Archives for posts with tag: taj mahal

Henna Hands

I captured this image at the foot of the Taj Mahal in March, 2002. Helen and I were at the tail end of nearly a year of traveling around the world on $30/day between the two of us (airfare, scuba diving and our one safari in Kenya were outside of that budget). In all, we spent two full days inside the Taj Mahal compound, watching the light change, Helen sketching in her diary, me taking the occasional photograph (see: limitations of shooting with film).

At one point during the first day, with the crowds picking up and the light directly above and probably at it’s least interesting, Helen and I ventured forward, removed our shoes and walked inside the mausoleum itself. Seeing the chamber built for the tombs of Shah Jahan and Mumtaz Mahal is a required visit, but the comparatively small space is less impressive than the building itself.

I was happy to get back outside, into the sunshine and where I could soak in the building’s famous exterior. That’s when I noticed this well-appointed woman and her tattooed hands.

As is my way, I approached her with my camera hanging from my neck. I smiled, pointed to her hands, and told her they were beautiful. She smiled and let me know it’s part of the wedding custom – she was getting married there, at the Taj Mahal. I asked if I could photograph her hands and that’s when she held out her hands as you see here.

I’ve since learned that this form of henna tattoo is called “mehndi” and is part of a larger Hindu wedding tradition. Among other folklore, one theory has it that the darker the henna, the more the bride will be loved by her husband and respected by her new in-laws. Perhaps one beloved tradition is that the bride isn’t allowed to do any work until the mehndi has faded away. In effect, across all fronts, darker is better.

Of course, the dark henna, meant to impress her husband and ward off the start of any work, was perfect for my camera and black and white film. What’s remarkable for me in the image is how all the elements come together – the intricate, dense and dark patterns painted on her hands offset by the also intricate but light and airy patterns on her sari, all separated by her symmetrical arms and series of bright bangles.

This is one of those images where everything came together in an instant to create, what for me, is the perfect moment. Shooting film – a resource I doled out carefully during a year of backpacking around the world – combined with the woman’s graciousness and clearly limited time, I took exactly one frame of her hands.

Clearly, I’m happy with how it worked out.

There are times when I set out to capture a certain image only to be disappointed that the image I wanted doesn’t exist. Usually, my initial disappointment gives way to the wonder of surprise and the delight at capturing an image I had no idea awaited me. This was one of those times.

To set the stage, Helen and I backpacked around the world for the better part of a year in 2001/02, before kids, before a mortgage, before we started our art business and, truth be told, before I had established my reputation as a fine art photographer. Indeed, some of the images I would capture on this trip, including this one, marked the turning point in my career.

Our journey started with a brief sojourn in England, then off to Turkey and over land through Syria, Jordan, Israel and Egypt. Then through Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania and Zanzibar before heading off for three months riding the trains and exploring India.

Before we had so much as packed our bags and left San Francisco, we knew India would be on our itinerary. And while I wouldn’t categorize myself as having been impatient to get there, I was certainly excited at the thought of seeing (and photographing) the Taj Mahal.

Finally in India and as we rode the train from Trivandrum to Chennai and then north to Bhopal, I started allowing myself the fantasy of photographing the Taj Mahal in all her glory – the white marble, the light bouncing off the water that would sit motionless in the reflecting pools. The longest train ride we took in this stretch was 30 hours. That’s a lot of daydreaming about capturing the perfect shot.

We arrived in Agra on a Monday afternoon and quickly settled into a nice hotel (by backpacker standards) walking distance from the Taj. That night Helen and I set our alarms and the next morning we were up well before sunrise and were the first to enter the famous mausoleum an hour before the sun came up.

A quick note, we paid $60 in entrance fees – and while today we’re fortunate and wouldn’t think twice about the cost, back then, we were traveling on $30/day – between the two of us. So the entrance ticket was an extravagance.

Imagine my chagrin, therefore, when we got inside the compound only to discover that the reflecting pools had been drained. I took a few shots in sheer frustration and waited for the sun to come up and to see if the pools might be filled later in the day.

While I waited, in vain I might add, the workers came out to clean the pools. Now, suddenly, I knew why I was there – on this rare day – when there was no water in the famous reflecting pools. I was there to shoot not the classic Taj Mahal shot, but to capture the odd image, the image not of glamour but of reality, in which we see the workers doing the most common and mundane of chores, cleaning the bottom of a pool. Only this pool was in front of one of the seven man made wonders of the world.

As for the large black birds – I had no idea they were there. I was focused on the workers, trying to compose a shot with seven different people in it, all moving at their own pace and direction – and trying to conserve film at the same time. This was before digital. Because I only traveled with 20 rolls of film at a time (I purchased film as we traveled), each shot had to count. Suddenly and without warning, these birds took flight, appearing out of nowhere. I clicked the shutter and got one frame with the birds in the image. And this image is, by far, my favorite shot of the Taj Mahal.

Helen and I spent the rest of the day watching the light (and the tourists) transit the Taj Mahal. It was wonderful to have an excuse to spend an entire day in the presence of such beauty.

By sunset, the pools were still empty. And while I thought I had some interesting shots in the can, I still wanted my reflecting pool shots. On Tuesday, we strolled back to the Taj Mahal but this time we passed on paying our $60 until we could be sure there was water in the pools. This turned into an odyssey unto itself. The helpful folks outside the compound directed us to the central office in charge of the monument that in turn led us into a rickshaw taxi and a trip around Agra going from one office building to another in search of the bureaucrat  who would tell us when the reflecting pools would be filled.

On Thursday morning, Helen and I were fairly sure the empty pools had been filled. We awoke well before dawn and made our way to the Taj Mahal entrance. Only we let the folks there know that we weren’t in a position to pay $60 again unless we could be 100% certain there was water in the reflecting pools. In effect, we said, we wanted a free look to be sure – if the water was there, we would pay, no problem.

The folks who ran the ticket office didn’t know what to do with us. Finally, a tall, lean and rather firm standing soldier came by to speak with us. His English was wonderful. He was sympathetic and said he’d walk with me into the Taj Mahal compound where he and I would see for ourselves what the situation was.

Off we went at such a brisk pace that, all these years later, I still remember struggling to keep up with him.

And then a funny thing happened. To enter the Taj Mahal compound requires entering a main gate and then another inner gate. Both gates are guarded by the military. As we approached the outer gate and at the sight of my escort, the guards snapped to attention as if their jobs depended on speed and perfection. I took note, but thought perhaps this was merely a show for the tourists outside the gate.

But no, inside and out of sight of all the tourists save myself, one soldier after another snapped to attention as we strode past. When we got to the inner gate, the guards fell over themselves to come to attention and then open the gate as quickly and efficiently as possible for my escort and myself.

I turned to my escort and remarked, “You’ve been holding out on me. It seems you’re the commanding officer here.”

“Indeed I am,” he said with a smile.

And then there we were – inside the inner gate, facing the Taj Mahal in all its pre-sunrise glory. “Is that enough water for your photographs?” The commander asked, waving gallantly at the now full reflecting pools.

“Most certainly,” I said.

The commander had work to attend to and asked me to show myself out of the compound. Which, of course I did, getting curious looks from the guards the entire way back to the ticket window where Helen waited with our backpacks.

Helen and I spent another entire day at the Taj Mahal. By early afternoon, the guards were chatting with us, noting that they had seen us there for an entire day several days earlier and also wondering how it was that I knew their commanding officer.

“It’s just part of my job as a photographer,” I told them.

Helen and I were at the tail end of a year of travels… we had been through the Middle East, parts of North and East Africa and then, finally, three months in India. As we traveled from one country to the next, somewhere in the recesses of my brain was the fact that I would get to photograph the Taj Mahal.

Once in India, it was another six weeks before I would see the Taj… and that six weeks included many remarkably long train journeys, the longest of which spanned 30 hours, all providing plenty of time to contemplate many things including what it would be like to arrive in Agra and finally see it. Read the rest of this entry »