How many times have I dreamed to see the Taj Mahal? We learned about it in school, as it was one of the seven world wonders.
Up at five, get ready, breakfast at 6, pick-up by tour bus at 6:30. I had booked a tour this time, instead of having my own private driver, I thought I would have people to talk to on the long drive to and fro. The Concierge let me know that my transport was waiting. I went out, looking for a bus, and guess what? Here was a private car, a Toyota of some sort. They didn’t have any other bookings that day, so I was the only passenger. Oh well! So much for company.
It was an extremely foggy morning. There was not much traffic at this time, fortunately, and my driver was driving as if he was sitting on a beehive, that is to say: like a crazy man. Not that I minded, I used to drive like a crazy person myself, when I first moved to the U.S. I got a lot better since, but this crazy guy is not going to.
Anyway, it got foggier on the freeway, a beautiful freeway, BTW. Relatively recent. There were some awful patches of fog, where you couldn’t see a thing. Everyone was driving with blinking lights on and honking the horn. After a while I got tired of watching and second-guessing this crazy guy, so I had a little lie down and a nap for an hour or so. Next thing I know, we are in Agra. I always thought (I don’t know why) that Agra is a sleepy little town. It’s not sleepy, nor is it a little town. It’s a city of 1.2 million people.
What you see, however, is a shantytown of the poorest kind, with cows, pigs and monkeys roaming the place and digging in garbage, which is everywhere.
In town we picked up the tour’s private guide, who was a man in his sixties named Moses. He was surprised not to find a tour bus and began to lecture me in a loud voice, while I was still busy taking pictures of beautiful downtown Agra. So he said in a loud voice, as if he were my math teacher: may I talk to you? – I said: yes, you may talk to me, but I am busy right now. – so there was a little friction there.
The taxi dropped us where you bought the tickets, probably about a half mile from the entrance of Taj Mahal. I bought my ticket (another fleecing of the foreigners). My guide ordered me to the bathroom (!!). – Does anyone have an idea how well this went over with me?–
If anyone doesn’t want to read about Indian toilets, please move on to the paragraph after this:
I don’t usually use any public bathrooms, anywhere. But I did think it might be wise to do so here. We had already been under way about 2.5 hours, I had had lots of Indian tea at breakfast and I had no idea if the Taj offered such convenience. When I went in, the toilet was ordinary size, thank goodness, (I thought I might have to deal with a hole in the ground.) But the flush didn’t work, or wasn’t meant to. Attached to the wall was a hose, which sprayed rather narrowly, more like a water pick for your teeth, and I might easily have spent the day being busy with that little spray nozzle.
Finally we were ready to board the little shuttle bus taking us to the entrance. I was really excited. Unfortunately, the fog was still pretty thick and it didn’t promise spectacular photos. But you take what you get. I was thankful it wasn’t pouring with rain, like the day before.
You enter through the first gate, and here it is: the beauty of all beauties. It is so beautiful, it touches your heart. It seems to float. The fog made it even more ethereal. My emotions were right on the surface.
So we walked into the park, while Moses, my guide, was pouring out facts and stories, I was literally awestruck. Here are some pictures.
I will have to copy what the guide book says about it, since I cannot word it any better: “its perfect proportions and exquisite craftsmanship have been described ‘as a prayer, a vision, a dream, a poem, a wonder’. This sublime garden-tomb, an image of the islamic garden of paradise, cost nearly 41 million rupees and 500 kg of gold. Around 20 000 workers labored for 22 years to complete it.”
The tomb is completely covered with the most perfect white marble. Many people don’t know that, but it is not marble alone. The basic construction under the marble is brick. I think I have a sample in my pictures.
Everything is perfectly symmetrical. The Empress’ sarcophagus is perfectly lined up with the center of the whole park area, entrance, pools, paths and water canals, even with the fountains.
These intricate floral designs often had 64 different shades of carnelian in one single petal, to create shading. Besides carnelian, lapis lazuli, turquoise and malachite were used to depict tulip, iris, poppy, and narcissus. The Mughals believed that flowers were the “symbols of the divine realm”. It is said that the Florentine technique of Pietra Dura was imported by Emperor Jahangir, Shah Jahan’s father.
There are no empty spaces on the marble surface. Everywhere is design of some sort. As you probably know, Islamic Art is forbidden to use human likeness. So you find here also a lot of Arabic writings, verses from the Koran. The calligraphy was designed by a Persian calligrapher, a Amanat Khan and inlaid in black marble. It is absolutely correct and legible, I am told.
Marble screen, carved from one block of marble
The delicate perforated marble screens you can see, are all made of one single block of marble, and they all completely perfect. Artisans would work on those with small hammers and chisels at their own time. No pressure. When they were tired or didn’t feel like working on it, they didn’t. When they made a mistake, they had to start again with a new slab of marble. The screens are all perfect.
A lot of spaces in this and other tombs, which used to be open to the public, are now closed. Why? People have pried the semi-precious stones out of the inlay, removed gold, silver etc. We humans are sometimes despicable! So as a result, now there is a lot less access than there used to be.
The surrounding parks are just as symmetrical, and so very calming, you don’t really want to leave. There are flowers, trees, bushes, fountains, waterways, pools, restful places. On the east and west side, lined up with the tomb, are two identical buildings, one is a mosque, and one is a guest house. The mosque has a pool in front of it, where Moslems can wash before going into the mosque to pray. This pool is drained and cleaned every couple of days. The guest house has also a pool in front, for symmetry.
The gardens are laid out in a grid, four squares with a cross path through the middle, and four lots of four. I think I have to attach a drawing, my explanation doesn’t seem really clear even to me.
Shah Jahan lived to see the completion of the tomb. Folklore has it that he wanted to build one identical, but in black marble, for himself, just across the river, in view of Taj Mahal. And he did start something there. But his loving son imprisoned him for the last 8 years of his life, to grab reign and power, so he never did get to build another Taj. After his death, he was entombed alongside his wife. His sarcophagus is larger and more important looking, but hers is the one the whole buildings and gardens are lined up with.
This is my story of the Taj Mahal.
Day 5 to be cont’d…