Taj Mahal: An Iconic Monument

When you see and hear so much about an attraction like the Taj Mahal, it often doesn’t live up to your expectations. But that didn’t happen when we finally saw it up close. We got our first peek at the Taj from the other side of the Yamuna River to see it at sunset.  And just as we were contemplating life and death as we gazed at the massive tomb, we also witnessed a cremation ceremony going on next to the river not far from the Taj Mahal. The building itself was as beautiful as expected but it wasn’t until the next morning when we saw it at sunrise that it took my breath away. We had to be up bright and early to head to the ticket office when it opened at 6am, hopped on an electric shuttle bus that brought us closer to the East Gate (no motor vehicles are allowed inside a perimeter around the Taj Mahal to protect it from pollution. When we arrived, the gates were still closed so we stood in line, men on one side and women on the other. Finally the gates opened, we filed inside and went through security screening. And as we walked through the south gate entrance, there before us stood the Taj Mahal, probably one of the most famous and most photographed buildings in the world. I have seen so many photos of it that it was already very familiar, I knew the long channel of water that leads to the pool, the benches (I remember the photo of Princess Diana as she posed there) but to see it in all of its’ glory is exhilarating. Our guide Ali had been there hundreds of times and knows all of the best spots to take the perfect photos. I did two poses on one of the benches, I did the same one Ali had my friend Lindsay do but he quickly corrected me and told me that was the one that only women do, so I had to do one more masculine pose to make him happy… I was fine with both. We quickly moved from one photo op to the next, getting in all our best pictures before the rush of the crowds arrived. The Taj Mahal was glowing with a pinkish hue for the first half hour or so, before it dissolved into a shade of gold and later the marble turned to a brilliant white. It was truly awe inspiring and it sure helps to have a great guide to explain the history and the work that went into building such a massive structure. The white marble is punctuated by inlaid designs of flowers and other graphic elements made up of tiny semi-precious stones, lapis, jasper, mother of pearl, carnelian, malachite, coral, jade and onyx, and they glitter in the right light. The Taj is actually built on a raised marble platform to ensure that its’ backdrop is only the blue sky. It is framed by 4 minarets that lean slightly outward, constructed so that in the event of collapse (from earthquake or attack) the minarets would fall away from the main structure. As you enter the Taj you see a series of steps with a grated cover… that is the real resting place of Shah Jahan and his empress Mumtaz Mahal and is blocked from entry. In the main hall are the two fake tombs of the king and queen but a warning that photos are not permitted inside, even though you will see quite a few tourists firing off a few shots, believing that they are immune to the rules and ignoring the respect that the Taj deserves. Shah Jehan and Mumtaz Mahal is an epic love story. When she died while giving birth to their 14th child in 1631 the Shah was devastated (his hair is said to have turned white overnight) and poured everything into building a monument to his beloved. It took 20,000 workers 22 years to construct, working day and night under 1074 candles (there are 22 small minarets on the top of the south gate to symbolize the number of years it took to build). Soon after it was completed Shah Jahan was overthrown by his son and imprisoned in the nearby Fort… a rather luxurious jail cell and with a view of his creation and tribute to his wife. Today the Taj is closed to the public on Fridays so the Moslem workers (many who descend from the original builders of the Taj) can go to the mosque for prayers and then return to the Taj for its’ weekly cleaning. You can see big metal rings attached to the main dome that allow the cleaners to attach ropes to reach the entire structure with their toothbrushes and non-corrosive cleaning solution.

Apart from the Taj Mahal and a short visit to the Fort, there isn’t much else to do or see in Agra. Perhaps I am a little overwhelmed with my long visit to India and have seen enough temples and forts to last a lifetime. We did head out of town to Fatehpur Sikri, an ancient fortified city about an hour outside of Agra and the former home of Akbar, the most famous Mughal Emperor, and his 3 wives. You see Akbar’s residence, the stage set up in the middle of a small pond where he would be entertained, his massive bed that is raised almost 2 meters off the floor, the room where he would meet his advisors, the area where he could hold public audiences and the palaces of his 3 wives. The most elaborate stone carvings on the chamber of his Muslim wife, the most simple decoration for his Christian wife and the most massive extravagant palace for his Hindu wife, the only one to bear him a child. He also had 92 mistresses who did bear him children but of course they were never recognized. Even when we entered the mosque with the graves of Akbar’s holy advisors and their descendants (men’s graves are raised, women’s are closer to the ground), we were scammed. Throughout the tour the guide kept tempting us about our opportunity to make a wish and have it come true. In the mosque we sat down before a ‘holy man’ who gave us a sheet to read over, basically saying we could buy a piece of fabric along with flower petals and a string. We would lay the fabric on the tomb of Akbar’s religious advisor (who apparently was responsible for Akbar having a child) which would be donated to the holy man’s decendents later, sprinkle the flower petals and tie the string in a window next to the tomb while making our wish. It was a very hard sell and when I refused, the guide and holy man tried to guilt me into it by saying ‘but it’s for charity’. My friend Lindsay agreed and bought the smallest piece of fabric for 500 rupees (about $10usd), the next size was 750 rupees and the larger fabrics were more than a thousand. She took the fabric, went inside and laid it on the ‘tomb’ along with the petals and then tied her string to the window. Again another experience soured by people looking for ways to take more of our money.

Along the way there were thousands of people walking along the highway. At first we thought it was a normal thing but then discovered they were actually on a pilgrimage, walking nearly 250km over two days to Rajasthan. It happens every year after Holi, young and old, all walking in the sweltering heat… the annual Karauli Devi Mela, one of the biggest processions of its’ kind.  They walk to the Kaila Devi Shrine in the Karauli district of Rajasthan, many waving red flags along the way and an estimated 7 million devotees made the pilgrimmage this year.  There were numerous roadside shelters set up with music blaring and residents and businesses along the route providing free food and water to the pilgrims. Despite the heat and physical strain of walking 150km in two days, everyone seemed to be having a good time, smiling and laughing along the way. It was remarkable to see but the photos don’t do it justice, it was just too difficult to capture the scope of it since the crowd is so spread out along the route.

We made one other stop in our visit to Agra, again devoted to Akbar, but this time it was his tomb.  A beautiful structure on the road into the city but after seeing the Taj Mahal up close, I’m sorry Akbar, but it doesn’t compare to the majesty of the Taj.

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