Here’s the last pics of our London trip (and warning, there are a LOT of pics) from the Victoria & Albert where we spent a good 5 hours. Like the British Museum there are many antiquities here, but the emphasis on the V & A is more the decorative than the historical or archeological. (NOTE: If you are interested, I have made as many of these pictures as I can links to the V & A or other reference on the work.)
An interesting example is one of the first works you see at the museum:
This work, Peach Blossom Spring, appears as a large example of Eastern calligraphy but on closer examination, the characters are Roman; the work presents an English translation of the famous Chinese fable, the Peach Blossom Spring. (In the inset I think you can see ‘All Of A’…) This same theme is the subject of a wonderful outside garden:
There were a great many old Asian works, such as these from Japan (a favorite place and era of Kim and myself):
And India, Nepal & Pakistan:
Very dramatic is the Sculpture Hall, with examples from many times and places, but mostly from the great days of the British Empire:
From our SCA days and still today, Kim and I are much interested in Medieval Europe. The V&A is a treasure trove – no, treasure hoard – of such articles:
Lastly, the V & A has an unmatched collection of fabric arts of all kinds, a particular passion of Kim’s. These articles are challenging to capture in photos, especially encased in glass as they all are. I’ll start with some medieval examples, all priestly wear:
Three later period examples; the piece on the right was done by Mary, Queen of Scots:
Now, Kim’s great favorite of all needlework is blackwork, of which there were some tantalizing exhibits:
I know that’s a great many pictures … I hope if nothing else this conveys the immense breadth of what’s to be seen at the V & A. I took over 250 shots there, and daughter Alex took many more as well. Things we could show you include: Richard Burton’s costume from his Stratford-on-Avon Henry V (1951); The Valkyrie costume from The Producers (2004); the amazing “castings gallery”, where architectural works, some stories high, have been re-created in plaster; the ironworks collection; the 20th century design hall, including the Garden Egg chair; the Montefiore Centerpiece, 37 kg of sterling silver with as baroque a rendition of Moses, Ezra and David as you could imagine; plus paintings, jewelry, fabrics and every-day items beyond counting.
Pre-Raphaelite that he was, Rossetti was also a poet. For this painting he composed a verse of 14 lines, which ends:
Lo! Toward deep skies, not deeper than her look,
She dreams; till now on her forgotten book
Drops the forgotten blossom from her hand.
The thing museums make me wonder more than anything else is: Are we – people, humanity, all of us – different now than we were before? Does the sentiment of Rossetti, or the devotion of the embroiderers or chasuble makers, or the vision of the sculptors who chose gods as their subjects, does any of that still exist? Or have we become over-fond of the “realistic”, the cynical, the clever, the – frankly – small? If you tell me Rossetti’s painting is puerile, contrived, and shallow, I know what you mean. But I still like it, and I wonder what Rossetti really thought when he painted it.
Thus, finally, ends the chronicle of our London trip. I hope to get back to more India postings soon, such as the planning for our end of month trip to Kerala. Namastē.
Sorry its been so long between posts … after our return back to India I had quite a lot of start-of-year, post-vacation work catch-up to do, including preparation for our IBM Connect 2014 show in Orlando. Now its been 9 days since my return from a 9 day stay in the US, and jet-lag is only now dissipated. We saw a lot of sights on our London trip … one of which being the Tower of London, so here I share some pictures and thoughts.
First a bit about the city. It occurs to me London may be the oldest intact city in the world – and by “intact” I mean structurally recognizable, and having districts with continuous identification over a very long period. This revelation – not terribly original, I admit – came to me while we were back in India, watching Olivier’s Henry V (having just seen Jude law, we wanted a comparison). The start of the film is a panning shot over a diorama of London in Shakespeare’s time, ending up at the Globe Theater. Early on you see the famous London Bridge and a white castle on the north bank of the river:
Seeing this I remarked, “That’s where we were!” – meaning, the Tower of London. Suddenly the tube maps I had looked at, and all the place names I had heard of somehow fell into place as I realized modern Londoners have a mental map of their city not unlike what Shakespeare himself must have had. How different from a place like Pune, where 90% of what you see is new since the mid 90s, and long-time residents have often have trouble recognizing where they are.
Ok, enough commentary … here are some pictures:
The Tower is not a single castle or building, it is several all enclosed by a bordering wall. The largest is the White Tower (the center pic above) which was build by William the Conqueror in the 11th century, and so is the oldest part of the overall Tower. Inside the grounds are many buildings built over the centuries, and in some places historical staff re-enact medieval life, like the campsite in the picture on the right.
The Tower of course is famous as a prison:
Above left are some carvings made by Catholic prisoners in the 16th century; these are in the Salt Tower, a series of plain stone cubicles and stairways. Rather more comfortable where the apartments assigned to Sir Walter Raleigh, who was imprisoned in the so-called “Bloody Tower” (where supposedly Richard III murdered his young nephews) from 1603 to 1618. Raleigh’s desk, shown above, is where he authored his “History of the World”, an ambitious work if there ever was one.
If you visit the Tower you must see the Crown Jewels:
These are maintained in the “Jewel House”. Since these are the top attraction for visitors to the Tower, there very wisely is a system of managing the flood of visitors. Railings allow the crowds to queue in an orderly fashion, then every 30 mins or so another batch of regalia-hungry tourists will be allowed to enter. Photos are forbid inside – I will only say there are one or two knick-knacks therein I would not mind having for my own, not the least of which was the Wine Cistern, a mind-numbingly gaudy punchbowl that holds 144 bottles of wine and weighs over 250 kg – in 18-karat gold no less.
Coming back to the White Tower, through much of its history (including in WW2) that tower was used as an armory. The display of arms and armor there is unequalled:
On the top right is one of the armors of Henry VIII, famous (or infamous) for its codpiece. Quite interesting was the display of swords of Kings of England, beginning from George III.
I’ll leave off with this last photo:
Here a re-enactor, garbed as a warrior from Williams the Conqueror’s time, explains a bit about medieval life to a young visitor. The Tower really is like that – live history that is all at once workaday and amazing.
Soon, a final London post, about the Victoria and Albert.
Afraid further pic-posts from our London trip will have to wait, as I am later today off to the US for our yearly Collaboration-Services Conference, IBM Connect 2014. There among the things I will do is present an hour-long session in video-panel format, with 10 developers from my worldwide team answering questions and sharing insights about IBM Sametime. Though I have no fears about the software holding up, networking at these events is always tricky, so wish me luck.
But before I go I wanted to award a Mighty Marvel No-Prize to my good friend Tom, who correctly identified the location of the crowd-shot in my last post as The Rosetta Stone. The shot above is closest I could get and was taken 1-handed with camera aloft. I guess seeing as this is an artifact at the British Museum that virtually everyone has heard of, it’s not surprising people would cluster round. But for those of us who read neither hieroglyphics, nor demotic, nor ancient Greek (the three languages used on the stone) I can only say it is a nice stone indeed, of impressive heft and neatly done carving, and one that would be a great conversation starter if displayed in the family den.
Now, back to a few hours of work, including some rehearsal for my talk, and then at 6:30 pm my time I embark to Mumbai to begin the journey towards Orlando and all things Collaborative and Mousey. I should land in Florida around 6 pm Saturday local time, for an elapsed travel time of about 35 hours. Such are the joys of international business life.
One of our goals in our recent holiday trip to London was to see some of the many museums there. Wikipedia tells me there are 240 museums in London, including the Sigmund Freud Museum, Michael Faraday Museum, and the Type Museum. Seeing we only had 4 days to work with, I hope we’re forgiven that we only saw “the big three”, starting with The British Museum, The Victoria & Albert Museum and The Tower of London. Herewith follows my first whirlwind chronicle of these places.
But before I begin, a challenge: Try to identify where the picture above was taken, and put your guess in a comment, either on FB or on the blog. It is from one of the 3 visited museums, so extra credit if you can identify a specific exhibit. I’ll share the answer in my post after this.
The British Museum
The British Museum brings together artworks and cultural artifacts from civilizations past and present – but, mostly past. The three samples above are all from the ancient Egyptian hall, one of the first you will encounter when you enter. There are many colossal statues here, and their size and demeanor sets a dramatic tone as soon as you enter. Going from left to right, the first dates from 1850 BC and portrays Amenemhat III; at only 31 inches high, this is one of the smaller works. The remaining two both portray Amenhotep III (aka Amenhotep the Magnificent) and date from around 1370 BC. The middle statue is 60 inches high, the one on the right 114 inches – think about it, nearly 10 feet! – and weighs 3,600 kg. The expressiveness of these ancient works is striking, giving us a window into the character of these rulers from over 3,000 years ago.
Next stop was the ancient Greek collection: Incredible. Every other thing Kim and I saw we felt certain we had seen before – in pictures of course – in art history books, book covers, etc. Perhaps you have the same feeling looking at these examples:
Just to give you a sense of how much stuff there is here, the helmet shown above – dating from 650-570 BC – is one of 62 bronze helmets in the museum collection. It was acquired by the museum in 1904 from a Mrs. Hawkins, who also donated a bronze greave and a statuette of Mercury. Such factoids can easily be found using the museum’s search function, which let’s you look for, for example, “bronze helmet”. Pretty much, if you have a picture of something from the British Museum, and a basic sense of what it is, you can find out everything you could ever want about that specific piece.
We spent a long time looking over the museum’s most famous exhibit: the Elgin Marbles:
These amazing sculptures adorned the Parthenon, until they were removed by Thomas Bruce, the 7th Earl of Elgin in the early 1800s. There is controversy over whether these priceless artifacts ever should have been removed, or if they should be returned. All that aside, we should be glad these works have been preserved. 2,400 years old, these statutes show both a realism and intense energy that is instantly affecting. For example, the horse’s head, above, comes from a section where originally the gods witnessed the birth of Athena. This horse is one that drew the chariot of Selene, the moon goddess; I daresay not till Da Vinci was the horse so expressively rendered by western artists.
It is easy to spend an hour just looking at the marbles alone, which we did. They are arrayed along walls in their own very large hall. At either ends are some monumental free standing sculptures. The lounging figure of Dionysus, on the right below, would have been eight feet or more had the wine god been standing.
Alas, we only spent a bit over 4 hours in the British – we had to make an early dinner and then off to Henry V – and barely saw anything of the Asia, Medieval or Middle Eastern halls. Those will wait till our next London visit, though no way of knowing when that would be.
Next posts, The Victoria and Albert (I promise) and The Tower of London (I hope).
Myself, Kim and Morgan have returned to Pune – arriving back home around 5 am on Jan 1 – while elder daughter Alex is back in Boston enjoying one of our signature New England weather events. Herewith some initial report on our revels.
A minor hitch at the start of our visit, Alex’ Christmas Eve flight from Boston to London after a long delay had to be rescheduled; her connector to Halifax would arrive long after the second leg to London had departed. She was re-booked for the 26th and was able to reach London first thing Friday morning where, groggy but mobile was able to join us in our rambles about town, and later to see Henry V.
First of the shows we saw was The Mousetrap, a comic mystery by Agatha Christie which has been playing continuously for over 60 years. This was tremendously entertaining; if you have read somewhat of Dame Agatha’s works – as have myself, Kim and Morgan – you quickly pick up on her signature characterizations. As to the ending I can only say if you see this show, you will be guessing up till the conclusion – after which the actors taking their final bows, swear you to secrecy to never reveal the mystery. Like the rest of the show, this vow is a quaint throwback, quite meaningless in the internet age … still I’ll leave it to others to reveal the identity of the killer.
On Friday it was off for more serious fare with Henry V starring Jude Law. This is rather a hot ticket, but I was able to snag 4 seats via GetMeIn.com (said seats having been purchased by one Craig C Willers and re-sold to me).
This play is well known to our family, all of us having watched many times both the Olivier and Branagh versions, as well as local productions. The first thing to say about this show, directed by Michael Grandage, was that it was “raw” Shakespeare. The sets are spare – nor more than the “wooden O” Shakespeare himself cited – and the actors render their lines with an uptempo pacing that moves the show along. These things are in line with the goals of the Grandage Company, which are to produce plays accessible to a younger, wider audience; in this season of 5 plays 100,000 tickets were kept at a price of £10.
However, while I enjoy any staging of Shakespeare where a top company of actors comes together under top direction, I feel this show missed its opportunity. This play is supposed to cap the cycle that begins in Henry IV Parts 1 and 2. In those plays the young Henry searches for his place in the world, looking through the eyes of men both common and noble. In Henry V, the king must integrate these two views and finally resolve his own character.
Alas, Jude Law did not bring that through to us. His Henry was never at a loss, never in doubt, even though the play gives him many chances to show this struggle, as in the scene where the traitors are uncovered – Jude was scolding and smug in his treatment of the turncoats, showing not a hint of self-doubt after betrayal by his own best friend – or as in the famous “Harry in the night” scene – rather than discovering the answers to the hard questions posed by the common soldiers, Jude almost berates them in a “how can you be so thick?” tone. Law’s Henry ends the play as he began, a good and upright king – which is fine, but I was hoping for something more.
Still, this was an excellent show that kept us hanging on every word. Pistol, Bardolph and Nym were very well done – they were very much the human face of the play – and the final wooing scene with Henry and Princess of France Katherine was the best I have seen – it captured both Henry the soldier bringing a human touch to state courtship, and Katherine the princess as a bargaining chip, but one who is determined to speak truth, as when she says “the tongues of men are full of deceit”.
When it comes to Christmas and Year-end holidays, we Salazars are very much set in our ways: we celebrate at home with an over-large tree decorated with ornaments saved over decades; of course, cookies; Christmas music 24 x 7 that always includes at least one playing of The Waitresses 1981 should-have-been-a-hit Christmas Wrapping; then Christmas Eve dinner at home and Christmas Day dinner with good friends Tom and Meredith.
Alas, this year our traditional celebration is not in the cards. Rather than open up our home from storage-mode, stock food, etc., we decided to all meet elsewhere for the holiday. And, where better than London, a place Kim and I have long had on our when-will-we-visit-there list.
The plan is already packed: We all arrive early Christmas Day; then it’s off to afternoon Christmas Dinner at the strangely named Scoff & Banter; then, back to the hotel to watch the debut of the twelfth Doctor on BBC One. Boxing Day is for some shopping, then a matinee of The Mousetrap. Friday we see Jude Law in Henry V. Then its visits to the British Museum, the Victoria & Albert, and the Tower of London. We all depart for our respective homes morning of New Year’s Eve, I’m sure all properly exhausted.
I’m sure we’ll report on our travels during the coming week. Meanwhile, whether you stay or go, we hope the holiday brings you joy. Be well.
Yesterday we were not in the mood to cook, but neither were we in the mood for the production of going to a restaurant. I had the idea of trying baida roti – a kind of fast-food where a roti is lightly fried, coated with egg, then used to roll a variety of fillings. Probably the top place to get baida roti here in Pune is Kapila Kathi Kebab, so off we went.
Set on barely 100 sq feet at a busy corner on Dhole Patil Rd., KK Kebab has no tables; you eat while standing, or in your car, or you get “parcel” – the way you say “take out” here. In a way it is the ultimate food experience: Just food, prepared while you watch and put into your hand by the cook. Also, as you get there you see this is exactly the sort of place Tony Bourdain would go to, so it’s worth a try on that basis alone.
The verdict: Great. The rotis themselves had excellent flavor, kind of like a fresh white-flour tortilla but made rich with the egg and the ghee for frying. The filling – chicken, fresh onion, and the ubiquitous green coriander-and-chili chutney – was spiced just right, with just enough heat and a bit of cardamom, cinnamon, or both, underneath.
I went by KK Kebab around 6:30 pm and, frankly I expected more of a crowd, but aside from 1-2 others, it was just me and Morgan ordering. I think these guys need a business plan. When you think how shawarma-like these rolls are I think the plan is pretty obvious:
If it worked with the Avengers is can work with Krrish, India’s super-hero:
So, KK Kebab is you’re listening, get on the phone and start dealing – next year I want to see Krrish Kapila Kathi Kebab.
Here in Pune I get my hair cut at A Cut in Time barbershop, located in the Boat Club Road area only about 4 or so kilometers from my flat. Some months back I posted a picture of a roadside barber; these are very common across the city. However driver Rupesh recommends this place as better quality, and I’m always happy to have him guide me in matters of this sort. The cuts I get here are good, though a bit reminiscent of the Kennedy Administration.
This shop provides a great many services:
At Rs. 50, a haircut is less than $1.
I have not yet dared the chest-hair trim, but I have sampled the head massage with oil. Among the oils you can choose from is a rather terrifying fire-engine red substance – this I declined, and instead selected olive oil – extra virgin of course. The experience was both relaxing and invigorating, though the waft of olive oil that followed me the rest of the day kept me much in the appetite for shrimp scampi.
Grilled Spicy Fish with Pineapple; Grilled/Roast Pork with Chili; Sticky Rice Steamed in Pineapple; my own personal pot of rice noodles in tomato/vinegar/chili sauce. Heaven indeed.
But I get ahead of myself. Almost since I began my assignment here in India, I have been looking for opportunity to travel to China. It’s only 2 1/2 time zones away; my IBM division has a sizeable presence in IBM’s China Development Lab (CDL) in Beijing; and, my IBM Sametime product line has many customers in China – so a visit would be a great chance to connect with the team I have worked with remotely for so long, and also to learn about the China market.
Work-wise, I think the trip was a great success, both with customers and with the team. In this post, though, I want to share some experiences of the trip itself.
First order of business is I need to extend my deepest thanks to my friend and colleague, Yu Y Wang, aka Charlie (many Chinese people who work with Westerners adopt a Western name to simplify communication). Here’s a pic of Charlie and myself at Beijing’s Olympic Park, in front of the famous Water Cube and one of IBM’s buildings in Beijing:
Not only did Charlie create an excellent and detailed agenda for my trip, all the time I was there he extended the greatest, most famous hospitality of China.
He fed me.
Back in USA you may get a sense of how food is viewed by Chinese people, by going to better Chinese restaurants and seeing the round tables with the carousel, packed with numerous plates of food and many people deftly wielding chopsticks to pick off morsels as the food travels by. One of our team lunches during my stay was exactly that:
Here we had: Duck Braised with Fish (anchovy size fishes you ate head, bones and all – I probably ate more than my share), Soup, Green Vegetable with Chili and garlic, Noodles, more Braised Duck, and Chicken with Peanut. And a few more dishes were added as the lunch progressed. There were about 10 of us but still, it was a hearty meal.
Talking to my teammates I find that lunch like this is pretty common, maybe not every day, but many days. What a fantastic change from our typical American work lunch of hastily grabbed pre-prepared sandwich, eaten at your desk, while you attempt to catch up on email. This lunch connects you with your teammates, clears your mind for the afternoon’s work, and just tastes really great.
My first night in Beijing Charlie took me out for one of the culinary must-dos of a Beijing visit: Eating Beijing Roast duck. This we did at Jiuhuashan Roast Duck, one of the top duck restaurants in all of the city:
The duck here is fantastic: The skin has a flavorful crunch, but with just the perfect amount of oil so that is seems each mouthful melts as you taste it. And we had not only roast duck but duck intestine – sautéed with vegetables and chili, amazingly tender – duck gizzard – roasted and sliced paper-thin, chewy and full of duck flavor – duck tongue – small, chewy bits in agar jelly – and duck soup – very rich duck flavor and also with the right hint of ginger and scallion.
Charlie is from Sichuan Province and after a few tentative inquiries – “Do you really like spicy food?” – on Tuesday night he shared with me the signature dish of Sichan: hot-pot at one of the branches of Haidilao Hot Pot restaurant. Haidilao is an award-winning place, and deservedly so – the service, quality and ambiance was outstanding. We arrived a bit early so there was no wait for us, but when we left we saw the large waiting area was filled with 100s of people, playing cards and other games, and having free snacks while they waited for tables.
The whole point of hot-pot is, well, the pot:
We got a pot with 2 separate soups, a peppery, vinegary soup on the left and a rich, mushroom-flavored soup on the right. I saw other diners using a single type of soup.
While your soup is heating up, the servers bring the ingredients:
From left to right they are: Duck throat, Catfish, Pork intestine, Duck intestine, Pork Sausage. And these are only some of the ingredients; we also had beef, vegetables, shrimp dumplings, and tree-ear mushrooms.
You probably can guess how this works, but if you can’t: The soup comes to a boil, then you grab a fresh ingredients with chopsticks and plunge it into the hot soup. After 1 –2 mins, it’s cooked, and you can dip it into a bowl of other sauces, or just eat it hot from the pot. The various ladles can be used to rescue lost morsels – of which I created several, as my chopstick skills are not as great as Charlie’s.
Another great treat at Haidilao: hand-stretched noodles. I should have captured a pic, but here’s one from the web:
In this “noodle dance”, the noodle-guy will stretch one noodle using moves half rhythmic gymnastics, half wu-shu – the noodles fly around like lassos till, when finally stretched enough, they gather up the long strand and drop it in the soup.
My last night Charlie took me to the Middle 8th Restaurant (a name I still don’t understand) which specializes in Yunnan food; Yunnan is just to the south of Sichuan and Charlie explained the food was similar to that is his home province, though not quite as spicy.
The picture that introduces this post was taken at Middle 8th … I should have taken more, but even though I was at end of my trip and had tried more dishes than I can remember, I was still more eager to eat than to photograph. In addition to the grilled fish, roast pork, and pineapple rice, we had cold noodles, a kind of cold spicy grain dish (not sure if it wheat or some other grain) and “steam pot chicken”, the famous soup of Yunnan, which looks like this:
That was my trip: 5 days and 50 dishes, and each dish delicious. I hope to be back in the spring. Till then … thanks, Charlie, and thanks everyone at CDL – you can be sure I’ll bring my appetite with me when I return.
* In China there is a proverb, “To the ruler, the people are heaven; to the people, food is heaven.” There is a book of this very title, which I have, written by AP reporter Audra Ang about her experiences as an expat journalist in China.
Imagine a piece of jewelry, painstakingly crafted, subtle and refined in ornament, and composed of natural materials selected for the richness of their innate beauty. Imagine this made as a keepsake, a thing such as any of us would present to a wife, or a husband.
Now imagine this work of the jeweler’s art at monumental size, surrounded by gardens that project silence and peace, and placed on a riverbank where the openness of the floodplain and the slow, steady flow of sacred waters bear continuous testimony to this most singular gift.
Imagine this, and you will have some sense of the Taj Mahal.
I would say most people thinking of the Taj typically envisage images like these:
Taj Mahal is built entirely of white marble that was brought to the city of Agra from the town of Makrana, in Rajasthan. This marble has a milky, cloud-like quality to it such that from far-off, or even from a middle distance, the palace seems light and floating.
However one of the more striking things to me was the incredible detail work that can be seen in virtually every surface of the Taj, like these:
The floral adornment in the middle bottom is carved in relief on the face of the stone; the surfaces feel extremely smooth. The main embellishment is inlaid into the marble, using the ancient technique of pietra dura and a variety of different minerals, including: yellow marble, jasper (black marble), jade, turquoise, coral and lapis lazuli.
The other amazing part of the Taj Mahal is the plan of the entire site. The marble palace stands at the head of a long, rectangular garden:
Mughal architecture makes extensive use of 2- and 4-way symmetry. The Taj is 4-sided, is surrounded by 4 towers, inside has 4 chambers around the main tomb. To left and right of the palace are smaller palaces of red sandstone, one of which is today a functioning mosque:
The minarets, domes and smaller flanking domes all are mirror images. To our modern way of thinking this symmetry would be dull and boring. but here, with the great scale, the riverbank setting, and the detailed ornament – which constantly draws the eye – the effect is grand, dignified and serene.
Most visitors to Taj Mahal, it seemed to me, were there to take photos of each other, and to enjoy family or group vacations. Yet the peacefulness of this place can be very affecting, as this fellow Westerner seemed to find:
For our part, after seeing the palace close up we spent much time strolling the gardens. These were flanked by trees and were virtually deserted – everyone really wants to just take photos of brother and sister making funny faces in front of the Taj. For us, we spent our own meditation time looking on these scenes:
At last, it becomes time to leave and one must reflect on the story of Taj Mahal: How the Mughal Emperor Shah Jehan had a treasured wife, born Arjumand Banu but that he named Mumtaz Mahal, or “Jewel of the Palace”. The histories tell us that she was the Emperor’s trusted partner and favorite of his three wives: Jehan and Mumtaz had between them 14 children, including Aurangzeb, who ultimately succeeded his father and became the last Mughal Emperor. Mumtaz was also Jehan’s most trusted advisor. Holder of his royal seal, she advised Jehan to sire no more children with his other wives; this of course strengthened her own position, but at the same time Mumtaz hoped to prevent the political unrest that would come from different bloodlines competing for primacy. Alas, this proved to be a vain hope.
After 19 years of marriage, Mumtaz died in giving birth to her 14th child, a daughter, Gauharara Begum, who lived for 75 years. After her death, Jehan began construction of the Taj Mahal. Yet as he himself aged, he fell prey to disease and in his weakness his four sons – all by Mumtaz – began to contest for supremacy. Aurangzeb, third of the four, emerged as the victor: The second brother Shuja died in obscurity in Bengal after defeat in battle; Aurangzeb assassinated his eldest brother Dara after defeating him in another battle; then finally the youngest brother Murad was executed on trumped-up charges of murder. Whatever harmony Jehan and Mumtaz might have found in their own family life, it clearly did not extend to the lives of their sons.
The popular narrative told by guides and guidebooks is that Shah Jehan never himself experienced the completed Taj – at our hotel one of the stewards told us Aurangzeb was mad his father had spent so much money, so he imprisoned him in Agra Fort before it was done. But Jehan was actually imprisoned in 1658, 5 years after the palace and gardens were completed – I’m sure the great Emperor walked the very stones we did and looked at this sublime palace from the very same vantages. Doubtless Aurangzeb was motivated more by fear of his father – he had after all just killed all of his father’s sons excepting himself – than he was by thrift.
Shah Jehan is regarded as the greatest Mughal Emperor. He not only built Taj Mahal, but numerous other palaces, forts and mosques, all equally resplendent as the tomb of Mumtaz. Was Taj Mahal truly love’s last gift as the romantic stories profess? Or was it just another projection of power, a statement to the world and the last excess of an Emperor who had already created for himself the Peacock Throne, composed of over 1,000 kg of gold and 230 kg of precious stones?
I don’t think we can know the answer to that. But, from Agra Fort, through the narrow slot of a stone archway, we were able to see the same view that Jehan would have had:
Today, all is sadly smogged over with pollution. Yet perhaps Jehan saw through a mist as well, wondering at the end of life what had been vanity, and what had been truly important.