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Published: February 28th 2012
It was only the steep staircases of China’s Great Wall that left me feeling breathless. Though Ankgor Wat was stunning its structural beauty was less impacting than I imagined it would be. The many temples of Bagan, though a feat of engineering, astonishing in size and scope, did not excite me to the same enormity. That is because none posses the same brand of majesty as does the magnificent Taj Mahal. No other man made wonder is so wondrous. None can match that same sense of enchantment. It is unique in its atmosphere. And it appears that I am not the only one so taken by the Taj...
As a cultural icon all around the world, the Taj Mahal attracts much artistic attention and it has been described so beautifully so many times before. Writer and painter Rabindranath Tagore, whose work we saw recently exhibited in Calcutta, described it evocatively as “a tear drop that glistened spotlessly bright on the cheeks of time"
, a poignant reference to both form and feeling. Tagore is not alone in his suggestion of tears. Emperor Shah Jahan himself, the man behind the creation of the Taj, described the monument in these words: “Should guilty seek asylum here, like one pardoned, he becomes free from sin. Should a sinner make his way to this mansion, all his past sins are to be washed away. The sight of this mansion creates sorrowing sighs; and the sun and the moon shed tears from their eyes. In this world this edifice has been made; to display thereby the creator's glory.”
A considerably less eloquent portrayal of this monument to love came from the mouth of contemporary thinker Karl Pilkington, perhaps better known as the” Idiot Abroad.” You may or may not be familiar with his thought-provoking words of wisdom, of which there are many. Here I share with you, for your reading pleasure, Mr. Pilkington’s perception of the famous Taj as the manifestation of a guilty conscience: “If I brought flowers home for she’d be like ‘What have you done?’ But if I built her that she’d be like ‘WHAT HAVE YOU DONE?”
Eloquently put, Karl. But who am I to judge, for this here trivial blog will stand as my own eternal tribute to an edifice which is beyond both my comprehension and my ability to generate sufficiently
Both Chris and I were thankful that the train ride was comparatively peaceful and blissfully uneventful. We were not troubled unlike the last journey, other than being besieged by a hasty mother who practically threw her small son at me, because of course I am a woman and I must be simply itching to mind that child she birthed whist she sits back to enjoy the ride. Thanks for asking!
Free at last from obligatory child minding duties, Chris and I sat together watching India’s countryside pass us by. Fields of waist high shrubs bearing sunshine yellow flowers camouflaged women at their work, dressed in vibrant saris despite the nature of their vocation. They looked ever beautiful, swathed in the ample cloth. However, the men’s fashion in India is all too retro, dress from a previous decade; a time of silk shirts, flared pants, sweater vests and the moustache. Intermittently as we passed each village we would see the local males playing ferocious games of cricket. Its cliché, but it’s true.
Agra greeted us in the early morning but hid from us its crowning jewel as we rode the auto rickshaw to our
hotel, accessed via a narrow alleyway bordered on both sides by small canals of raw sewage. We had already heard that besides the obvious, Agra has little else to offer, more so that it is dirty and unpleasant. We had been advised to stay for as short a time as possible, not even staying the night if feasible. For the sake of our sanity we hate to rush in and out of a place so we decided to stay for at least two nights, and were ultimately not dissatisfied with our choice. Thankfully the hotel we had chosen was liveable and we were delighted to find a beautiful rooftop garden awaiting us from which views of the Taj Mahal could not be surpassed. So now the Taj had been revealed to us, and we fell... head first!
Many hours passed for us as we observed both the Taj and Agra from this lofty vantage point. We realised that we had become spectators to a private viewing of a Disney classic, right in front of us, in H.D. The town of Agra and it’s goings on surrounded us, its buildings projecting bluntly up from the ground, closely spaced and without
uniform height. Homes coloured blue, pink, yellow; pastel hues faded into a state of almost-attractive dilapidation. Monkeys fought noisily on the level roof tops, raucous and untamed, until an irritated proprietor would rush out, broom handle at the ready however ill-equipped in speed and reaction to present a genuine threat. Instead, they threw stones, aimlessly. Chris caught me daydreaming; I gave it away most likely because I catching flies (mouth hanging wide). He asked if I was thinking about having a pet tiger named Raja. I didn’t have to answer, because he already knew.
After showering away the dirt and the cold acquired during the night train we jumped on a bus destined for the town of Fatehpur Sikri, just 40km away. It took just an hour to reach and upon our arrival we snaked between small houses set on the steep hill before the Jama Masjid Mosque, which we found, surrounded by ridiculous, sweater wearing Billy goats.
The mosque itself was beautiful; an aesthetic delight, but the overall experience spoilt by a relentless onslaught of unofficial and irritating “guides” and children putting out their hands asking for chocolate. It was a challenge which we chose to accept;
to photograph the place feigning isolation, I confess to the reader now that our photographs of the mosque may be a trifle misleading. However, we failed in our search for personal solace as we sat in a far, shady corner. Instead our stomachs lead us back to town for lunch.
In the afternoon we paid our admission to visit the red palace. We knew even before our rupees had been returned that the cashier had considerably short-changed us. We politely asked for the remainder, on the off chance that it was in fact an honest mistake, to which the notes were thrown at us abruptly. I wish I could say that this was our only experience of poor manners this day, but only a short time passed before a teenage girl commanded us to “move aside” for her with a waft of her hand. Though worry not; she was left reprimanded and blushing where she stood as a usually tolerant Chris told the insolent madam in no uncertain terms that this was not an appropriate way to speak to people. It’s a miserable observation to pass that the locals of Agra were generally very discourteous, even contemptuous to us
as foreigners, without good reason.
Together we laughed it off and it failed to ruin our day. We walked leisurely about the palace, sharing facts and other novelties acquired from the guidebook which told interestingly of the Emperor Akbar’s many wives of different faiths from around the world whom he housed luxuriously in the grounds. The palace’s most lovely attraction was the Ornamental Pool and pavilion where we sat leisurely so as to fully enjoy.
Soon we found ourselves on the rooftop of our hotel once again to eat a delicious dinner as the sun set about the Taj. The light slowly faded until the orange skies paled before becoming inky and black, concealing the building almost completely. Only the faintest hint remained to see for those who knew it had stood there previously.
The next day, morning had yet to break but we were up and out. We made our way to the West entrance and joined the small queue that had already formed. We didn’t wait long before acquiring tickets and then had to join another, gender segregated line to pass through security. Now the main gateway stood in our midst, towering before the Taj
on account of proximity, concealing the marble with its orange brickwork, a construction of obvious Arabic designs. As we approached, the Taj Mahal could be seen up close for the first time, framed in the curvaceous doorway through which we then passed.
Standing before this illustrious cenotaph, we were awestruck! The dawn light was not yet prevalent enough to properly illuminate the white marble and the paleness of the structure almost blended with the pallid, early morning sky. This must be one of the most arresting attributes of the Taj; it’s innate ability to transform with light. To absorb, reflect and to radiate; modify and become a spectrum of colour as daytime shifts. I’m sure this can only be realised upon a face to face meeting.
During this travel adventure I have on occasion been ambushed by a swelling sensation in my throat which leads to the prickle and threat of tears in my eyes despite experiencing no feelings of sadness, but simply because I feel so acutely fortunate for an occurrence as it happens. It happened this time, before the lovely Taj, and it seemed nonsensical as I stood there with so many others knowing that not
only myself but hundreds of millions of others will share this experience at different times. Yet I felt fantastically lucky all the same. I still do.
Together we passed the Diana bench where people mimicked regal poses before a backdrop of other tourists. We reached the stunning pools, elongated mirrors of pristine recreation. Here the perfect symmetry and architectural supremacy of the Taj is showcased best. We took many photographs with which we were especially pleased. The building could not be more photogenic. Yet another compliment to the site is that, despite the many tourists, there is still space to sit in seclusion, space enough to really enjoy it.
In all we spent about three hours there, dividing our time between the gardens and the platform, from which angle the monument is transformed again and the sheer size revealed. From here the intricacy of the design can be realised and appreciated. This white marble monolith is the epitome of senseless adornment; towering columns of Arabic script taken from the Koran, outer walls decorated elaborately with tasteful floral pattern, stone of different name, property and colour fit together as jigsaw pieces creating Aztec-like design. The dominant architectural influence is
unarguably Islamic, which is obvious from that celebrated tear drop-like pinched dome roof (though religious influence, if any, is highly debated). At its heart is the mausoleum where husband and wife rest together eternally. This hollow room is shared also by pigeons and filled less than peacefully during daytime hours by ephemeral observers.
Eventually and with regret we drew ourselves away from the Taj only to spend the remainder of our time staring at it fixatedly from our rooftop while we maintained our full bellies. Though we had planned to visit Agra Fort and nearby bazzar our plans failed to materialise. We just couldn’t steal ourselves away.
In considering whether the Taj Mahal is a “romantic location” it is not plain for me to answer. I hadn’t imagined it to be, and therefore I did not find it to be (though being there on the arm of my handsome boyfriend was very pleasant). Of course it has its romantic story; being built for a dead wife by a husband who was later imprisoned by his own son and was thus only able to view it from his distant prison cell. It is a tragic account of Shakespearean proportions.
The Taj is beautiful and the idea of it is especially romantic but that does not necessarily mean that love is in the air, tourists are not walking around perpetually doe eyed, I assure you. It appears that not everyone is best please with the epic romantic gesture that is the Taj, the ultimate display of one-upmanship if you will. Members of the male species might well complain that Shah Jahan outperformed all romantic gestures to follow, a similar sentiment as that expressed by Mr. Pilkington. Take Urdu poet Sahir Ludhianvi who spoke of his frustration lyrically, exposing his insecurity in the face of such an extravagant gesture of love, for he would never be able to provide his lover a gift of such grandeur. I leave you with his words of lament: "Countless men in this world must have loved and gone,
Who would say their loves weren’t truthful or strong?
But in the name of their loves, no memorial is raised
For they too, like you and me, belonged to the common throng… This bank of Jamuna, this edifice, these groves and lawns,
These carved walls and doors, arches and alcoves,
An emperor on the strength
of wealth, Has played with us a cruel joke.
Meet me hence, my love, at some other place."
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