A Monument to Love
The most beautiful man-made image of India has to be the ‘monument to love’ known as the Taj Mahal. The Taj, visible from approaching trains long before you arrive in Agra, is a must on any visit to northern India, but be prepared to be disappointed by Agra, the ugly town in which it is located; like a parasite, its dusty streets and haphazard architecture seem to exist solely because of its host. (I have visited twice in the last decade; astonishingly, the town has done little to improve itself).
Once inside the walls of the Taj Mahal complex, the visitor can leave behind the rubbish strewn, potholed roads, the fetid open sewers and hassles from rickshaw drivers and beggars, for one of the architectural wonders of the world. The whopping $33 entrance fee (for two foreigners) is well worth it.
As dramatic as the plot of a Bollywood blockbuster, the story of the Taj combines myth, heartbreak, family rivalries and death. It was commissioned by the Emperor Shah Jahan, in memory of his second wife Mumtaz Mahal, who died in 1631 while giving birth to their 14th child. So bereft was Shah Jahan, that he is said to have aged upon receiving the news, turning grey virtually overnight. Later that year construction began; it took until 1653 for the entire complex to be completed by an army of 20,000 artisans and construction workers from India and Central Asia and Europe.
Shah Jahan was subsequently overthrown by his son and imprisoned 1.5 km away in Agra Fort. For the rest of his life, he was tortured by the distant view of the Taj Mahal, unable to be near his beloved wife until his death in 1666. Today, they lie buried side by side inside the Taj.
The simplicity of the decoration, combined with calligraphic inscriptions of ayahs from the Qu’ran, combine to make it a stunning example of Islamic art. We are both learning Arabic at the moment, so we took a bit of extra time trying to decipher the calligraphy, but unfortunately given our remedial level of Arabic literacy, they were completely unintelligible!
The most striking thing about the Taj Mahal, apart from its size, is the brilliance of the white marble, which is studded with thousands of semiprecious stones. In 2002 it was decided that The Taj was looking a bit haggard, so she was given a multani mitti (face-pack). Made from an ancient Indian recipe used by local women, the mixture managed to turn back the signs of aging caused by traffic pollution. The result is a rejuvenated façade, positively radiant at sunrise, reflected in the ‘mirror’ of water in front of her, which confirms that she is ‘the finest of them all’.