The Taj Mahal is- well, something of a pilgrimage. You can’t come to India and miss seeing the Taj- and Indians themselves turn up in droves to view the mausoleum to beat all mausoleums (which just makes me wonder: if `mausoleum’ is derived from `Mausolus’, then should a splendid tomb be henceforth referred to as a `Mumtazeum’?).
Am I being facetious? And that too about a monument which has long been touted as the ultimate tribute to love? The Taj Mahal, after all, has been inundated by praise- sincere and generous- for centuries altogether; it’s been described as "having been designed by giants and finished by jewellers"; as "a teardrop on the cheek of time" (by India’s very own Nobel laureate, Rabindranath Tagore); and by English poet Edwin Arnold as "not a piece of architecture, as other buildings are, but the proud passions of an emperor’s love wrought in living stones."
But somebody- I’ve forgotten who- actually did say that he regarded all those stories of the Taj being a monument to eternal love as sheer hogwash; that the simple crux of the matter was that Shahjahan liked to build- which is a point of view I agree with whole-heartedly. The fifth of the Mughal emperors is generally regarded as the best architect of the entire dynasty- and with good reason. Shahjahan was an aesthete, and spent huge amounts of money in creating some of the most stunning Mughal monuments ever. Delhi’s Red Fort and Jama Masjid (besides a host of other mosques) were constructed by him; Lahore’s Shalimar Bagh was laid out according to his instructions, and he made plenty of additions to already-constructed buildings, especially the Agra Fort. The fact that his wife, the Empress Arjumand Banu Begum, better known as Mumtaz Mahal- copped it while giving birth to her 14th child- gave Shahjahan an excuse to build, yet again.
Which he did in style.
Schoolchildren across the length and breadth of India can still, more than three centuries later, rattle off the facts about the Taj Mahal. That it took some 22 years to build (Shahjahan commissioned it in 1631); that its architect and its artisans, even the semi-precious stones used in its exquisite pietra dura inlay work- came from far and wide. That more than 1,000 elephants were used to transport the white marble, the jasper and lapis-lazuli, the sapphire, jade and coral which went into making this spectacular tomb. Spellbound tourists are told by local guides that Shahjahan had planned an identical tomb for himself, to be built in black marble- but died before he could fulfil his dream. That Shahjahan, to prevent the chief architect from ever creating anything as ethereal, had his hands chopped off.
Perhaps truth. Perhaps an overenthusiastic medieval historian’s imagination. But- no matter what, the Taj is worth seeing, just for itself. Forget about the story of an emperor so much in love with his wife that he wanted to make her a tomb the world would admire. Forget about all the legends and the tales you’ve ever heard about the Taj. Forget that you’re in one of the most crowded, most polluted parts of the world. Just gaze on- at one of the most magnificent buildings on earth.