A 32-page booklet released recently details the limitless possibilities of tourism in Uttar Pradesh but fails to mention the Taj Mahal. It’s not the kind of monument you would think one could simply forget to include, being one of the most recognisable structures on the planet. However, other cultural and religious sites of UP in Mathura and Vrindavan have upstaged the Taj in this very original guide, as the real wonders of this region. The Department of Tourism (UP) has since put out a statement that this booklet was not intended to showcase all the state’s monuments. This exclusion provoked angry reactions since Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath has gone on record to say that foreign dignitaries were being gifted copies of the Gita and the Ramayana instead of Taj Mahal replicas which did not “reflect Indian culture”. (The Indian Express, October 3, 2017. )
Mercifully, no tourist cares about what does or does not constitute Indian culture, and is driven entirely by the haunting power of history. Or natural beauty. Or an architectural marvel. The past may not suit the present political narrative but alas, it cannot be erased. Irrespective of whether the Taj is promoted by governments or not it will continue being the country’s emblematic monument, the beacon of hope for Indian citizens that we, too, are capable of greatness. For outsiders, mesmerising, because it’s the sole monument of this scale dedicated to that greatest cliche of all — love. What’s more irritating about this immature attempt to sideline India’s crowning glory, is how little imagination the powers that be have when it comes to understanding what a tourist is really seeking.
Unless you’re running a tourism department on the moon, you can’t help but know that the modern traveller is obsessed by cramming in new, hedonic experiences. The Taj is most likely India’s only icon that makes it to peoples’ bucket lists and carries with it serious bragging rights. Pragmatically speaking, it’s far easier to build on what’s already an established wonder. Rather than starting from scratch and trying to convince somebody to go to Ayodhya to see the birthplace of Ram (one of the UP DoT’s stunning suggestions), so much simpler to tap into an existential goal lurking somewhere within every tourist’s imagination.
The people running the DoTs of India need a crash course in social media because clearly they don’t know the 20-year-old backpacker to Agra has a compelling need to Instagram a sepia-tinted selfie in front of a gorgeous ivory dome. A selfie in front of the Gorakhpeeth Temple, which has the UP CM as head priest (plugged as an attraction in the booklet) just doesn’t have the same traction. The new generation of travellers have a focused enthusiasm for getting the most out of every holiday. There’s a target, a way maybe of dealing with a midlife crisis or the inevitability of death, or being one up on Facebook. The Taj can never fall off a tourist map, because everyone believes it is a must-see before you die.
Which is why, it should be deeply worrying that too many reviews on Trip Advisor give five-star ratings to the Taj but suggest awful experiences in Agra in general. Any government serious about promoting tourism needs to address the insecurities that travellers to UP feel. It doesn’t help that just last week, UP topped the list of states in India of people with active gun licences, with over 12 lakh authorised to carry weapons. An article published in India Today last year suggests a massive slump in the number of foreign tourists visiting the Taj over the last year, which by extension means, also the rest of UP. Since they are now handing out copies to illustrious visitors, maybe it’s time for those in charge of promoting tourism in UP to imbibe some of the ethereal wisdom from the Gita: of working with the cards you’re dealt, unhindered by a closed and narrow vision.