The editor-in-chief of Travel + Leisure (US) has visited India for various reasons at different stages of her life. But one thing has stayed constant: the Taj Mahal. It has also become emblematic of her evolving relationship with the country. By Jacqueline Gifford
I’ve been to the Taj Mahal four times. How very lucky I am, to write that sentence as an American woman. But it is the truth. I’ve seen the Taj with and without scaffolding; with and without a layer of dust on the cool, pale ivory marble; with and without crowds lining the lush pathways; with and without a cell phone to document my very presence.
My first trip was in 1982, as a small child, just able to walk. My parents, avid adventurers and lovers of India, carted me around the world with them, refusing to have me stay home. I still believe this was the best education.
Our travels within India took us to New Delhi, Mumbai, Jaipur, Udaipur, Srinagar, and Thiruvananthapuram—all before I had even turned five. I don’t remember seeing the Taj, or Agra even, on that initial visit. Just a feeling of warmth. And falling asleep at many a dinner table on our journey, stretched out between two chairs.
My second visit was in 1999, this time as a college-age young woman, again being toted around by my parents. On this trip, the Taj started to stick in my memory. I look at the photos of that trip, taken with my disposable camera on a hot day during monsoon, and see my gawky self trying to find the right way to stand. Because there is the Taj, and how can you not stand up straight in front of it? Princess Diana had been to the Taj, as had the Clintons. We learned about the architectural and engineering marvels behind this wonder of the world, built by some 20,000 artisans. The tricks of the eye that lead you to believe the four surrounding pillars are at an angle. That a monument so grand is for all of India and her people, and part of the joy of coming as an American tourist is to see that, to walk forward and together up the steps and through the central atrium, all shuffling together to pay your respects.
I suppose seeing the Taj twice in my life would have been enough. But 2019 was full of surprises. Newly appointed as the editor-in-chief of Travel + Leisure, I travelled to India on business in February— a return to the destination like none other. With beloved colleagues at my side, I toured five cities in nine days, exhausted by the pace but thrilled to be surrounded by such colour and light.
Of course, we had to see the Taj. This time, the weather was cool and mild; the crowds were thin, with a few small groups and families chattering in excitement. And I took multiple photos, which now, unlike years ago, I can see any time I want with one tap of a button. One image stands out clearly from all the others—it is taken from a distance at our hotel, The Oberoi Amarvilas, the white dome of the Taj standing in bright contrast to a darkening sky. A storm must have come. But I don’t remember it.
I do remember the joy of showing my then four-year-old son, Bobby, the Taj on December 23, 2019, on what was my last visit to India, before COVID-19 swept the globe. India delighted him—it also tired him, and our family was admittedly not at our best that day. There were yawns and tears as our guide, Raj, ran to get Bobby a toy car before we entered the gates. Gasps from us all as we finally saw the Taj, holding our breaths that Bobby would appreciate where he was. How many American children get to see the Taj? More tears because he wanted to be carried, as children do. Tears from me because I had come full circle, bringing my parents, husband, and son all together in this one place. After years of travel, after seeing the Taj at three, at 19, and at 39, it never got old.
We took some more photos and went on with the show, as it were: a whirlwind stay in Jaipur, Udaipur, and Mumbai followed our Agra stopover. And then a flight home on New Year’s Eve, 2019.
Months later, after New York City became the global epicentre of the virus, after we slowly started to re-emerge into the world, we took Bobby to the playground near our apartment. It had been shut for quite some time. He ran to the sandbox, as he used to do. My husband and I sat on the benches nearby, still in survival mode, trying to get through each day. A little shout came from across the playground— “Look, Mom, it’s the Mahal!”—and then our beautiful son came running to us with a plastic toy model of the Taj Mahal, found halfway around the world in a sandbox in New York City. I guess the Taj did stick.