So much has been said about the Taj Mahal, that it will probably sound like a cliché if I repeat it here. However, all of those incredible and glowing descriptions that travellers give the gleaming white marble building are really true. The one fact that most people err on is that 350 years ago Shah Jahan built the mausoleum for his second wife, who died in childbirth. Though the romantic notion does live on, in reality the plan of the Taj (said to be the work of its main architect, Isa Khan of Iran) its Islamic inscriptions and the layout of its gardens, all point to it being a model of the Islamic view of heaven - in other words, more of an opportunity to express a love of God, rather than love for a woman. It is truly an amazing place to visit and I was extremely fortunate to be in the right place at the right time to enjoy an experience at the Taj that very few visitors are privileged to see.
One morning over breakfast in Jaipur, I was reading the newspaper (as you do) and was surprised to see that, for the first time in 20 years, the Taj would allow night visitors. Supposedly the Taj was created to be savoured both during the day and during the full moon. The authorities had decided to open the Taj for the full moon and two days either side of it. Due to the lateness of the decision, the first viewing would only be for two nights (after the full moon) and limited to 400 people per night. Furthermore, this would only be a trial for 3 months (a total of 12 nights) and only then would it be decided if this practice would be continued.
Now, an opportunity like this is very rare indeed, so I altered my travel plans, and within 48 hours I was heading to Agra (punctuated by my Balaji exorcism experience). Arriving at the ticket office 30 minutes before the close of sales, I fought off many other locals and the mosquitoes to secure a much sought after ticket. The following night, I would be part of the first group of people in 20 years to view the Taj in the evening - but what more, my first sighting at the Taj would be by moonlight, which would definitely place me in amongst a select few.
After passing some incredibly stringent security measures (night viewing was originally halted due to security concerns) myself, and a Taj-aholic from the US, Pearly (who returned to Agra after I informed her of the night viewing two days prior) waited patiently as our small group swelled in numbers. Only 50 people would be allowed in at a time, with a viewing of 25 minutes. Because all tickets had to be purchased the day before, the suddenness of the decision meant that not all 400 tickets were sold on the night of our visit. In our group, only about 40 people arrived, and surprisingly enough, 90% were Indians - foreigners were definitely in the minority here.
Finally, our allotted time was upon us, and the air of expectation was exhilarating. I rapidly had my ticket validated, and quickened my pace to reach the viewing platform. My first sight of the Taj is one that I will never forget. I remember walking through Petra two years ago and sighting the famous Treasury through the narrow fissure in the Siq and I thought that this was one of the great entrances to a building in the world. Well, seeing the Taj bordered through the arched silhouette of the gateway building would equal that, and it caused me to draw my breath in total awe. Once through the gateway, and with the moon high in the sky over my right shoulder, I was transfixed by the ethereal, mystical quality of the Taj at night - the building appeared quite luminous against the greyish sky of the glowing moon, and the whole scene had an unearthly quality about it. It seemed like you were looking at a photo than at reality. The only artificial light source in the whole scene was a red point of light glowing from inside the Taj - it was the lamp that permanently burns above the cenotaphs of Shah Jahan and his adored wife, Mumtaz Mahal. Seeing the Taj by night was worth every second of that awful bus journey, the mosquitoes at the ticket office and the steep price of the admission charge. This was probably the most memorable 25 minutes of these holidays.
The following day, I did the usual Taj experience and visited it during the day. I was so impressed with it the previous evening, that I decided to stay at the Taj from sunrise to sunset, and because you cannot bring food into the Taj, it was to be a test of whether I could fast for that long (which I successfully did despite some hunger pangs in the late afternoon) but this was a very small sacrifice for the benefits that I would reap.
Viewing the Taj for such a long period made me appreciate every line and curve of its structure, as well as the symmetry created by the buildings that were constructed with it. You could look through archways and see the same archway repeated in different buildings in the distance. The definite highlight though was to watch the play of colour against the white marble during the different times of the day. In the morning, the Taj was cast with a pink hue, which changed from a beige to cream and then to a blinding white in the middle of the day. As the afternoon continued, the Taj again changed colour to an ivory, yellow and finally at sunset, to a pale shade of orange. Once the sun had sunk below the horizon, the Taj took on a grey cast. I have never seen a building take on so many moods of colour in the space of a day - it was just incredible. I finally left the Taj as the prayer call from a distant mosque signalled the end of the day - quite appropriate I thought.
So what did I learn after my 10 hours at the Taj? After studying the building in great detail: its line, its form, its symmetry, the detail of its marble work, the serenity of sitting in those beautiful gardens, the impact of colour upon its onion-shaped domes, I can confidently say that the Taj Mahal is the most perfect building ever created.
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