In my youth I read a lot about India, almost all of which centered on the spiritual. Stories of Imperialists were often rousing good fun but it was the sacred side of India that captivated me. The side the read the Upanishads, the place where Buddha become enlightened, where Maughm’s character from The Razor’s Edge finally exorcised “polite” society to discover the truth in life.
The India I finally arrived in was slightly different. A cacophony of sounds and smells perhaps unlike anywhere else on earth. If India is the spiritual center of the universe it must be because it’s so difficult to be spiritual here. Ones entire existence can easily be filled with nothing but distraction. Driving is more hazardous than a demolition derby. A simple walk can have you literally shaking beggars off your limbs. Your clothes become so dirty that you either wash them daily or just stop caring. For the average westerner, it’s a full scale assault on every one of your senses.
I spent my first week or so in one place and, soon enough, was rolling with it. India just became another place where anything was possible. It had good things, bad things, stuff I loved and stuff I loathed. By the time I was to leave Kolkata, I’d declared it my favorite polluted city on earth.
But touring was different. Kolkata, while mad and crazy and frantic seemed real. Out on the tourist’s path the assault was direct intervention. It was calculated. It was boring—a bit like Disneyland gone apocalyptic. I hate tourists and I never wanted to be one. Now I was.
Christmas at the Taj
Still, seeing the Taj Mahal seemed worth a sacrifice. This monumental expression of love was something it would be hard to be in striking distance of and ignore. Sure, the story may have involved some less than stellar people exploiting thousands of others for their selfish, over-the-top lifestyle, but who was I to judge a life that happened centuries ago? I wanted to experience it for myself.
But the idea of viewing it with thousands of others didn’t appeal to me. Night tours were said to be unpopular so I was hoping to catch one but, apparently, they were so unpopular that they were no longer an option. Then I heard about the sound of infinity.
The Taj is flawlessly constructed and the main chamber is said to be acoustically perfect. However, given there are hoards of people in it virtually every second its open experiencing this is difficult to do. Apparently if you do get yourself some time alone you can experience something called “the sound of infinity,” which is a subtle “whoosing” sound made when air circulates through the chamber. This sounded like it could evoke something of spiritual India. Now I just needed to figure a way to make it happen.
Our guide would pick us up at 6am, which I’d heard was when the Taj opened. Being India, the freest country in the world, I knew it would open whenever someone with a key was motivated to let people in. So I told everyone I’d see them there, then got up around 4 and went for a run.
I was surprised to see people on the streets at this hour. And even more surprised to pass a few runners. By the time I approached the Taj things were already bustling. At the gate my heart sank when I saw a short line of people being let inside.
With no other option I bought my ticket and kept running. The main viewing/photo op area was a zoo of people setting up for the sunrise. Beyond this, I was alone. I checked my shoes and found my way up to the main chamber. I couldn’t hear a sound as I stepped through the entrance. And then, “Please sir, I am guide.”
I politely refused but the guy wasn’t having any. He kept talking. His voice echoed beautifully off the ceiling but I that’s not why I was there. When I finally got him to quiet down someone else walked in. I moved around to the back and was still as possible and tried to hear through them. The sound in this room was incredible. The guide chanted “om” towards the ceiling and it was the most moving om I’d heard. But it wasn’t why I was there. I stood totally still and quiet and waited. Then they both walked out. I was alone.
It took a while for the sound to stop reverberating off of the walls. When it finally did, there was still a sound. A faint whoosh filled the chamber: the sound of infinity. Subtle, beautiful; it constantly changed based on any movement. I closed my eyes and tried to empty my head for a second. It was magic. It was also strangely familiar.
It dawned on me that I’ve heard this sound before; in the mountains. It’s almost the exact sound of standing alone on a summit on a clear quiet day. The subtleties were different but everything else felt the same. I could see why this was so moving to people. Most never see, or feel, a summit. And others the do are rarely alone. In my life, I get to hear the sound of infinity constantly. Perhaps it’s why John Muir described the first ascent of Cathedral Peak as “the first time I’ve been to church”. The mountains were my cathedrals. No human could rebuild them. A moment later the guide was back with another client, chatting incessantly.
I walked outside and ran into Jayda, a girl I’d met in Delhi who was traveling through Asia alone. I told her about the “sound” but when we went back in the crowds had gathered. The chance was lost until closing. We then found my family. They’d missed it too. Though they didn’t really understand they seemed genuinely happy that I’d done whatever I was attempting.
The crowds intensified—loud, obnoxious; more worried about how they looked in photos than trying to experience the grandeur of the monument. My sister’s boyfriend, a photographer, shared stories of the sunrise photo madness where an American—“of course”—had placed himself in front of everyone and refused to even crouch so others could get photos—his is overt disdain for anyone else’s problems only placated by a guard wielding a shotgun. I had enough of the crowds and, without a word, I slipped away.
Walking back to the hotel I was approached by a rickshaw. “Please sir, nobody is allowed to walk in India. Get in.”
“What about Gandhi,” I countered. “Didn’t he walk everywhere?”
The kid looked disgusted and with a wave of his hand was off. Yep, India had changed. But amongst the madness I found my moment of magic. It would have to be enough.