PART IV - CASE STUDY 7.1
Tourist performance at the Taj Mahal in India
Tourist performance at the Taj Mahal in India
This case study centres on an original enquiry by Edensor (1998, 2000a, 2001) into the nature of tourist performance at the Taj Mahal in India. Through the adoption of an ethnographic approach that was based upon extended observation and engagement with tourists at this world-famous site, Edensor provides some perceptive insights into the contrasting ways in which tourists construct an understandng of place and how the differing ways in which tourists strive to make sense of the places they visit are reflected in the ‘performances’ they give (i.e., their actions, dispositions and behaviours).
The Taj Mahal – sometimes described as ‘the world’s most famous tomb’ – is located at the city of Agra in Uttar Pradesh, India. It was constructed between 1631 and 1653 on the orders of the Muslim Moghul emperor Shahjahan as a mausoleum for his wife Mumtaz Mahal, but it has become the most renowned icon of modern India and a powerful magnet for global tourism.
However, the Taj is essentially a symbolic site and as Edensor (1998: 7) notes, symbolic sites tend to be diversely represented, with contested notions about what they mean being articulated by differing groups of people. Edensor proposes several narratives that he suggests inform the understandings of the place that most tourists exhibit, including:
For example, with regard to their performative characteristics, the actions of most package tourists are disciplined and closely choreographed. Their visit is often mediated by initial images that they have formed in advance of their visit (and which they seek to affirm), as well as the way in which tour guides regulate the use of both time and space. Itineraries around the site follow a limited number of prescribed routes to a select number of key locations, at which scripted information is conveyed and photographs that capture ‘classic’ views of the Taj are taken (see the Taj Mahal Flickr group).
The tight time schedules that are often applied to guided tours means that although the Taj is widely perceived as the highlight of the holiday, the actual experience of the place is often abbreviated. These tourists are especially susceptible to the colonial narratives and the mythologies of an exotic ‘other’, yet the scope for reflective, contemplative gazing is limited by the regulated brevity of their visit. For most tourists in this category, photography is a dominant part of the performance – in Edensor’s (1998: 128) words, ‘materializing the tourist gaze’ and capturing images that both verify the experience and provide an essential basis for subsequent acts of remembering.
In contrast, the performance of independent travellers and backpackers provides important points of difference. These tourists spend much more extended periods of time at the site and indulge in a much wider range of actions: gazing, strolling, people-watching, socialising, writing and resting. They tend to explore the whole site, displaying improvised rather than choreographed movements. Although strongly susceptible to the same romantic and aestheticised gaze that informs the actions of many of the package tourists, these people are more likely to adopt a reflexive approach to understanding the Taj, rather than being content to acquire the reams of scripted knowledge that is imparted to packaged tourists. Photography is a less conspicuous part of their engagement with the Taj, although other forms of visualisation are often deployed (such as sketching or contemplative reflection).
For many domestic Indian tourists, their visit is commonly motivated by a desire to witness a national monument and see for themselves a potent symbol of Indian national identity. Their walking is usually purposeful and direct whilst their photography is generally directed at capturing portraits of their family group (which is how many visit the Taj) with the monument itself as background rather than subject. Their gazing is normally unreflexive, mirroring – as it tends to do – the secular national narratives and is a much less intense gaze than either the backpackers or the packaged tourists from overseas. Domestic tourists tended to spend the shortest periods of time at the site and often subjected the building and the grounds to only superficial attention, so much so that one of Edensor’s (English) subjects was moved to comment that Indians ‘just don’t know how to be tourists’ (Edensor, 1998: 126) – a subconscious but nevertheless revealing admission that tourism is indeed often about performing a role.
However, not all Indian visitors performed in this way. For Indian Muslims, the Taj is a sacred site and a powerful symbol of what many still consider as a golden age of stability and progress under Muslim rule. In consequence, their visits are generally of an extended nature and the gaze is reverential. Edensor (1998) observed how many Muslims progressed slowly around the site, would spend time reading the Quranic inscriptions on the buildings, pray in the adjacent mosque (where few from other groups chose to venture) and sit in silent contemplation.
These vignettes of tourist behaviour (which are explained extensively and in fascinating detail in Edensor’s original work) demonstrate very clearly how tourists make sense of places in diverse ways. The symbolic and emotional importance of the Taj Mahal is different for domestic and foreign tourists and, within those groups, is different for secular and religious visitors or for organised and independent travellers.
Key parts of the performance – such as photographing and gazing – are also informed in varying ways by the contrasting narratives of the Taj and this is further revealed in the differences between the romantic, reflexive and reverential gazes of – respectively – packaged tourists, backpackers or Indian Muslims. The detail that informs these broad observations also encourages Edensor to an important overall conclusion – that is, the diverse character of tourist performance at the Taj tends to ‘disavow the idea that places have some essential identity. Rather, places are continually reconstituted by the activities that centre upon them’ (Edensor, 1998: 200).