Agra: From a rickety fishing boat on the Yamuna River, Sumit Chaurasia points out how the setting tangerine sun catches the sparkle of the mother-of-pearl embedded in the Taj Mahal, India’s majestic monument to love.
For a decade, Chaurasia, 35, has made such poetic observations to tourists. But since March 2020, when India imposed a nationwide lockdown to curb the coronavirus, its monuments have been largely closed. Visas for foreign tourists have been suspended, and he and legions like him have been out of work.
While the Taj Mahal partially reopened in mid-June - with strict limits on the number of visitors - Chaurasia’s life, like much of India, remains in limbo: no longer totally shut down, but far from fully normal or safe.
“The corona is still with us,” said Chaurasia, pointing out the flames licking the riverbank from a crematory next to the monument. This spring, Agra, like India’s capital, New Delhi, ran out of space to cremate its dead, with thousands a day dying from COVID-19 as India experienced one of the world’s most catastrophic encounters with the disease.
The crowds that usually throng the Taj at sunset have been reduced to a handful of mostly local residents, roaming around the 25-acre complex for just over $3 a ticket.
This near-emptiness makes Chaurasia cry, but he prefers it to the alternative despite the hardships it imposes on him and the family he supports: elderly parents, a wife and two young daughters.
“Don’t sacrifice your life to visit the Taj Mahal,” he said as the boat gently bobbed on the holy Yamuna while monarch butterflies fluttered and pelicans soared over the trash-clogged shores.
India is only now emerging from its traumatic spring, when a devastating second wave of the coronavirus hit, imprinting grim memories of frantic searches for hospital beds, medicine and oxygen - and of funeral pyres that burned day and night, turning the skies an ash gray.
As case numbers have fallen, authorities have cautiously reopened the country, including monuments like the Taj Mahal. But just 4 per cent of the country’s 1.4 billion people are fully vaccinated, and health officials warn another wave may be looming, casting a pall over the life that is starting to return.
“We don’t go out unless it’s necessary,” Chaurasia said.
Agra, with a wealth of Indo-Islamic architectural treasures including the Taj, is usually cacophonous and traffic choked. It is now quiet and uncrowded, and so too are the stores selling the inlay marble handicrafts and treacly sweets for which the city, the onetime capital of the Mughal empire, is famous.
Agra is an essential stop for anyone visiting India, from backpackers to presidents - Donald Trump visited in February 2020 during a state visit - and about 800,000 people in the city, half its population, are dependent on tourism.
Virtually all of them have been affected, said Pradeep Tamta, a city tourism official. Many of the artisan workshops that populate Agra’s ancient streets have not survived 15 months of intermittent lockdown, and most of the rest are struggling.
In an open-air building along a narrow alley, Irfan Ali, 51, hunches over a machine used to file down shards of mother-of-pearl into moons, stars and other shapes that will later be adhered to marble in intricate patterns on tiles, tabletops, vases and trays.
Foreign tourists, Ali said, have over the years driven up demand for the art form, which represents the materials and motifs of Agra’s most famous monument.
“They wanted a piece of the Taj Mahal,” he said. “Now there’s only silence.”
Across town, Gaurav Goel, the co-owner of a family sweets business, still bears the shaved head of a Hindu mourner.
The shop, Panchhi, was named for its founder, Goel’s great-grandfather, Pancham Lal. The family specializes in petha, a syrupy sweet Agra delicacy made from ash pumpkin, a greyish gourd, boiled in lime water and sugar. According to folklore, petha was invented in the 1630s while the Taj Mahal was being built, to keep the 20,000 laborers energised through Agra’s intense summer heat.
Goel’s grandfather, Kanhaiya Lal Goyal, greatly expanded the business by experimenting with new flavors like saffron and cardamom and slicing blocks of petha into different shapes. A cancer patient, he died of complications from COVID-19 in May.
In normal years, Goel’s five shops sell about $1.3 million worth of sweets. In 2020, his sales fell by 40%. But he feels ambivalent about customers returning.
“The loss of business doesn’t hurt us emotionally,” he said. “It’s more that we don’t lose someone.”
For the people who dare visit, however, it’s an extraordinary experience. The texture lost in a crowded space emerges like bas-relief when it is empty.
Lime-green parakeets dart across the Mughal gardens and reflective pools. Inside the mausoleum, the typical jostling for a close-up look at the detail of the carved amber, jade, coral and lapis lazuli is replaced by a sense of the tomb’s scale and solemnity.
A normally hectic and very public place has become a kind of private refuge.
Hara Khan and Satyam Singh, a couple in their 20s who connected online during the pandemic last year, sought out the shade of one of the mausoleum’s arched balconies. Singh had travelled by train from Delhi to meet Khan for her birthday.
They lost a mutual friend to COVID-19 this spring.
“It’s amazing,” Khan said of the monument reopening. “We were planning for a whole one year,” she said shyly, stealing a glance at Singh. “This is the first time we meet.”