By Sue Derwent

New Delhi - India has a population of about 1.3 billion. I think the day we visited the Taj Mahal in the city of Agra, a third of them were there, waiting patiently in long, snaking queues to get in.

My heart sank. Every horror story I had heard about India flashed through my mind. The Taj Mahal is one of the Wonders of the Modern World, and so it seemed ridiculous to be so close and not to visit, but now I was beginning to wonder.

This stunning white marble mausoleum built by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan in 1632 in memory of his greatly loved third wife, Mumtaz Mahal, is beyond beautiful – even more so in real life. It combines elements of Islamic, Persian, Ottoman Turkish and Indian architectural styles. The Taj Mahal was declared a Unesco World Heritage Site in 1983.

We had jostled down the avenue in the late afternoon towards the western gate entrance. Because of pollution concerns, cars are not allowed close to the complex and people thronged and milled as we strode, determinedly trying to ignore the many persistent touts.

Had we the inclination, we could have bought anything from an electric car ride, a small, plastic light-up Taj Mahal, neon balloons, a camel cart ride (maybe even the camel itself), or a greasy looking puppy – at which point the camel rides seemed like a very attractive escape option.

Abdul joined us. Well dressed, in a crisp white shirt and neat pants, he spotted us disembarking from our taxi and despite our rude protestations that we didn’t need or want his help, he stayed with us all the way to the entrance gates. When we saw the queues, our nerve failed us, and there was Abdul, ready to help.

“My name is Abdul, my big brother and I will help you. He too is also Abdul. Big Abdul,” and he smiled a big cheesy grin. We tried not to make eye contact and marched on, faking courage. But when we saw the queues, we realised we were at his mercy. “Come I show you,” he said bustling with efficiency. “You give me money for ticket. Abdul my brother will get it for you. You wait here.” Oh-oh.

“Your ticket is more expensive because you are not Indian,” small Abdul said, turning to me. I was the only white person in our little party. “But it is a bit more expensive for all because none are nationals,” he explained.

Against the advice of small Abdul, Siva, my South African Indian friend decided that he, his wife and daughter, would run the gauntlet and pass themselves off as Indian citizens to avoid paying the more expensive rate. Small Abdul looked on politely. I glumly handed my money to Siva, Siva handed it all to Abdul, and we chuckled anxiously as he disappeared into the crowds. We edged towards the entrance gates, trying to keep an eye on him, but he was gone. Oh well.

The sun was getting lower in the sky. Amazingly, in the queues, everyone stood chatting quietly and neatly, three abreast, all the way along the side of the wall, down the road and around the corner. We craned our necks, staring helplessly at the queues.

Next minute, from behind us, small Abdul appeared with four tickets. He then suggested we pay the equivalent of less than R1 to buy shoe covers. This would prevent us having to leave our shoes, along with the thousands of those at the entrance to the mausoleum and then trying to retrieve them again at the end. Good move small Abdul. He gave us complimentary bottles of water, compensation he said, for having to pay foreigners price and off we set.

Big Abdul wasn’t that big. He was just a regular guy in a smart white shirt working as a professional Taj guide. And he didn’t charge an exorbitant price.

“Follow me please,” he said. He whipped me passed the queue entirely and left me being frisked at the gate as he went to help Siva and family who had been detained by a ticket man.

Apparently, the ticket man has worked at that entrance for more than 30 years and at a glance can tell not just whether you are an Indian national or not, but whether you are a Gujarati or a Goan, a Tamil or a West Bengali. In one flash, he had Siv’s family pegged as South Africans and sent them back. Big Abdul rescued them, upgraded their tickets and in no time we were standing in awe at the western gate to one of the most magnificent pieces of architecture in the world.

The Taj Mahal took 21 years to build. A labour force of 20 000 artisans and craftsmen were employed from all over India to work on the Taj. In addition, 37 specialists such as stonecutters came from Baluchistan, sculptors from Bukhara and calligraphers from Persia and Syria formed the creative unit. The pillars were built in such a way that should they fall, they wouldn’t damage the other structures. More than 1 000 elephants transported building materials.

Big Abdul gave us all the usual tourist info, and also a few quirkier bits and pieces. Being South Africans, we related to some of Abdul’s legends that reminded us of home. It was estimated that the massive brick scaffold would take years to dismantle, but when Shah Jahan heard this, he said anyone could take the bricks. Apparently, with that, the scaffold was dismantled by peasants and disappeared overnight.

During the Indian rebellion of 1857, the British soldiers and colonial officials defaced the Taj Mahal, chipping out precious stones and generally disrespecting the beautiful edifice to love. However, towards the end of the 19th century, when many of the buildings had fallen into disrepair, the British viceroy Lord Curzon got permission for a massive restoration project. He remodelled the garden to the British-style lawns we were enjoying.

As the sun set Abdul insisted he take photographs of us on the “Diana bench”, where Princess Diana once sat. Among the thousands of people, we had time to gasp at the sheer beauty of the magnificent building and there was a tranquillity that superseded all the apparent chaos we had come to know as India.

And it was all thanks to the two amazing Abduls. - Sunday Tribune