The Taj Mahal: An ode to perfection and symmetry

The Taj Mahal is, without doubt, one of the most talked about, photographed, and written about monuments in the world. From academic critiques on its symbolism or its architecture to essays on love using the Taj Mahal as a metaphor to haiku poetry, you have it all.

For Indians, the Taj is a national treasure beyond any other, and for many international tourists the Taj Mahal is India and vice versa. The Taj has inspired countless brands from hotels to tea to inner-wear to tiles to… just about everything. Its enduring legend and its status as one of the 7 modern wonders of the world has ensured that everybody has an opinion on the Taj Mahal, whether they have seen it once, twice, many times, or not at all. :-)

I was in Agra last month and the Taj, not surprisingly, was on my list of sights to see. Though I had never seen the Taj Mahal before, I had an image of what it would be like, and even what it should be like. My mental image of the Taj was also influenced by a lot of unsolicited comments and advice from friends and family members, who had seen the Taj and were keen to share their two bits with me. A sample:

“Taj Mahal is so beautiful and romantic. You’ll love it”

“What? You stay in India and you haven’t seen the Taj? Are you sure you are an Indian?

“Look, Sudha. See the Taj with an open mind. Just empty your mind of all emotions and prejudices of what you think it should be like when you go there. Otherwise, you’ll hate it.

“I didn’t like the place at all. It is over-rated and thanks to excellent marketing it has become what it is today.”

I recall all this as I stand in a queue  with countless others waiting to  enter this modern “wonder of the world”.  Though I tell myself that I should regard this visit to the Taj with an open mind, it is difficult not to be affected by my own prejudices plus the influence of all that I have read about or heard about the Taj.

Continue reading

Poetry in red sandstone: Fatehpur Sikri

Imagine a city.

A city built entirely out red sandstone and protected by a 11 km wall on 3 sides and a lake on the fourth.

A planned city, perhaps the region’s first, by an Emperor to honour a Sufi saint.

A city whose royal quarters housed the Emperor, his 3 queens, his harem, his favourite minister, and included a mosque, a temple and a giant game board, among many other structures.

A city that was abandoned 14 years after construction began.

A city that is a ghost city today.

A city that was named Fatehabad, but is known today as Fatehpur Sikri.

Imagine that city.

Part of Fatehpur Sikri’s original city wall is visible through the trees

Continue reading

The ascent of Pavagadh Hill

The town of Champaner is situated at the base of Pavagadh Hill, which is a sudden rise in an otherwise gently undulating landscape. A climb up Pavagadh Hill reveals a heady mix of interesting geology, mythology, religious confluence, history, strategic military brilliance and foresight, clever design and architecture, rainwater harvesting systems, sustainable measures, a hidden valley of flowers, etc.

Geologically, Pavagadh Hill is quite different from Champaner. The Hill is composed of rhyolite, a volcanic rock, while Champaner is almost entirely sandstone, a sedimentary rock. It is this volcanic feature which made Pavagadh an important and strategic location for whoever ruled it. About 830 m high, it descends or ascends (depending on your point of view) in five plateaus, each of which are separated by steep cliffs. This feature enabled fortifications to be built at vantage points around the hill in a circular manner, making it indefensible and non-breachable. And also confusing for the visitor/tourist.

Photo: Rupal Parikh

Continue reading

The Indo-Islamic mosques of Champaner

Detail from a wall carving on Kevada Masjid

“It has not rained in Champaner for 2 years, and then it rains like this. When it rains…” the guide’s voice trailed off mournfully.

About 20 pairs of suspicious, skeptical  eyes looked at the muddy, slushy path that seemed to worsen as it wound its way to apparently nowhere. But according to Manoj, the guide, the path led to 2 mosques, one of them with the most beautiful embellishments imaginable on its walls.

Maybe Manoj did not sound convincing enough, or maybe it was the mud, but most of the owners of those eyes decided to forego seeing those two mosques. But some did agree to go with the guide and see the mosques. I was one of them.

Our tour group was in Champaner for a 2-day visit. We had arrived that morning from Mumbai to a cloudy, rainy and wet day, in the wettest rainy season that Champaner was experiencing in a long time. We were to see the ruins of the medieval city of Champaner, which included many mosques in various stages of restoration or disrepair, depending on one’s point of view. I wondered how many we would be able to see with the heavy rains having made the access roads paths almost impossible to negotiate. (There are reportedly 18 such mosques, and we managed to see about 5 of them.)

Continue reading

The forgotten medieval ruins of Champaner

Once upon a time there was a prince. He wasn’t particularly a happy prince or, for that matter, an unhappy prince; but he was an ambitious prince. He wanted to be remembered for posterity for his conquests, and his rule. The prince wanted to be like his grandfather, who had founded a great city and named it after himself. But the prince had to first become the king. And one day, he became the king.

Detail of a window at the Jami Masjid

The prince, now the king, set his eyes on a neighbouring kingdom, which was very well fortified and was known to have an impregnable defence system. The king’s  advisers and soldiers urged him to consider some other kingdom to conquer.

But he declined; it had to be this kingdom. The king’s strategy was not to engage in a battle or a war; he captured the lower fortifications of this hilly kingdom, and then laid siege to it and cut off supplies.

Cloisters of the Jami Masjid

The kingdom’s ruler was amused and offered the king money, women, and jewels, but the king was not enticed. He was firm about his intentions—he wanted the kingdom. Nothing else. To show that he meant business, the king laid the foundations for his palace and a place of worship for his soldiers just outside the fortifications and at the base of this hilly kingdom.

Continue reading

If only stones could speak… A visit to Stonehenge

Stonehenge. From the moment I read about it in a school history book, I wanted to visit it. Photographs of stone slabs in a circular formation should have been boring to a 10 year-old, but the opposite was true for me—I was fascinated with Stonehenge, so much so that everybody in my family knew about it. When I left for my year-long stay in London in September 2008, my father told me, “You’ll finally see the Stonehenge now.”

And I finally saw Stonehenge for real at 11 am at on a wet, grey and rainy day in July 2009. Instead of elation and joy at having finally seen my “childhood dream”, my first reaction was one of intense disappointment — I had expected towering stone slabs rising up to the skies, but all I saw was a cluster of stony protrusions on a plain, featureless landscape. Added to this disappointment was the persistent rain that had followed me from London, leading to a perfect set-up for the much-anticipated visit to Stonehenge turning into a disaster.

I gave myself a strict talking to about not judging monuments by their appearance and to enjoy my visit as i walked towards the ticket office. I had almost cheered up when I saw the people lined up to buy tickets to see the monument. There were babies in prams, toddlers being given their first or maybe 11th history lesson by their fond parents; bored tweens and teens dragged around by determined parents. There were also busloads of bemused Italian, Spanish and Chinese students (who were in England to learn English) and trying their best to look interested as their instructors shouted out amidst the din: “Look at the stones and feel history and pre-history”.

Continue reading