We took a camel cart ride to the main gate of the Taj Mahal. We still couldn’t see the majestic monument at that point—you have to walk quite a ways into the compound before you catch the first glimpse of the marble wonder.
And what a glimpse it is! Upon first seeing the Taj Mahal in real life, I actually felt goose-bumpy.
Stunning and gorgeous, but to think it was built without modern machinery from 1632 to 1653, taking over 21 years and employing thousands of the best craftsmen and builders from all over Asia and India at the time. And elephants! Lots of elephants helped build the Taj.
The story behind its existence is hopelessly romantic. The powerful Mughal emperor ruling a good portion of India at the time, Shah Jahan, grieved deeply over the loss of his third and favorite wife, Mumtaz Mahal, who died giving birth to their 14th child. Mumtaz was the most beautiful, lovely creature, the story goes….she and Shah Jahan were deeply in love (forget for a moment about the multiple wives thing—just go with me) and the shock of her death put the great emperor into a funk for six months, during which he could barely function.
Then one of Shah Jahan’s top advisors told him he should build a mausoleum for his departed wife, a grand mausoleum befitting the grandest love of his life. Shah Jahan got busy, and decided on the finest white marble of Rajasthan, rather than the more common red standstone of the day. The marble would be in-laid with semi-precious stones such as lapis lazuli, ruby, emerald, onyx, crystal, and many others.
Three centuries later, the result of all this effort is still enjoyed by thousands of people who visit the Taj Mahal from all over the world every day. On Nov. 12, 2012, our family of five Alaskans visited this site. Even down to our eight-year-old daughter, we spent hours gawking and taking photos, simply transfixed on the grandeur and beauty of this structure. We soaked up every morsel that our gracious guide, Sanjay Kumar Dalela of Kanakdhara Travels, could tell us.
We spent at least an hour outside of the Taj Mahal before we ever even walked through it. Enjoy, don’t rush the Taj, Sanjay wisely told us. I’m glad we listened to him.
Everything about the Taj is symmetrical and deliberate. A gate on one side will have a gate built exactly the same on the other side. The grounds outside of it include gardens, a reflecting pool, other buildings and gates. Each high arching gate of sandstone is decorated with calligraphy from the Qu’ran, as is the entrance to the Taj itself. A mosque flanks one side of the great tomb itself, while other mausoleums on the grounds are for Shah Jahan’s two other wives and for Mumtaz Mahal’s favorite servant.
Mumtaz’ coffin is placed exactly in the center of the grand door frame into the mausoleum, which lines up perfectly with the entrance gate far off in the distance. The only item that is not perfectly symmetrical is that Shah Jahan’s coffin is set off to one side of his wife’s.
The inlaid marble that completely covers the building is exquisite. What’s almost more amazing to me is how well-preserved and clean the Taj Mahal and surrounding grounds are, something I haven’t seen at other historic monuments we’ve visited in India.
Tourists must take off their shoes to walk through it or else use disposable shoe covers. As “premium ticket” holders (required of foreigners) we got the shoe covers, bottles of water and got to go through express lines, which made the entire visit much more pleasurable than spending the extra hours that surely would have come with buying the cheaper tickets available only to Indian residents. (Indian citizens are also welcome to buy the more expensive tickets, Sanjay told us.) The difference in cost is 20 rupees (roughly 40 cents US) for domestic residents and 750 rupees (about $13.75 US) for foreigners, but the higher rate was worth it.
What makes infinite sense, but what I hadn’t realized, was that the Taj Mahal is right on the banks of a river, the Yamuna, which made transporting the materials needed for its construction much easier. Elephants were also used to haul in building materials. The river also provides a natural barrier around one side of the Taj, which makes for beautiful vantage points.
After an incredible morning, we took a short break for lunch, then toured Agra Fort that afternoon, again with the knowledgeable Sanjay by our side. The red sandstone fort was imposing and huge. A large moat surrounds it, with numerous lines of defense and gates. Our 14-year-old son Robin liked the chutes where boiling oil was poured down upon would-be invaders.
Inside the fort are a number of palaces, including one where the emperor Shah Jahan himself had lived. It was in this palace where he was imprisoned by one of his own sons who dethroned him and took over. That palace, also made of the gorgeous inlaid marble, overlooks the Taj Mahal. One of Shah Jahan’s daughters who never married him took care of him here, where he apparently spent many hours of his confinement looking out at the mausoleum, mooning over his beloved Mumtaz.
As if all this wasn’t enough for one day, our guide took us to a marble factory that still employs craftsmen who inlay tables, trays, coasters and small boxes for tourists to buy. With meticulous precision, these men cut tiny pieces of semi-precious stones in delicate patterns depicting lotus flowers, elephants, peacocks and many other beautiful Indian designs.
They carve out indentations in the marble and then glue the stones back in, creating true pieces of art. The Rajasthan marble is see-through—when light is held behind it, it warms the marble into a lustrous, golden glow. When light is held above the marble, tiny flecks of crystals within the marble appear, as if by magic.
Brian should have sensed we entered a danger zone when we walked through the doors of that marble factory. I fell in love with one particular marble inlaid coffee table—wouldn’t it be perfect in our log home back in Fairbanks, right next to the woodstove, I said? A large woman wrapped in a sari, Tara, helped me convince Brian with every ounce of salesmanship she possessed. It wouldn’t stain; it wouldn’t crack; it wouldn’t break or ever chip. We would never regret the investment in this piece of true craftsmanship and art from India, Tara promised.
“This is for your wife, the love of your life, and for your precious children! What wouldn’t you spare for them?” Tara heaped upon the poor hapless man.
Before we left, we’d shelled out the required rupees. The national Indian government, interested in keeping this trade and craft alive, subsidizes the shipping of items from this factory to anywhere in the world. So, our gorgeous new coffee table included “free” shipping to Alaska. This is a little hard to believe, as free shipping, or shipping (period) to Alaska from even the Lower 48, often doesn’t apply to our neck of the woods. But, we took it on faith that everything will work out and handed over the credit card.
Early the next morning, our driver Shiv took us to the banks of the Yamuna River, on the other side of the Taj Mahal, to view the monument at sunrise. The air pollution in Agra was thick (made worse, I think, from all the Diwali fireworks let off from revelers the night before). The smoky haze made the scene even more surreal. The humble viewing spot was next to some sort of Army cantonment, an iron fence separating us from the polluted Yamuna itself. A few stray dogs sniffed and scratched around, with two of them growling and snapping at each other, gearing up for a fight.
It wasn’t a place we wanted to linger, so we moved on.
I’m hopeful, though, that our own little slice of Agra—the coffee table and testament of Brian’s true love for his family!—will show up at our house in Goldstream Valley sometime before we leave India.
It will remind me for years about big Tara, the quiet and knowledgeable Sanjay, about Agra fort, boiling oil and the imprisoned Shah Jahan. The table will recall the perfect white symmetry of the Taj Mahal itself, encrusted with precious and semi-precious stones, the four minarets around it, tall and proud. But mostly, it will remind me of the fanciful, romantic story of the Mughal emperor and the beautiful queen he loved above all others.