Inside an Indian palace
"Ma'am, Taj Mahal!" exclaimed Pritam, one of my students. His eyes, shining with unmistakable excitement, reflected a scale model of the building we were in.
No, little one, I wanted to say. Not the Taj Mahal. But I couldn’t find it in me to douse the boy’s spirits —or mine.
Not the Taj Mahal. To me, the phrase sounded almost profane. How could one go to India and not see the white marble monument that’s sprawled on all their tourist ads, figuring so greatly in their heritage that it’s become almost a byword for the country itself?
This was a question I didn’t want to answer, especially not while inside a less-known and decidedly less awe-inspiring Indian palace that prompted Pritam’s mistaken excitement. Together with a bunch of other students and teachers, we were actually inside one of the dimly-lit exhibit rooms at the massive brick building that was Cooch Behar Palace.
Unlike the Taj Mahal, the Cooch Behar Palace is not the tomb of a beloved queen. It was simply once the residence of Cooch Behar’s kings, prompting locals to call it Rajbari, which means “King’s Palace.”
Our party had raced through the garden walkway leading up to the entrance, so that all I could remember of the exterior details was the pale yellow paint on the arches and the spires that looked rather gaudy with the white columns and brick walls.
I was breathless as we entered the receiving room called Durbar Hall. My breathlessness might very well have been due to the sight of sunlight kissing the domed ceiling and falling upon the lion-and-elephant mural on the floor—though at the time I attributed it to the fact that we had run a considerable distance to make it before closing time.
Because the museum was about to close when we got in, we had rushed through the exhibits with barely any time to read about the building’s history. We had only enough time to look for a few moments at the faces of those who had once walked the palace's high-ceilinged walls; their names were too long to remember.
As we walked through each exhibit, my mind kept wandering back to the Taj Mahal—I imagined how the footfalls that echoed through the halls would sound bouncing off white marble, how differently the light would glisten if it touched gemstones and not hazy glass.
Occupied as I was with thoughts of the Taj Mahal, I barely noticed that we had arrived at the end of the tour, and were nearing the exit.
Walking down the staircase on the way out, I was suddenly taken by the face of a woman peering out from a gilded frame hanging high on the wall. She was a stately, terrible beauty—her dark red lips were lightly pursed as if about to whisper a command, while her deep, dark eyes actually did.
The vision of her startled me somewhat. Her stare had pierced through me from her spot on the wall, and I felt like I had been caught doing something wrong. I looked away out of what I now realize was shame.
As we neared the exit, I asked one of the students who she was. I was then told that the woman in the portrait was the Maharani Gayatri Devi, a true Indian princess who lived in the palace back when it was bright, and new and pulsating with the energy of eminence and aristocracy.
I gave the Maharani’s face a final glance before we passed through the doors, and as I met her eyes—inanimate but somehow so alive—I had to fight the urge to retreat back up the stairs and through the halls I had just passed by to give the palace a better look than it deserved.
Many praises have been sung about the beauty of the Taj Mahal, but hardly any—possibly none—have been for Rajbari. But in a way they aren’t so different—like the Taj Mahal, the Cooch Behar Palace was a tomb of sorts as well. In the faintly derelict walls and dim lighting, the remains of India’s glittering Imperial past called out to be remembered.
I have been home for a couple of months now, and the first thing most people ask me after knowing I've been to India is if I went to the Taj Mahal.
"No," I answer every time.
But I went to Rajbari, I am tempted to add always, though I never do because of course they won’t understand.
Now I’ve decided that the next time I go to India, I’m heading to the Taj Mahal for sure, because I really can’t allow myself to miss it again. But I’ll make sure to schedule another trip to the smaller palace on the other side of the continent, the Cooch Behar Palace, which might just be every bit as beautiful in its own right if looked upon with the right set of eyes. – YA/TJD, GMA News
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