Monday, October 17, 2011

India! Agra: The Taj Mahal

First View of the Taj Mahal

Blog Entry #33: India!  Agra: The Taj Mahal

Wednesday, October 13, 2011

The Taj Mahal!  Perhaps every schoolchild’s symbol of exotic beauty: according to legend, built out of love and grief by the emperor Shah Jahan for his second wife, Mumtaz Mahal, who died giving birth to their 14th child in 1431.  Though recent scholarship casts doubt on this version, arguing that the Taj represents on image of Divine Majesty (“a vast allegory of the Day of Resurrection when the dead shall arise and proceed to the place of Judgment beneath the Divine Throne” in the words of scholar Wayne Begley), seeing it reflected in the pools that extend along the walkways, it is hard not to agree with the Nobel Prize winning poet Rabindranath Tagore’s characterization of the Taj as “a teardrop on the face of eternity.”

Construction on the Taj began in 1631, the same year as Mumtaz’s death, and continued for over 20 years, drawing on the work of over 20,000 people from as far away as Europe to build it.  Particularly stunning is that no matter from what distance one views the Taj, it is awe-inspiring: whether standing a mile away on the balcony of the Agra Fort seeing it rise over the haze of the Yamuna River, or standing up close to see the amazing marble inlay filled with semi-precious stones, it is impossible not to be overwhelmed by the beauty, detail, and sense of proportion it manifests at every scale. 

First View
Entry Gate to Taj Mahal courtyard
Like Humayun’s Tomb which seems to have served as the Taj’s primary inspiration, views of the Taj are largely hidden until you enter through one of the massive gates, and then there it is, framed by the arched entry way.  Virtually everyone seems to have the same initial response: stunned silence that stops you in your tracks.  Then you move in and begin to absorb its enormity and beauty.

Pat and I began by doing what virtually everyone else seemed to be doing: getting our picture taken with the Taj in the background.  But how to frame the picture?  Virtually every angle seemed wrong: either we stood out with a small Taj behind, or we stood in front of and blocked its symmetry.  Anyway, here’s our best shot – and now we’ll get out of the way.

Sunset reflecting on west side of Taj Mahal
East side mosque & minaret base
We had timed our visit to be on the grounds for sunset, and the setting sun set in motion beautiful light patterns on the white marble.  The 4 tall minarets stand sentry on each corner, casting a long shadow in the afternoon light.  To the west of the Taj is a stunning red sandstone mosque, with a twin building equidistant to the east.  The main entry gate to the south is several stories tall and frames the main entry way.

Waiting to enter the Taj Mahal
India Visitors to the Taj
After we had walked the grounds for a while, Pat and I got in line to walk through the interior of the Taj and view the cenotaphs of Mumtaz and Shah Jahan.  Leaving our shoes outside to ascend to the main platform, we donned hospital booties and joined the line.  One thing I appreciated throughout India, is that though there were many international visitors, in each place we visited the large majority of visitors were Indians, taking in their patrimony.

Detail on arch
Calligraphy of Quran verses on front
Entering the Taj allowed us to observe the stunning detail of the inlaid semi-precious stones and marble relief, as well as the beautiful Arabic script from Sura 89, al-Fajr, “The Daybreak” from the Quran.  Everywhere one turns there has been exquisite attention paid to the detail.  The interior of the monument itself seems small in comparison to the outside, though again exquisitely detailed. 

Looking back to the south entry gate
Monkeys at the Taj
We had a comical moment after we finished our walkthrough: my shoes had been taken while we were inside (You may remember a scene like this from the movie Slumdog Millionaire  -- at least all my students delighted in reminding me of it...).  I thus completed my time at the Taj Mahal as a barefoot pilgrim –which would not have been a problem except the shoes were my only footwear for the next 2+ days for our trip, and we were scheduled to return by train to Delhi that night. 

Taj Mahal and Reflection pool, showing 4 Minarets
Not a problem: I walked the ½ mile back to the western gate in my rapidly thinning booties, and immediately were several young men to escort me to a nearby shoe store where I was fortunate to find a pair of leather sandals that barely covered my feet.  While not quite Gandhi in my appearance, they held up remarkably well during the rest of our time in the north. 

Our final moments in the Taj Mahal were watching the sun set in the west while a full moon rose in the east – an unbelievable coincidence of our visit to the Taj and to Varanasi on the two nights of a full moon.

Sunset over the Yamuna River looking upstream toward the Agra Fort


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