Agra Stories and Tips

The Taj Mahal: Pristine Perfection

The Taj Mahal Photo, Agra, India

There’s not much I can say about the Taj Mahal that you wouldn’t know anyway. One of the Seven Wonders of the World, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and, one of the world’s most beautiful buildings. It was built by the Mughal Emperor Shahjahan as a mausoleum for his wife Mumtaz Mahal, after she died in 1631, giving birth to their fourteenth child Gauharara. Millions were spent on the Taj Mahal, which (according to some accounts) took 22 years to build.

There’s nothing new to add, though there’s plenty of juicy gossip. It’s said that Shahjahan cut off the hands of the workmen so they would never be able to create anything as splendid (utter rubbish); and that he had planned a black marble replica of the Taj for himself (unlikely). The most preposterous—and much laughed at—theory is that the Taj Mahal isn’t a Mughal tomb at all, but a Hindu temple called Tejo Mahalaya.

Whatever it is, it’s beautiful, and no visit (even as fleeting as ours) can be complete without a trip to the Taj. We’ve visited it often enough, but this time, armed with the excellent Agra: The Architectural Heritage (by Lucy Peck), we’re better informed.

The earlier you arrive, the less crowded the Taj is. It opens at 6 AM, but we leave the hotel by 8, and reach the parking lot for the Taj a few minutes later. The Taj sits in a vehicle-free zone, so you park about a kilometre away. You can then either walk, or take a rickshaw, a camel cart, or a battery-operated van. We opt for a van, and on the short drive to the Taj, the `conductor’ gives us the lowdown: the Taj opens from sunrise to sunset (6 AM to 6 PM right now); the charges are Rs 200 per Indian and Rs 750 per foreigner and non-resident Indian. Children below 15 years enter free of charge. You may carry guidebooks, maps, paper and pens, mineral water, cameras and mobile phones into the Taj, but food or other electronic items aren’t allowed.

When we reach the Western Gate of the Taj, we’re frisked, and discover that even my camera remote and Neeti’s iPod aren’t allowed. Gourab takes them back to our car, so the rest of us wait for him. Swapna, meanwhile, probably because she’s wearing shades and clutching a book (not typically Indian traits), is regarded with suspicion by the guard who sees her Rs 200 ticket. "You’re Indian?" he asks.
"Yes," Swapna sighs. This has happened before.
"From where?"
"Really? And how long have you been in Delhi?"
"Twenty-four years."
"So who’s Delhi’s Chief Minister?"
Swapna’s reply satisfies him (thank God, says Gourab later, that he didn’t ask her who’s the Speaker of the Legislative Assembly—none of us knows that!), and he lets her enter.

We stand here, and while we wait for Gourab to return, we look around. Just outside the security cordon is the area known as the Jilaukhana. This is where visitors traditionally dismounted and prepared to enter. Today, it’s lined by camel carts and souvenir sellers; beyond, on both sides, are the tombs, mainly in red sandstone, of Shahjahan’s secondary wives. These include the Tombs of Fatehpuri Begum, Sirhindi Begum, Akbarabadi Begum and sati-un-Nissa Khanum.

Inside the security cordon, past well kept lawns, looms the red-and-white bulk of the Taj Gateway. This is a huge square building of red sandstone lavishly decorated with inlay in white marble and semiprecious stones. Minarets and chhatris (domed pavilions) decorate the top of the gate, and there are arched niches across the front and sides. All along the outer edge of the main arched entrance are bands of calligraphy, jasper inlaid in white marble.

Gourab’s arrived, so we step in—and are, as always, dumbfounded. Through the gateway, dead centre, we can see the Taj Mahal, cool and white in the morning sun, at the far end of a water channel flanked by lawns, flowering parterres and trees. It’s stunning. We descend from the gate, and walk on till the white marble platform midway, where it’s almost de rigueur to pose for photos (Princess Diana did too). Our photos taken, we walk on to the main tomb, the rauza.

The Taj is an unusual example of a Mughal garden tomb, in that instead of the tomb being at the centre of the square garden, it’s at the end. It stands on the riverbank, which definitely adds to the dramatic beauty of the Taj.

The rauza is cleaned from 8 AM to 9 AM daily, so we still have a few minutes before it opens. We spend that time visiting the surrounding buildings.

Typically, the tombs of Muslim nobility in India had a mosque alongside (to encourage visitors to pray for the departed). Furthermore, a woman (like Mumtaz Mahal) who died in childbirth was considered worthy of veneration. If you look up at the Taj Mahal, with the main gateway at your back, the mosque is the large red building on your left. But since the guiding principle of Mughal architecture was symmetry, a replica of the mosque was needed opposite it. This, on the other side of the Taj Mahal—on your right—is the Mehmaan Khana, the `guest house’. Made of red sandstone with three domes of white marble and extensive inlay work, the Mehmaan Khana was meant to house nobility visiting the Taj. (Note that for many years, the annual urs, the death anniversary of Mumtaz Mahal, was observed at the Taj Mahal. It attracted many visitors, and thousands more came, like us, simply came to gawk at its beauty).

The Mehmaan Khana is a wide, arched hallway, the ceiling covered with an intricate pattern of red and white motifs. Unlike the outside, which is inlay and carving, this is painted incised plaster. Outside is an enclosure guarding a strange design, in black marble, inlaid into the red sandstone paving. This is a full-size replica of the massive metal finial topping the Taj Mahal, and was put in by the British.

Having duly marvelled at it, we move on to the Rauza itself. We have to remove our shoes outside (there’s a rack and a man who dispenses `tokens’ or tags for us to collect them later). We’re glad it’s not summer yet, and that it’s still morning: stone paving below bare feet can be torturous.

It’s difficult to describe the Taj Mahal to someone who hasn’t seen it. Everybody’s seen photos of it, but seeing it up close—huge, yet so symmetrical and understated—is an experience like few others. Large expanses—the dome (which is believed to represent a guava or a breast) and the recessed arches—are, for example, plain white marble, sparingly decorated on the edges with carving and inlay.

Inside lie the cenotaphs of Mumtaz Mahal and of Shahjahan, both surrounded by an enclosure of carved marble screens that are cordoned off. The screens were originally of precious metals, but were replaced by marble in Shahjahan’s time itself. The carving’s is beautiful, but the pièce de resistance is the delicate inlay edging the screens and on the cenotaphs. Semiprecious stones such as jasper, cornelian, lapis lazuli and turquoise were used to create these floral patterns. It must have been painstaking work indeed: Michael and Diana Preston, in their book A Teardrop on the Cheek of Time, describe a single square inch of pietra dura that contains sixty chips of stone, all carefully arranged to depict tones and shades.

No photography’s allowed inside, so we step out after a while into the sunlight and do a circuit round the exterior. There are white marble dados here, carved with irises, crown lilies and daffodils. They’re fringed with less intricate inlay work. We walk along towards the back (which echoes the front) and look out over the Yamuna, then up at the minarets. They’re white marble, with black outlining the blocks. Swapna springs a surprise: the black is inlay, purely decorative.

There are a few people around, some sitting in the arched niches, staring out across the complex, others finding new angles for photographs. One man’s scribbling on a notepad. We descend from the rauza and then go to the Mosque.

The Mosque is, from afar, a replica of the Mehmaan Khana; closer up, we see the decoration’s a little different. It’s still carving and inlay on the outside, but the red-and-white painting differs. Most endearing of all is the inset above the main arch: the painting includes two tiny depictions of the Taj Mahal itself!

We wander around inside the Mosque, admiring the inlaid musalla (prayer rug) pattern on the floor, then head back, now shod, down past the water channel, along the fountains, and up to the main gate. Already, there are hundreds of tourists streaming in. We’ve avoided the worst of the crowds, and we’ve once again seen what Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore described as "one teardrop...on the cheek of time."

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