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 one, 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 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.
It is only 6.00 am and from the buzz generated by the gathered national and international tourists, it seems like most are seeing the Taj for the first time. Cameras are getting readied for that first shot, text messages are being sent about the tryst with THE Taj Mahal, guides are giving their opening lecture, and the security guards are cracking their knuckles in anticipation for the rush. And I? I am gearing myself up to see a monument, a sight, which is on probably on everyone’s list of things to do before they die. And then at around 6.15, when the sun starts peeking out from behind the trees, the gates are opened and the visitors are let in, and I get my first, full glimpse of the Taj Mahal.
Before I say what I felt about the Taj Mahal after I really saw it, let me take you on a Taj tour as seen by me and recorded by my camera.
My first reaction of the Taj Mahal was “It’s so small, but oh-so perfectly symmetrical.” While the opinion of a “small” Taj changed during the course of my visit, the “symmetrical” part didn’t. Also, what got added to my list of adjectives for the Taj was its perfection in many aspects—symmetry, understated elegance, architecture… Though the Taj was conceived by the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan as a mausoleum for his favourite wife, Mumtaz, it took 20,000 people 22 years to actually create the Taj Mahal as we see it.
The master builders came from different parts; the chief masons from Baghdad, Delhi and Multan; the dome builders from Asiatic Turkey and from Samarkand; mosaic workers from Kanauj and from Baghdad; the principal calligraphist from Shiraz. Every part of India and Central Asia contributed the materials; Jaipur, the marble; Fathepur Sikri, the red sandstone; the Panjab, jasper; China, the jade and crystal; Tibet, the turquoises; Ceylon, the lapis lazuli and sapphires; Arabia, coral and cornelian; Panna in Bundelkhand, diamonds; Persia, onyx and amethyst… Besides the lavish expenditure to the building, lakhs of rupees were spent in providing the richest of Persian silk carpets, golden lamps, and magnificent candlesticks.
The above passage (p.74–75) in E.B. Havell’s book titled Handbook to Agra and the Taj (1904) gives an insight into the kind of planning that went into creating one man’s vision. It also explains why the Taj Mahal is the way it is. Nothing but the best would do for Shah Jahan. The brilliance of the structure, the bejewelled inlay work and the carvings on the walls, the restrained calligraphy work are absolutely fantastic. Photography is not allowed inside the central chamber of the Taj Mahal and that meant that I could also not photograph some of the best work. The surrounding 8 chambers, however, permitted photography and a photograph taken in one of the chambers is given below.
The Taj Mahal is perfectly symmetrical, no matter from which angle you look at it. But the symmetry is not restricted to the Taj alone as whatever other constructions have been carried out in the complex were keeping in mind both symmetry and balance. For instance, two identical, red sandstone structures have been built on either side of the Taj. One of them is a mosque, that is used even today. The other structure is a jamaat khana or a meeting place for people, which was built just to balance out the mosque and maintain symmetry !
My first impression of the Taj was not a very favourable one, and to be honest I found it over-rated. Besides, marble, the building stone used for the Taj Mahal, is not my favourite building stone. All this meant that I was already prepared to dislike the Taj. But then slowly, the impression changed during the course of the visit and then over the days as I recalled details and impressions of my visit there. It is only when I felt that I could write a more balanced post did I begin to write this one.
But I didn’t want this post to be a rant on the differential rates charged for Indians (Rs.20) and foreigners (Rs.750) or about how dirty the place was with wafer packets and empty mineral water bottles littered about. I didn’t even want it to be a post about how the Taj Mahal attendants (if one can call them that) ask money from tourists to shine a torch on the inlay work to demonstrate the luminescent quality of the gemstones used there, or the unruly crowds. I didn’t want it to be a post on my perception of Taj as a symbol of eternal love, or its justification in being included as one of the wonders of the world.
I simply wanted it to be about the Taj Mahal. The Taj as I saw it and its grandeur, which is understated from a distance, but gets overwhelming when you are close-up. The few photographs are just a glimpse of what the Taj Mahal is and is, by no means, comprehensive. To be honest, no amount of photographs on the Taj can actually be comprehensive or do justice to it. The only way one can do justice to the Taj is to visit it again and then, maybe again. For how else can one see this grand edifice of symmetry, perfection.
Have you visited the Taj? If yes, what is your opinion? If no, what is your opinion about the Taj? I would love to hear from you on this topic
♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
Read more about my visit to Agra:
- Fatehpur Sikri: Poetry in red sandstone and blue skies
- Akbar’s mausoleum: Forgotten, but not neglected, at Sikandra
- Agra’s other Taj: The tomb of I’timad-ud-Daulah