperor Shah Jahan, intended as a private memorial to his beloved (but not only) wife, Mumtaz Mahal, the Taj has evolved into a famously public tribute. But a tribute to what? Like the Eiffel Tower or the Leaning Tower of Pisa, it seems famous more for itself than for what inspired its creation.
In the same spirit, there seems no reason to see the Taj except for the sake of seeing it. It's unavoidable, like a family patriarch to whom you must pay respects. But the shock of the Taj is just how shocking it is; no essay or photograph can account for the sheer sensual experience of being there.
Greatness was in the very design. The Taj, completed in 1653, took more than 20 years to build and required some 20,000 workers (many of them slaves). The project was international: marble from the neighboring state of Rajasthan, precious stones such as jade, coral and turquoise from Russia, Afghanistan, China and elsewhere.
But even on level terrain, getting to the Taj feels more like a journey than a day trip. India, as a first-time visitor soon discovers, is a country of extremes -- rich and poor, noise and tranquillity, passion and detachment. And the road to the uncommonly beautiful, tranquil Taj can be uncommonly unbeautiful and untranquil.
If you have limited time in In-dia and you're not part of an or-ganized tour, getting around is es-pecially challenging. The major airline, Indian Airlines, is often hours late, and the trains, a favorite mode of travel for tourists, are equally unpredictable. Only the bravest go by bus.
Instead, with four of us (my wife and two friends, both local residents) to share costs for the 120-mile trip from New Delhi, we hired a car and driver and joined the surreal stampede on the highways of India.
On and on rush cars and motorbikes, wobbly trucks and wobblier buses, wandering cows and dancing bears. Traffic can switch direction without warning, and drivers enjoy playing chicken to see who will exit the lane first. At times, overturned trucks seem as uneventful as road signs.
The Taj is actually a short drive from downtown Agra, a crowded, unpleasant industrial center. But you soon forget where you are. That's the promise of any great sanctuary -- the relief it offers from civilization, the delicate order that suggests a taste of the blessed afterlife.
Although a symbol of endurance, the Taj is also a miracle of adaptability, changing color according to the weather or the time of day. We arrived late morning, in perfect sunshine, and the massive dome looked as shiny and white as if just cleaned.
It was Friday, and, we were happy to discover, admission was free. (It's usually $1-$4 in U.S. currency).
You get your first peek at the great white Taj by looking through the entrance archway in the red sandstone forecourt. It's a thrilling, disorienting feeling, as if your eyes can't tell whether they're seeing the real thing or just another picture.
Once you've passed through the entrance, and can look out past the long reflecting pool and spacious gardens, the Taj resembles a palace more than a place of mourning. You imagine concubines and courtiers, palace games and gossip, the exotic (and erotic) ways to kill time among royalty.
But it's intended as a spiritual site, a manufactured mirror of the Koran's cosmic harmony. Waterways divide the gardens into four quadrants, meant to reflect the four rivers of Paradise. A marble tank in the middle stands for Al-Kawthar, the source of all four rivers. The mausoleum itself is centered between a red sandstone mosque and a replica of that mosque.
Before climbing the steps that lead inside to the tombs, you must remove your shoes. You have the option of checking them, but our friends, who have been here before, assured us we could place them outside. At the bottom of the steps we left an assortment that ranged from my torn sneakers to our friend's brand-new Woodlands, a trendy local brand.
Like a monarch raised above a procession, the Taj rests on a square marble base, some 200 feet high, with minarets more than 100 feet high rising from the four corners. Again, everything is in geometrical symmetry. The main dome is complemented by smaller domes, the central archway flanked by smaller archways.
Inside, carved vases of flowers, symbols of heavenly bounty, rise from the marble terrace, and the archways are inlaid with floral and calligraphic designs. More calligraphy, Arabic verses of holy praise, also adorn the doorways.
The shah died in 1666 and was buried beside his wife. Their ornate tombs, known as cenotaphs, lay in the center of the mausoleum's octagonal interior and extend north to south, so the heads can face Mecca. The actual remains are in crypts below, scented by incense and rose petals. A marble screen, more than 6 feet high and decorated with precious stones, encloses the burial area.
Back outside, I learned that our friend's Woodlands had been stolen. We spent the next hour arguing with police, searching for suspects, and, eventually, shopping for shoes. We ate lunch at a nearby Pizza Hut.
That we found a new pair just like the old ones didn't matter. Our escape was over; we were back in the world.