When I saw the Taj Mahal
I don’t remember when I first saw it. Perhaps as subtle black lines on the white pages of a school history book. Perhaps as a flitting image in the news reel as I sat in a dark cinema. Or perhaps in my dreams. I am not sure. It could not have been the stuff that my dreams were made of – not when I was still in my pigtails and pinafore; perhaps it was the delicate black line drawing in a history book. I, then, still did not know much about monuments or mausoleums and the word ‘aesthete’ hadn’t been stacked in my vocabulary. Not then. But there was something about the curved lines and the minarets that got etched in my wits.
Taj Mahal. When it comes to this monument of love, I seem to have an abysmal memory. I don’t remember when I first saw it. Perhaps as subtle black lines on the white pages of a school history book. Perhaps as a flitting image in the news reel as I sat in a dark cinema. Or perhaps in my dreams. I am not sure. It could not have been the stuff that my dreams were made of – not when I was still in my pigtails and pinafore; perhaps it was the delicate black line drawing in a history book. I, then, still did not know much about monuments or mausoleums and the word ‘aesthete’ hadn’t been stacked in my vocabulary. Not then. But there was something about the curved lines and the minarets that got etched in my wits. In the dark lines there were no traces of dainty lapis lazuli or pietra dura nor could I see the sturdy crenellated walls, but there was something that took my breath away. I yearned to see the black lines turn real, but the town that I grew in seemed eternally inaccessible from Agra. I had to wait for eons before I actually saw the Taj Mahal.
And when I first saw it, I fell. A huge crowd was jostling at the main entrance gate and the man in khaki was making botched attempts to control the rapturous crowd. One could hear the wows! and oohs! in various accents, but I had my eyes squinted. I did not want to look at the Taj Mahal in bits and scraps, not from in between the elbow and the beer belly of the man in front; I wanted to see it as a panned shot – all of it as an eyeful. Exactly the way it had panned in my old school history book. And when the man in front finally moved out of my world and I had taken a few steps beyond the main entrance, I opened my eyes. And there stood the Taj Mahal, resplendent in the morning sun. I stood there, my mouth agape and my eyes popping out – so smitten was I by its exquisiteness. But before I could get my eyeful, I got caught in the melee of another pack rushing towards the monument. And I fell.
But that moment nothing else mattered. Not even a large bruise. That moment I thought of the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan who had promised his dying wife that he would build a monument more beautiful than the world had seen before. I thought of the moment when Shah Jahan bought the land by the river Yamuna from Maharaja Jai Singh; of the hundreds of workers who excavated a three-acre site to fill it with dirt to reduce seepage from the river; I thought of the innumerable masons who built the mammoth brick scaffolding and the 15-km earthen ramp to bring marble and material from Agra and countless mules and oxen that pulled the marble and sandstone slabs on special wagons. I thought of the 22 years and the millions of rupees that it took to build the Taj Mahal. 22 years! That seems like eternity stretched further but when you look at the monument that is 180 ft tall with an onion dome that measures 60 ft in diameter and is 80 ft high, perhaps you stop counting the 22 years, you just let the beauty seep in.
As I walk on the translucent marble that was quarried in Rajasthan, the elegance of the garden overwhelms me - there are no intricate flower beds nor are there exotic trees, it is all about the mere symmetry and simplicity of a beryl pond leading to the main structure. And as you move further you can see the reflection of the Taj Mahal in azure water. A flight of marble stairs lead you to the square plinth, the iwan (the arch-shaped doorway) and the four statuesque minarets that frame the tomb. It is the inscriptions that catch the attention first. Legend has it that Amanat Khan, a Persian calligrapher, used an almost illegible script to write the inscriptions which are done in jasper on white marble panels. Geometric patterns and vegetative motifs add to the intricate adornment of the entire structure. The cenotaphs are simple, but embellished with precious and semi-precious stones, while the bodies of Shah Jahan and Mumtaz Mahal are laid in comparatively plain chamber under the inner chamber. As you stand in the inner chamber and look at the tombs, you wonder if the story of the Emperor’s love for his wife could actually be true; you wonder whether a man could actually love a woman so much and build a monument so painstakingly. You wonder if such a love is possible….
But even a love like this had its share of irony. Soon after the completion of Taj Mahal, Shah Jahan was deposed by his own son and incarcerated in Agra Fort. As the story goes, Shah Jahan spent years in the Fort and most of his waking hours were occupied by looking at the Taj Mahal from the a little window from the Fort. Perhaps he spent hours thinking of the moment when he first met the gorgeous Arjumand Banu Begum in a bazaar in Agra, of the moment he married her and the moment she breathed her last during a military expedition…
They say, the Taj Mahal changes its hues throughout the day – it is pink in the early morning sun, white when the sun shines the brightest and golden when the moon lends its glimmer. It really does, but it is the Taj at night that looks the best, though. Awash with the borrowed gleam of the moon, the monument seems surreal. You want to pinch yourself to believe that 20,000 men could have made something so beautiful, something that is often referred to as a monument made by giants and finished by jewellers. Such is its exquisite beauty that you want to fall in love that moment, you want to find your own Shah Jahan who would build a monument more beautiful than the world has seen before and you want your love to live on for eternity…
That moment all you want is a Taj Mahal to yourself.
in Discover India, 2007