It seems a shame, somehow, that to enter the world’s greatest monument to love you’ve got to first pass through security that’s as tight as any airport. And this is after you’ve been drilled on what you can and can’t take inside. Water and cameras are allowed. Food, cigarettes, matches and lighters are not. Talk about bad karma.
All is forgiven once we emerge, frisked and X-rayed, on the other side and pass through the magnificent arched red sandstone gateway which is designed to restrict the view of the main event until the last possible moment. Then, suddenly, the Taj Mahal appears in all its luminous glory. It is one of those pure, ‘Oh wow!’ moments which I can only liken to the first time I clapped eyes on Uluru. The vision before us is the classic postcard view with the perfectly symmetrical Taj framed by four minarets and its reflection shimmering in the rectangular pool that lies in front.
But what the postcards can’t capture is the Taj Mahal’s aura. It really does give off a love vibe. Not surprising, really, as it was built in the 17th century by Mughul emperor Shah Jahan as a mausoleum to his favourite wife Mumtaz Mahal (meaning ‘chosen one of the palace’), who died at the age of 39 shortly after giving birth to their 14th child. He owed her one, really.
It was his fault she died,” says local guide Raju Sharma, who elaborates by telling us that, while she was between four-six months pregnant, Mumtaz Mahal travelled by elephant from Agra to Burhanpur in order to give her husband moral support during a military campaign. This led to the post-partum complications which ultimately killed her. On her deathbed, she made the emperor promise to show the world how much he loved her.
He obliged in the most decadent, grandiose style possible. The statistics surrounding the Taj’s construction are astonishing. Designed by Iranian architect Ustad Isa, it took 20,000 people 22 years to build. More than 1000 elephants were used to transport building materials from all over India during the construction. He must have loved her a lot.
But far from just being a representation of love, the Taj has also been a symbol for the political and religious divisions existing within India. Night visits were banned in 1984 amid fears that militant Sikhs and militant Kashmiri separatist groups wanted to blow it up. Then, during the height of tensions between India and Pakistan in 2001, a mad plan was hatched to camouflage the Taj from possible Pakistani air strikes with a ‘dark cloth’. Thankfully, the camouflage was never needed and moonlight visits were resumed last year (see breakout). But post 9/11, no one’s taking any chances, hence the tight security and recent talk of installing security cameras.
The Taj has also had its share of controversy concerning its ownership. Some Hindu nationalists have claimed that the structure isn’t a Mughal construction at all, but an ancient Shiva Temple known as Tejo Mahalaya which the Shah Jahan simply took over for his own use. To further complicate matters, Indian Muslim organisation The Sunni Waqf Board earlier this year claimed ownership of the monument and demanded a cut in the tourist revenue.
Whatever its origins, though, once inside, Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus and Westerners are united in their wonderment of the Taj’s beauty. To the awed visitor, the Taj Mahal truly trancends all cultural and historical boundaries. As we walk down the path and past the gardens that lead towards it, women wash themselves in the pools and children playing in the water shriek with delight. Reaching the plinth we don our blue paper slippers which cover our shoes and slide our way around the tomb to get a closer look.
Great lengths have been taken to keep the Taj looking pristine. Cars aren’t allowed within one kilometre of the building and all heavy industry in nearby Agra was moved out some 15 years ago to stop the milky white marble from turning brown. In 2002, it was given a facelift to remove decades of grime and pollution stains.
Up close it is absolutely flawless and surprisingly detailed. The intricate floral inlays snake their way through the marble and Koranic verses written in Arabic rhapsodising about “paradise” climb the walls. Despite the crowds, the Taj retains its serenity. People lounge in the arched alcoves or sit on the floor while, overhead, black pariah kites fly around the dome.
This tranquillity, however, is shattered once we venture into the mausoleum itself. Trapped pigeons flutter around our heads while children shout at the top of their lungs in an attempt to test the acoustics. The echo in here supposedly lasts for 15 seconds (my ringing ears can attest that it does). As if that wasn’t noisy enough, people hurl clattering coins through the grille into the crypt below, where the real caskets of Shah Jahan and his wife (closed off to the public for 10 years) are contained.
We have to make do with replicas which are located in the centre of the tomb. As the only asymmetrical feature of the Taj, Shah Jahan’s casket is much larger than his beloved wife’s. A little unfair, I think, given that the tomb was built for her.
As we leave, the sun is beginning to set and the Taj appears even more beautiful and creamy, with shadows pooling in its alcoves. There are numerous legends surrounding the Taj. My favourite is the one about Shah Jahan wanting to build another identical Taj Mahal, only this time in black marble, on the other side of the Yamuna river. It would have looked spectacular had he pulled it off. Unfortunately, having plundered his kingdom’s riches to build the first one, he was imprisoned by his son in Agra’s Red Fort. Tortured with a view of the Taj from his cell window for the rest of his days, he must have mused that one Taj was definitely enough.”