Sunday, January 11, 2015

India: Taj Mahal

Not a piece of architecture, as other buildings are, but the proud passions of an emperor’s love wrought in living stones. 
            - Edwin Arnold in: Shefali Patel A Penchant for Love

The Taj Mahal hardly needs an introduction.  It is framed in countless photos, has been described in countless words.  The image of its domed white marble structure is unmistakeable, its place in the love story of Shah Jahan and Mumtaz Mahal well-known.  Like the Mona Lisa, it's familiar to all who visit.

Was it worth the trip in person?  Oh, absolutely.  Even more than I expected.  The picture-perfect postcards fail to capture how appreciation for the Taj Mahal builds progressively over a visit. 

While it seems strange to say about a site that's visited by millions of tourists a year, the Taj Mahal sits in layers of seclusion.  The outermost ring marks the halt of motorized vehicles, kept away to try and minimize the effects of air pollution on the striking white marble.  Cross this line and you're greeted by idle camels, waiting to carry tourists inward.  We opted to walk instead, pausing to pick up tickets and shoe coverings (for when you ascend the square plinth, to help protect the white marble from dirty shoes), and again for security screening (separate lines for men and women, with a long list of prohibited items).

The path inward leads to a large gate of red sandstone and contrasting white marble, decorated with flowers of inlaid gemstones.  Through this gate, you first see the Taj Mahal, perfectly symmetrically framed, rising in the distance, shrouded in mist.  It is an approach carefully curated to maximize awe and appreciation.   

The Taj Mahal looks just like the iconic photos.  And yet, until you're there, you can't fully appreciate its scale, its majesty.  It is unexpectedly extraordinary and breathtaking. 

The Taj sits as the centerpiece of a garden complex, flanked by two identically-built mosques, with lines of manicured shrubs and a reflecting pool inextricably leading the eye forward to it.  It is built in nearly perfect symmetry.  Nothing but sky is visible behind it; the ground behind dips to the banks of the Yamuna River.  The Taj Mahal reveals itself differently in different lighting; we were blessed with fog that lifted to beautifully-filtered sunlight as we entered.

Our tour guide said that Shah Jahan intended to build a second "Taj" across the river as his own tomb, identical except in black marble, a partner to the white marble tomb of his beloved wife Mumtaz Mahal.  The internet suggests this is a myth, though an attractive one.

Walking around the outside of the Taj Mahal reveals it to be a highly geometric building, with visually pleasing angles and symmetry.  Despite all the photos, I'd never realized that the Taj Mahal is octagonal -- a cube with chamfered corners.  The four minarets give it a sense of scale and 3D structure from afar.  They stand at a slight angle, designed to fall outward if they should ever collapse.  The structure was constructed to stand the tests of time and nature, with a well foundation to help stabilize it during earthquakes. 

After appreciating the Taj Mahal as a whole, approaching brings out the fine details.  The giant vaulted archways are adorned with flowers which are not painted, but constructed with semi-precious gemstones.  Each piece was handcrafted and inlaid in the marble.  Framing these are verses from the Koran, also inlaid.  It took thousands of artisans and craftsmen over twenty years (1632 - 1653) to construct the Taj Mahal -- an unthinkable amount of man-hours and material cost. 

Notice how a flower can be composed of multiple pieces, each of which must be shaped separately and exactingly. While the stones can withstand nature and time, they do not always survive interactions with man.
(see the missing flower in the lower right) 

The inside of the structure is more intricately decorated, with the marble cenotaph (empty tomb) of Mumtaz Mahal sitting dead center, and that of Shah Jahan off to one side; their bodies are interred below, at garden level.  We entered the inner sanctum with a crush of tourists, circled the cenotaphs with the ogling and photographing masses, and then were spit out the other side.

We ended our visit by sitting and quietly contemplating the Taj, before walking away with one last glance back.  I left with a tinge of sadness, an air of finality.  You can only first see the majesty of the Taj Mahal once in your life.  If we do return, it will be many years from now.  Hopefully the Taj Mahal will make it through the years untarnished by the pollution which threatens it.

Note: I've glossed over many of the details about the structure and history of the Taj Mahal to focus on the experience of visiting.  For more information about the Taj and the effects of pollution, there's a good article in Smithsonian Magazine from 2011 (link).

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