Published: March 30th 2006March 13th 2006
I'd been told that it was possible to get a good free view of the Taj from a path running behind the complex and next to the river. This turned out to be the case but there was something of a rubbish dump feel about the path which explained why there weren't many other people there. Again, the air was rather hazy and so the risen sun was merely a ball of redness rather than anything more expansive.
The small amount of research I'd done had told me that the ~$15 dollar ticket for the Taj only allowed one entry so, as I wanted to see the appearance of the Taj as the sun described its usual arc across the heavens, this meant I would need to stay inside the complex for the entire day. In preparation for this I bought a packet of crisps and some chewy sweets to go with my usual water bottle, plus a stack of postcards to write when I was on the inside.
Of course, the first thing that happened to me on entering the complex was that my bag was searched and I was told I would have to leave my crisps
and sweets in the cloakroom and pick them up later. Since there were no cafes inside the complex itself, I was forced to survive the day on water alone, plus the energy generated by my digested breakfast. I'm assuming the purpose of this ban is to prevent littering, but there are other ways of doing this without forcing all visitors to starve.
All issues of hunger were soon banished when I laid eyes on the Taj itself. The anticipation had begun to grow when I'd seen glimpses on previous days from Agra Fort and the rooftop restaurant in a nearby hotel, but it was only when I saw it from the southern gate, its setting at the end of the reflecting pools familiar from umpteen TV documentaries and newspaper articles, that it registered in my brain that I was really there. My four months of travel around the subcontinent had taken in many palaces, forts, and temples, but any jaded feelings that might have accumulated were swept away in an instant.
There are several aspects to the Taj that leave you open-mouthed. Its sheer size is awesome, and with nothing behind it but sky it appears to have
been positioned on the horizon. It seems incongruous that the dirt, stench, and desperate commercialism of Agra are only yards away behind the walls of the complex. The crowds of people milling around the Taj look unbelievably insignificant, as though in a tour group from Lilliput. Even from the southern gate, you can see that there is astounding detail on the Taj's surface. Its whiteness, though not uniform due to the effects of air pollution, is also arresting because there's just so much of it.
As you approach, the surface detail starts to become clearer, calligraphy appearing as well as floral patterns. The preciseness of both is startling, the clarity in no way diminished by nearly 4 centuries of existence and many millions of touching tourists. Up close, you can only marvel at what a staggering achievement the Taj is. It's massive, it's beautiful, and it's comfortably the most amazing building I've seen on this trip.
As may be apparent, I got a bit trigger-happy with my camera but hopefully some of the pictures will support my argument of mitigating circumstances.
From a historical point of view, the Taj was completed in 1653 (about 100 years after
St Peter's in Rome, and about 50 years before St Paul's Cathedral, to give a European context) with its purpose being as a mausoleum for Mumtaz Mahal, the favourite wife of the emperor Shah Jahan. Though the popular tale is that Shah Jahan's love for his dead partner inspired him to create this masterpiece, another school of thought says that he was actually attempting to create a replica of heaven on earth, with the role of Allah being played by himself. Either way, it's still a wonder, and a testament to a level of creativity rarely seen in modern-day architecture.
Structurally, the Taj is on a raised platform, with 4 minarets at the corners of the platform. The minarets lean slightly outward, so that in the event of an earthquake they won't fall onto the tomb itself. The calligraphy around the archways was engraved in a proportional fashion such that the letters all appear to be the same size regardless of their distance to an observer at ground level. The flowers on the walls were created from inlaid precious and semiprecious stones, gathered from all parts of the known world at the time. Some of the flowers on the
walls of the tomb itself are made up of more than 60 separate parts. The cenotaphs of Mumtaz Mahal and Shah Jahan are next to each other in the centre of the building, in a chamber lit by a single lantern and surrounded by some of the most intricate carvings and patterns in the whole complex.
Very much playing second fiddle to the Taj are the other parts of the grounds. A red sandstone mosque sits to the west of the Taj, with a corresponding building housing visitors' quarters completing the symmetry on the east side. The gardens of the complex are in immaculate condition, complete with plentiful benches and trees providing shade from the intense midday sun. A platform set in the water channel between the southern gate and the Taj provides the setting for the standard shots of the Taj, either reflected in the water or as a backdrop to grinning visitors perched on a marble bench. Tame chipmunks scurry around the pathways looking for food, and in the quieter parts of the grounds red-bottomed monkeys clamber agilely through the branches.
After my initial photo-fest, I retired to a shaded bench to write a few of
my postcards. As has been the case all over India, being a stationary foreigner is a guarantee of visitors. My first batch consisted initially of 3 young Muslim boys, who had the same mastery of English as I have of Hindi. After telling them my name and where I was from, further conversation proved impossible until I started throwing out random names of members of the Indian cricket team. This was enough of a breakthrough in Anglo-Indian communication that they then asked their sister, mother, father, and assorted unspecified female relatives to come over and engage in a staring and smiling session - them looking at me and smiling, me looking at them and smiling. Eventually this non-verbal discussion proved exhausting for both parties, and they moved off with a friendly barrage of waves.
Next up was an Indian Army tank driver who had been lurking nearby during the previous conversation. He was based in Jaisalmer and was in Agra on his own for a bit of sightseeing. Though his conversational English was no great shakes his military English was fine so, dredging up memories of my previous job working with the British Army, we happily discussed chains of
command and the performance of various weapon systems until that seam of topics was mined out.
Early afternoon, I went for another circuit of the Taj to get some photos with the sun high in the sky - the marble at its whitest, the sky at its bluest. Fortunately the clouds and haze had all gone and it was actually rather hot. I took refuge in another patch of shade for the rest of the afternoon, and emerged again near sunset. Unfortunately the sunset wasn't anything special, but even so the surface of the Taj darkened to a warmer shade. This changing of colour of the marble throughout the day, as the sunlight hits it at different angles, is supposed to be symbolic of Allah's existence. With the moon already risen, I left at closing time at 7PM. After retrieving, and eating, my crisps and sweets from the cloakroom I returned to the hotel.
With no Post Office nearby, and with my train leaving early tomorrow, I asked the hotel reception if they would post my postcards for me, which they agreed to do. I hope they don't read them too closely, as I wasn't entirely complementary about
I'm glad that I left the Taj until last on my trip (which was by no means down to planning, more like disorganisation in my first month in India), as I think anything else I have seen would have struggled to compete. In fact this is the last bit of sightseeing that I will be doing on this entire journey, so I'm finishing on something of a high.
There are more photos below