The grand finale of my trip to India is neither a massive fort nor a sumptuous palace, it’s a mausoleum: the Taj Mahal. For some of the Indian celebrities interviewed on the occasion of its 350th anniversary (in 2004) the love story was the essence; for others it was the harmonious architecture; some spoke of the 20,000 laborers who built it, or of the extravagant cost that bankrupted the State of Uttar Pradesh. But while much has been said about the legendary Taj Mahal, it continues to move everyone differently, and I am about to have my own experience, as a foreign visitor.
In Your Bucket Because…
- It’s one of the (modern) Wonders of the World and a UNESCO Heritage Site.
- No matter how much you heard about it, the experience will be yours only.
- Good for: Lovers of history, architecture, and romantic myth.
Recalling the Story of the Taj Mahal
The Mughal emperor Shah Jahan and his favorite wife—known as Mumtaz Mahal–were inseparable. She was his closest adviser and even followed him on military campaigns. But in 1631, she died at the birth of their 14th child. Grief-stricken, the emperor promised to build a monument as magnificent as their love, and devoted his life to it.
In fact, the emperor’s endless and costly obsession for magnificence led their son Aurangzeb to depose him for abuse of power. Shah Jahan died as a prisoner in the Red Fort, 30 years after his wife. Myth or reality: He intended to build a black Taj Mahal as his own mausoleum.
Touring the Taj Mahal
About one kilometer from the Taj, we transfer from our coach to an electric shuttle; our guide says it’s to protect the monument from gas pollution. Anticipation is palpable as we walk quietly to the famous compound, and funnel through an ornamental roofed gateway. All I can see are the people ahead of me, or the arch of the roof. But a few steps later…
There, it is.
And yes, the enchantment strikes both my mouth and my eyes wide open.
The white Taj appears in the arched opening of the dark gateway like a picture on a giant screen. As I take a few more steps forward, it seems to zoom back and float rather than rise behind the reflecting pool. When I see it all, it has morphed into a white “heavenly vision” against the pale blue sky.
First, I am drawn to the imposing onion dome flanked by smaller ones and arched recessed portals. They balance the straight lines of four minarets shooting for the sky. From either side, the white marble of the elegant Taj contrasts with the red sandstone of adjacent buildings, and with the desolate sight of the drought-stricken Yamuna River. In the background, uncultivated land stretches to the massive Red Fort (two kilometers away).
The water of the central basin reflects the white Taj as if it were a fairytale castle. But it’s a tomb: the “solitary tear suspended on the cheek of time,” wrote the poet Rabindranath Tagore. I see it as a romantic setting enlivened by women in voluptuous and colorful saris. For the eight million Indians who come every year—and almost one million foreigners, me included–it’s a trip of a lifetime.
I try to take it all in as I slip on shoe covers to go inside. I am immediately shocked by the cacophony of the crowded space. Loud voices resonate against the walls, and feet pound the 22 stairs down to the mortuary chamber. Disappointed, I glance around, see two tombs, take a close-look at the inlaid stonework, and leave.
For a brief moment, I question the enduring fascination for the Taj Mahal. Besides, Mumtaz and Shah Jahan’s real tombs are in a basement below the chamber: People pay their respects, or fantasize, in front of empty sarcophagi. Furthermore, architecture purists lament the unplanned addition of Shah Jahal’s own sarcophagus: They say it ruins the chamber’s original symmetry.
Later, however, I would learn that sound reverberation time is connected to praying for the soul of the departed: hence, the amplification effect of the “noise.” Furthermore, according to Indian intellectuals, romantic love is a foreign concept. In Indian traditional culture, love is connected to deities only: hence, the fascination for the Taj exceptional love story. Personally, it is the architecture that is fascinating: I find myself more interested in the “labor of love” — the vision for the monument, and the physical work — than in the love story.
The Taj Mahal: A Masterpiece of Marble and Pietra Dura
Mughal princes were not mere figureheads. They were expected to excel at trades, crafts and the arts. Shah Jahan’s harmonious vision for the Taj was even attributed to his devotion to classical Indian music: He “composed” the Taj by combining his favorite architectural motifs from the various palaces of his family.
He understood colors and shapes, had expertise in semi-precious stones, and chose pietra dura for floral vines, geometric designs, and calligraphic Koranic messages. Later, artisans at a nearby factory would demonstrate how they cut, polish, groove and inlay semi-precious stones in marble.
Above all, he chose the white Makrama marble–from the Pahar Kua range southwest of Jaipur–to transcend all other Indian architectural masterpieces, and all other stones. Seen close-by, the weathered marble is of a cloudy white, but in reality it’s combined with geometric designs in yellow marble, jasper, jade, and colored mortar, and it varies from shadow to shimmer.
No other famous cenotaph (such as the pyramids of Egypt), or other Indian World Heritage site (such as the Red Fort in Delhi) has engendered such universal fascination as the Taj Mahal. Personally, as a foreigner and not as an Indian visitor, I believe it’s due to the combination of its sensual architecture and its incomparable “whiteness.”
Is my sensibility skewed because of the contrasting grim grey of industrious Agra? Let’s imagine a red-sandstone or black-marble Taj, or a Taj in a crowded urban setting…
- Agra is a two-hour train ride from New Delhi by the Shatabdi Express. The city center is six kilometers away from the airport.
- The Taj is opened from sunrise to sunset and closed on Fridays.
- It is partially wheelchair accessible – See more information.
- Sitting and shaded areas are limited.
- Taking photographs is not permitted inside the Taj and restricted on the grounds (no tripod).
- Pietra dura artwork can be observed at Subhash Emporium where artisans will create (and ship) anything money can buy.