Awesome, overwhelming, amazing, enthralling! These are just a few of the adjectives that stunned observers often employ to describe their impressions of the Taj Mahal. As the Indian poet, Rabindranath Tagore, once wrote: “Let this one teardrop . . . glisten spotlessly bright on the cheek of time, forever and ever.” Some travelers simply put it this way: “If you can only do one thing in all of India, you must see the Taj.”
Located in Agra, the Taj is easily one of the most recognizable sights in the world. The sole purpose of this enormous mausoleum was to house the remains of the wife of Emperor Shah Jahan. The Taj is one of the New Seven Wonders of the World as well as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is also number 6 on the Smithsonian’s list of “28 Places to See before You Die.” These 28 places are divided into 7 sub-categories. The Taj appears in a sub-group called “Feats of Engineering” where it appears with the Pyramids, the Moai of Easter Island, and the Great Wall of China.
While the white-marbled dome of the Taj is the most readily identifiable and significant feature, the area is actually much more than just this magnificent mausoleum. These often less-appreciated features are well worth investigating as they form a kind of context in which the crown jewel, the Taj, resides. The Mosque, the gate, the exquisite gardens and reflecting pools, the tall trees and elaborate fencing all round out a visit to the Taj, making this place the stuff from which picture-postcards are made. Since I wrote about the Taj itself last September, today I will focus on the other structures that surround it.
Situated along the southern banks of the Yamuna River, this famed complex is an outstanding example of Mughal architecture which combines Indian, Persian, and Islamic influences. While earlier Mughal buildings were primarily constructed of red sandstone, Shah Jahan ordered the use of white marble inlaid with semi-precious stones such as jade, crystal, lapis, amethyst, and turquoise. More than 20,000 laborers from India, Persia, and Europe, plus approximately 1,000 elephants, labored to construct the Taj Mahal complex. Although construction of the Taj itself was completed by 1643, work continued on other phases of the project for another 10 years. The Taj Mahal complex is believed to have cost an estimated three million rupees; today this would equal approximately 800 million U.S. dollars.
The Taj Mahal complex is bounded on three sides by red sandstone walls (the side facing the river is left open – except for some decorative fencing). Along the outside of these walls there are several more mausoleums, including those for Shah Jahan’s other wives and his wife’s favorite servant. These structures, composed primarily of red sandstone, are more typical of the smaller tombs of the time.
The garden-facing inner sides of the wall are fronted by columned arcades, a feature typical of Hindu temples which was later incorporated into Mughal mosques. The wall is interspersed with domed pavilions, and small buildings that may have been viewing areas or even watch towers.
At the far end of the complex, there are two red sandstone buildings on the sides of the Taj. These two structures are the mosque and the guest pavilion. For the purpose of symmetry they were designed to be the mirror image of each other. Both structures stand on a 30 foot high terrace at the river end of the Taj Mahal complex. The mosque is situated on the western side of the Taj facing the Holy City of Mecca. This red sandstone structure fulfills the requirement in the Islamic tradition that every mausoleum must have a place of worship nearby. Three marble coated domes and four smaller domed kiosks constitute the exterior lines of this structure. The other building, on the eastern side, is called the “pavilion” and may have been used as a guesthouse although from the outside it is an exact image of the mosque.
There are four gates into this 42-acre Taj Mahal complex. The main gate, the most recognizable and the largest of the four, is a red sandstone building known as the “Gate of the Mausoleum,” or more commonly simply the “Great Gate.” It sits directly opposite from the Taj at the end of the reflecting pool. This four-story gateway is 100 feet high. Arabic calligraphy from the Quran and motifs of entwined flowers, leaves and vines spiral down its niches. These motifs have been made by semi-precious stones inlaid in the white marble. Four octagonal towers mark the corners of this gate, each with a white marble dome. Similar to the writings found at the Taj Mahal, the main archway was inscribed with stylized calligraphy which invites the visitor to enter into Paradise. One inscription reads, “O Soul, thou art at rest. Return to the Lord at peace with Him, and He at peace with you.” Amazingly, I noticed how many tourists lingered inside the rooms within this main gate, examining the intricate details of its structure – even when just ahead is the Taj Mahal!
The gardens within the Taj Mahal complex are truly amazing. These have been laid out according to the description of Paradise found in the Quran. According to Islamic beliefs, Paradise consists of a garden and four rivers with lush green trees, beautiful flowers and plants. The gardens were designed to reflect that imagery. There are four gardens within the complex that surrounds the Taj forming a perfect square measuring approximately 1,000 feet on each side. Each of these four gardens is divided from the others by channels representing the four rivers of Paradise.
This whole complex emits such a degree of beauty and elegance that it truly challenges the limits of the mind to begin to process what is right before your eyes. Someone once likened the Taj complex to a perfectly formed oyster with its gates, gardens, reflecting pools, and mosque not to mention the antique interiors. Of course when this “oyster” is opened there is the pearl – the Taj itself. I know that I have never, for a moment, regretted my two visits to Agra. Yes, it is halfway around the world, it is hot, it is crowded, and it is expensive. But so worth it all, many times over. I agree with the German philosopher, Count Hermann Keyserling who once wrote, “[The Taj] is perhaps the greatest art work which mankind has ever brought forth.”
Next time: “The Moai of Easter Island”