It is 7:15 a.m. At last, the long-awaited journey toward symmetry, toward what has been called a ''love song in marble,'' as well as many other names, is about to begin in a cavernous hotel lobby populated by bored reception desk clerks, cleaning women, early-bird businessmen paying their bills, and tourists with the anxious look of those who fear that the bus has already gone while they were gulping their last bite of breakfast.

But no, the bus has not gone. The Karachi Taxi Company has done its job. I do have a seat, which turns out to be at the back since my hotel is the last stop on a journey that started a half-hour before. I hand over 175 rupees (about $19. 40) to an inscrutable young Indian in a turban, whose expression is not to change throughout an immensely long day. He is to our bus what a copy kid is to a newspaper office: Among his duties are hauling a box of soft drinks up and down the aisle, cleaning the windshield with an unclean cloth, and being ordered about by our burly, bearded driver, who refrains from smiling the entire trip.

Agra. The Taj Mahal. What had I expected? Not to start this way, perhaps, but it was still 7:30 a.m. I am not to see my hotel lobby again for 15 hours. All of us on the bus are drawn by an image, blurred perhaps, caught from pictures seen as children in an encyclopedia or a National Geographic or a travel brochure. The Taj. Beautiful, timeless, unique. Characters in Noel Coward plays wonder if it doesn't really look like a biscuit box. A mausoleum, isn't it? Built by some emperor or other for his wife? Hindu? Muslim? I am not sure. The sturdy, fair , quiet, West German girl beside me isn't either, nor the New Zealander behind us. She is making a one-way trip to Agra to join her husband who works for a German chemical company but who is on a sponsored business tour he cannot leave. They live in Seoul, Korea. She says it as naturally as you might say Maryland or California. Six years she has lived there; it is cold and Korean men don't bring their wives to dinner parties. But she likes it on the whole. She is riding to the Taj because they are to be in Agra for four days. She has never been in India before. She gazes out at the dust and the tiny, low, straw huts by the roadside, and the people, people, people trudging everywhere in what looks like almost complete poverty. She remarks matter-of-factly that it is actually better than she had imagined.

The New Zealander, tall and thin, laconic and utterly without pretension, is on his way to Tibet to spend a month in a monastery. He is vague about what he will do there: ''It's for Westerners, I think,'' he was to say at lunch in Agra. ''You get up early, I believe, and think for a bit and get yourself straightened out. You know, meditate, and that. Then you have lunch. I think the afternoon is about the same. . . . I met a chap who has done it and it sounded interesting.'' I can't tell if the vagueness hides a burning commitment, or whether he is just curious. He has come a long way for it to be the latter.

The rest of the bus seems to be filled with Brazilians on a trade mission and a handful of Americans on vacation, -including a delightful young couple (she is expecting their first child) returning home from a year of teaching in Melbourne , Australia. They are alert, fascinated, observant. He has curly hair and a small beard. She is called Barbara.

After waiting for 15 minutes at a traffic circle to pick up the final consignment of passengers (including two smooth young Indian businessmen), the bus finally sets off in earnest on the paved road that leads to the symmetry each of us knows just enough about to take the time to see. It is an ideal which has lived in men's mind since it was completed nearly 340 years ago.

Our Indian guide provides us with a flow of facts and figures in a voice that turns sing-song when she reaches the bits she has memorized and reverts to warmth when she extemporises. She is short, stocky, open-faced, and experienced, wearing an attractive yellow traditional dress with a plum-colored sari-type wrap. I never catch her name. India, she says at one point, worships 1,600 gods, some of them birds, some trees. She speaks of festivals both Hindu and Muslim. She proudly describes Indian industry - the road goes through the industrial city of Faridabad, in Hariana State. Suddenly the flat plain gives way to grimy factory buildings pumping out tires, air-conditioning plants, compressors, and 45 percent of India's tractors. The roadside is filled with the tiny open-fronted shops one sees everywhere, hordes of men and women and children, collections of tiny mud shanties that have to be rebuilt after every monsoon season; the sun cracks the walls and the water ruins the straw roofs. It seems incredible that behind such hard and poor living modern machinery can be made.

From the road it doesn't look like much - rickety factories on an arid plain, 17 miles out of Delhi. But it is a genuine success story and the Indians, and our guide, are glad of it.

The bus pushes slowly along, horn blaring, young Inscrutable staring straight ahead. More people than I ever remember seeing in one place live and walk and work and beg and sleep and shop and talk and ride bicycles and jam into motor-scooter rickshas and eat and stare on the other side of the windows. The air is not clear, but thick with the smoke of innumerable cooking fires. The fuel is cow dung mixed with straw.

We pass a typical barbershop: customers sit on wooden chairs at the roadside in a line, facing forward. Barbers bend over them, occasionally holding up ancient pieces of mirror to show what's happening around the back. Water buffalos plod by. Cattle, pale and thin, hunt for something more to graze. Children play. It's hard (and presumptuous) to tell, but I don't sense the lilt and the smiles of a Chinese crowd, a Peking street. Maybe it takes different forms.

Child labor is still common in many areas, despite government efforts to stop it. Many families have 6 to 8 children, despite decades of birth-control propaganda. Parents can't afford to educate them. A man earns 12 rupees for 8 hours' work ($1.33); a woman 8 rupees (less than $1). I had read that morning in The Statesman newspaper in Delhi that this gigantic population (684 million, according to the Washington-based Population Reference Bureau) was 12 million more than planned for this year. It could soar to 1 billion by the year 2001. It could double in 40 years. Gazing at the rivers of humanity by the roadside, trying mentally to encompass the vast land areas beyond the horizon, I try to think what this would mean for a country already the second most crowded in the world (after China), battling to keep up with services and roads, electricity and schools, hospitals and homes.

First stop. A Tourist Department restaurant. Green lawns, startling after the aridity of the land we've passed through.

A grimy, bearded entrepreneur waves a stick and a mangy brown bear wearing a thick leather muzzle stands on its hind legs, trying to reach it. Two others lie at its feet, paying no attention. A camel blocks my path: Would I like to mount it? I decline. I am importuned. I resist. An elderly turbaned gentleman whips out a bamboo pipe and begins to play. A cobra in a basket before him is so uninterested that the elderly man is obliged to bang the side of its basket with his hand, playing away furiously with the other, and glancing up to see if anyone has noticed his subterfuge. Small boys scamper around offering necklaces, post cards, sodas.

The guide and I talk in the shade. ''Parents still have many children,'' she said sadly. ''It doesn't seem to matter what the government says. The birth-control effort was very intense a few years ago. But ordering people doesn't work. Every couple want a boy. If it doesn't have one, it tries and tries again. If it has one son, it wants another. In India, people ask why they shouldn't have children - it is a gift of the gods. A big family is a help in one's old age. . . .''

I discover a bespectacled man wheeling a laden bicycle toward the road, followed by a diminutive woman. Red saddle bags bulge with camping gear. They, too, are on a journey to the Taj - part of a much, much longer journey home. In accents unmistakably Australian, they talk agreeably about their trip so far: 3, 500 pedaled kilometers across Europe, from Dieppe in France to Athens, with only a loose patch of gravel in Italy to give them a moment's alarm. Destination: Melbourne. I am tempted to be incredulous, but it is all too real. They are straightforward, unpretentious. A tall, young, no-nonsense textile businessman from Scotland, a -fellow bus rider, cross-questions them closely. ''Why?'' he demands. ''Aw, well, you know,'' smiles the husband. ''We've got to get home somehow. Seemed an interesting thing to do. . . .'' The Scotsman presses on: Is the company who made your bicycles sponsoring you, he asks. A smile. ''No. Didn't ask them. Just bought the bikes and some gear and got going. . . .''

The pair do about 100 kilometers a day. They count on 4,000 kilometers per set of tires. They camp or stay at hostels. They bought long-sleeved Indian shirts in Delhi to protect their necks and arms from sunburn: ''I don't usually look like this,'' said the husband apologetically. It seems irrelevant. They aim to make Agra by dark.

The bus leaves behind the dancing bears and the camel and the cobra heedless of his master's pipe. Four hours after leaving Delhi we enter the narrow twisting streets of Agra. ''I'm going to make my wife cry,'' yells an advertising sign in black paint, then adds in red letters, ''with joy.'' Her house, it appears, is to be painted with Dulux paint. ''My Love cosmetics - for lovely lips and lively skin,'' boasts another. Both products seem remote from the swarming crowds filling the streets as far as one can see. As the streets grow narrower in the old town, our exhaust fumes and dust from the wheels spread over the tiny open shops, settling on the chapati (an unleavened bread) and the somosas (pastries filled with vegetables or meat) being rolled by hand and cooked over open fires.

We are to go first to the Taj, then to a large hotel for lunch, then to Agra's Red Fort where Mongol emperors held sway, then back to Delhi. The guide doesn't mention the number of souvenir shops at which we are also to stop. The commissions she receives from each also go unmentioned. Suffice it to say we could have been home hours earlier had we skipped some of the shops. But India needs all the revenue it can get. In the end, one can't really begrudge the sustained effort to tempt us to part with ours.

''You'll be glad you went,'' a friend had said the day before in Delhi. ''The Taj lives up to its billing.'' The moment approaches. We clamber out of the bus once more and walk toward one of the four arched gateways through which the building can be approached.

The arch towers in the heat, a mixture of red sandstone and white marble facing. Four elderly beggars lugging bundles fashioned from sacking stumble in front of us, then move on. Men, women and children besiege us: ''Necklace, you want necklace? Real ivory, 10 rupees, box, real box? Marble, precious stones, 30 rupees. Bracelet? Real bracelet for your ankle, look, here, look, elephant on chain, 50 percent silver. Postcards, Taj Mahal by night, not in the hotel, only here? You want belt? Real leather, postcards, over here. . . .'' The gabble lasts all the way to the arched gateway, all part of the journey.

And then here it is.

The archway frames the dome in classical black as I walk forward. Bright blue sky meets the black frame and leads the eye down to the gleaming whiteness of the central dome, set above four smaller domes. In the center below, a single, perfect, archway frames two more arches, one on top of the other deeper inside. Passages from the Koran (for this is a Muslim mausoleum) are outlined in black marble around the central arch. On either side the symmetry continues: two smaller arches, together as tall as the central one, one above the other. The marble front breaks gently into diagonal sides, each containing more beautifully balanced archways, one on the other. The arches balance the harmonious design that has caught the imagination since they were so meticulously crafted centuries years ago. The sunlight on the marble shimmers white. It casts shadows inside each archway; each shadow is itself symmetrical, maintaining precise harmony one to the other as the sun moves slowly across the sky. I stop. Symmetry. Harmony. Balance. Proportion. It was worth coming for.

Four marble minarets stand like lighthouses at each corner. They lean outward: the architect wanted to ensure they would not fall on the main building , if they fell at all. They haven't. Symmetry continues through the reflecting pools, long and rectangular, that lead toward the Taj, and in the two domed buildings, one on either side of the mausoleum, used for Muslim ceremonies.

We move off to our left. Our guide gathers us in a quiet spot, as other guides do their own flocks, and begins to explain. All eyes stay on the Taj.

By the light of the moon, especially a full moon, the domes are said to sparkle with the precious stones inlaid but invisible in the severe light of the sun.

Shah Jehan was the Emperor. The Empress Mumtaz Jehan was 39 when she died in childbirth - her 14th child. The Shah was so grief-stricken, it is said, that his hair turned white within months. She was his third wife, his favorite. The year was 1630. The grandson of Akbar the Great, he decreed that nothing less than a mausoleum in the shape of a palace would do. He bought up 15 villages along the Jamuna River, not far from the enormous Red Fort from which he ruled the surrounding plains. For the next 20 years or so, 20,000 workers from Persia, Turkey, France, Italy, and, of course, India, toiled. They hauled marble from quarries 280 kilometers away by camel cart, dug sandstone from quarries 35 kilometers away, laid out gardens covering one-and-a-half kilometers, whose fountains sprayed water perfumed with rose leaves. The central dome rises 234 feet above the ground. To guard against earthquakes, the foundations were set on 22 wells filled with shock-cushioning wood.

We walk slowly along the reflecting pool to the base of the mausoleum. You either remove your shoes, or put on loose overshoes: either way, the marble must be protected. Inside, the chamber is cool and dark against the sun. What I took to be the Empress's tomb lies so that it faces back down the pool to the main arched gate. In fact, her real tomb is far below us; what we can see is a replica. It wouldn't do, the Shah decided, to have visitors walking around the actual tomb: too disrespectful.

The guide shines a flashlight up against one of the countless flowers inlaid with semi-precious stones in the marble walls. Tiny pieces of coral glow red - 65 pieces in each flower design, fitted and glued so smoothly that the hand can hardly feel the edges. Jasmine, poppy flowers, and many more, with graceful green stems, picked out in coral, blue lapis lazuli, orange cornelian, brown jasper, darker brown garnet, light green jade, dark green malachite, turquoise, agate, tiger eye, whitish green amazonite. The designs cover the walls and the marble filagree screen around the tomb itself. A ragged man in a ragged turban looks at us, throws back his head, and lets out a muzzein-type of cry, which echoes in the darkness above. It is a task he repeats every few minutes, and for which he expects to be handsomely remunerated.

We pad through the corridors that surround the central chamber, through anteroom after anteroom. Once they were bright with gold, ivory, and precious stones. ''But these were all taken, seized in 1739 by the Persian Shah,'' the guide told us, ''the same Shah who took the Peacock Throne from the Red Fort in Delhi, way back before the British came.''

It is pleasantly cool and shadowy. One step outside, and the eye is almost blinded by the sun and the dazzling reflection of the sunshine from the white marble underfoot. On the far side of the Taj, the side photographs rarely show, I look across the width of the Jamuna River to the endless plain beyond, hazy with the smoke of fires, motionless in the heat, stretching back to Delhi and the north. The rainy season has come and gone. The river is wide in parts, but at the Taj, on its way to the Red Fort to my left, the waters divide around a white expanse of riverbed. A lone wooden boat is being poled across with a load of local families. On the far bank is a line of red sandstone - as far as Shah Jehan progressed with what he intended to be a duplicate Taj, this time faced with black marble, for his own mausoleum. One of his sons, however, decided that the old man was spending far too much money, so he clapped him in the Red Fort. He was imprisoned in lofty quarters from whose arched balconies he had a splendid view of the marble monument he had built for his favorite wife. In those quarters he died.

I stand for some time gazing out at the Fort and the haze and the heat, and the boat. The huge plain has a wilted air in the noon sunshine, as if weary of trying to sustain so many millions, for so long, through so much.

I yield my overshoes and wander halfway back along the reflecting pools, trying to imagine what the scene must have been like when the Shah had decreed magnificent gardens of which these are only a hint. A group of predatory Indian photographers besiege me, Japanese box-type Yashica cameras and flash guns at the ready. For a paltry 40 rupees ($4.44) I could have a picture of myself with the Taj in the background. I decline, and sit with them for a while. They ask where I am from, what I do, how long I have been in India. Each time a tourist appears they leap up with cries of ''photo, photo'' and show pictures they say they have already taken.

It is time to find the guide and go. We run the gauntlet of the street salesmen again, locate the bus, have lunch in the biggest hotel in Agra, incongruously, at the Sheraton. The German girl leaves us: She caught sight of her husband as we came in, but he was in another bus with all his business associates, just setting out for a six-hour tour. She was disappointed: The afternoon stretched before her. She went to check in. In two weeks she would be back in Seoul.

After lunch it is off to a shop which sold (and made) the kind of inlaid marble to be found at the Taj. The proprietor puts up a fine performance as he tries to talk me into ordering a table top, a tray, coasters, a model of the Taj itself, an ornamental box. I keep saying how beautiful the work is; he keeps taking my interest as a hovering on the brink of purchase. To give him credit, though, he stays cheerful to the last, accepting my decision not to buy, giving me his card, assuring me that the next time I will bring my wife, and she will see the quality of the marble, and she will order, not merely a box, oh no, but something big, something grand. His thin face lights up at the thought, until I almost feel that I have made a purchase after all. He and his staff do make some sales to the others.

After sundry other stops and shops, the bus hits the road - slowly. Driving in India by day is bad enough. We counted three trucks lying overturned in the road on the way to Agra, and more going home: ''Drivers drink too much,'' one Indian says. ''They get too tired and try to drive too many hours and they lose control. It happens all the time.'' So the way back through the dark is long, slow. The hordes of humanity have vanished into the night. Hardly a light shines of any kind, for minutes at a stretch. The night looks empty, but is not.

We stop again about 8:30 p.m. at a tourist restaurant, weary by now. Back into the bus for the last time. The New Zealander thinks the filigree work in the Red Fort courtyard is as fine as the Taj. The two Indian businessmen chatter in rapid-fire Hindustani all the way. By now the German girl is reunited with her husband. Barbara and her young husband sit quietly, thinking about the day. I, too, think about the symmetry of the Taj, about symmetry in general - in men and in behavior and in thought, as well as in buildings and in things.

My hotel is the first stop. I am grateful. Goodbye to our guide, to the inscrutable young Indian in the turban, to the bearded driver who does not smile. The lobby is brightly lit. The journey to symmetry is over.

Or is it? Perhaps it has just begun. Again

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.