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.