A white jewel enclosed in a frame of dark cypress, the Taj Mahal
seems to float over the hot, flat Indian plain. Its distinctive
silhouette, mirrored in the placid surface of a pool, is instantly
identifiable. The shimmering tomb is one of the most frequently
photographed structures in the world.
A white jewel enclosed in a frame of dark cypress, the Taj Mahal seems to float over the hot, flat Indian plain. Its distinctive silhouette, mirrored in the placid surface of a pool, is instantly identifiable. The shimmering tomb is one of the most frequently photographed structures in the world.
A testament to love
Built by the 17th century Mughal emperor Shah Jahan as a mausoleum for his wife Mumtaz Mahal, the tomb complex survives as an enduring testament to their devotion. Mumtaz Mahal, the highborn beauty who bore her husband 14 children during their 19 years of marriage, lies in a white marble sarcophagus at the heart of the tomb. Her husband, who ended his years as a prisoner of his usurper son, is buried alongside.
A visual cliche
Frontal views of the renowned Indian monument have become one of the great visual cliches of our time. The massive central dome, the four slender minarets, the marble, the pool and the gardens all seem too unreal and, perhaps, too beautiful for description and proper appreciation. But there is much more to the Taj than majestic loveliness.
The greatest love story
The mausoleum celebrates one of the greatest love stories of all time – that of the Shah Jahan and the “Chosen One of the Palace,” Mumaz Mahal. According to legend, as a 16-year-old prince, the future “King of the World” fell in love with Mumtaz at first sight and defied convention by seeking her hand in marriage. He waited five years to make her his third wife. She ruled at his side almost as an equal. Her death during the birth of their 14th child in 1631 left him wild with grief but determined to build history’s finest monument.
Rich, cruel and sensual
Mughal conquerors had swept into north India a century earlier. By the time of the Shah Jahan, they had established a monarchy that is compared to Louis XIV in France. The Mughal court, located at Agra, Delhi, Lahore or in tented encampments used during the dynasty’s military campaigns, was rich, cruel and sensual, as well as omnipotent on the vast subcontinent. As descendants of Tamerlane and Genghis Khan, the Mughals delighted in combat, savage sports and torture. It was the law of “takht ya takhta” (“throne or coffin”). Less than a century after Shah Jahan was deposed by his ruthless son, the dynasty was in decline. By the beginning of the 19th century, all of India was ripe for conquest by Great Britain.
Desecration before restoration
For a time, it seemed as if the Taj – like the Mughals who had built it – would vanish. A scheme to dismantle the tomb and cart its marble back to England was abandoned only because of lack of prospective purchasers. The grounds became overgrown. The desecrated tomb became a place for picnics and midnight trysts. Only in the 20th century has the Taj been restored to something of its former glory, standing an enduring monument to a vanished empire and to a memory of a great love.
The handiwork of Agra’s craftsmen is exquisite. A special kind of marble inlay, in the style of the work at the Taj, is executed on table tops and in jewelry and trinket boxes. We visited a factory that did this type of work. Men sit on the floor in a dark room with a lathe-like instrument, cutting and polishing stones. The amazing part is how they accurately cut the stones to fit the pattern on the marble. They seem to eyeball everything with no set measurements. There are carved teak figurines, ivory statues, marble carvings, semi-precious stone inlays, metal, wood and leather work, wool carpets and cotton rugs. I picked up some tiny ivory and alabaster trinket boxes with the inlay designs of the Taj. They made delightful gifts.
Heavier pieces, tables and carvings were sent by boat and took four months to arrive. There were moments of great misgivings and feelings like I would never see the pieces I had purchased. I thought back to the question I had posed to the shopkeeper who had sold me a nest of beautifully carved tables: “How do I know I can trust that the tables will be sent?” And he answered, “Don’t trust me madam, trust God!” Who could argue with that? Everything arrived in tact and in good shape.
When to go
The most comfortable months to visit Agra are December through March. Avoid Fridays, when the lines are unusually long due to prayers. Early morning or evening offers less crowding and a stunning view of the Taj in dawn or twilight.
Where to stay
The Mughal Sheraton/Agra offers one of many lovely places to stay in Agra, in viewing distance of the dome of the Taj and a short buggy ride from the entrance. There is also the elegant (and expensive) Hotel Amarvilas. Elephant and camel rides await you at the hotel’s ornate entrance, beautiful gardens surround the property and there are very good restaurants on both properties.