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The Taj Mahal

Dr. Watson E Mills is a member of the Circumnavigators Club of New York having completed three around-the-world journeys. He has traveled to 174 of the 193 member-countries of the United Nations during his 140 overseas journeys.

Often listed among the most reconcilable sights in the world, the Taj Mahal in Agra, India, was built over a 20-year period beginning in 1632. It is an enormous mausoleum complex whose sole purpose, so it is often stated, was to house the remains of the wife of Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan. Critics, however, have long suggested that Shah Jahan, at his core, was more ruthless than romantic and that rather than being a symbol of undying love of his wife, the Taj, with its ordered symmetry, was actually a symbol of his absolute power. These critics claim its grand scale and extravagant decorations brought status and glory to Shah Jahan’s reign and is only therefore secondarily a testimony to his love for his departed wife.

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 Taj to be built of white marble inlaid with semi-precious stones. Buildings during his reign reached new levels of refinement and are among the finest examples of the rich history of India.

One of the most astounding things about the Taj Mahal is that it constantly changes hue throughout the day and night. While the sun is out, the Taj is transformed from pearly gray and pale pink at sunrise, to a dazzling white at high noon, and then to an orange-bronze when the sun begins to set. In the evenings, the Taj appears translucent blue. These days special tickets are offered for moonlight viewing. This moonlight-transition is so extraordinary that it now constitutes another income stream.

On my first trip to Agra, prior to this restriction, I ventured out at sunset to see this phenomenon for myself. I walked for several blocks so that I could put the Taj in a relatively straight line between my position and the moon. Sure enough, as a few sparse clouds floated by, and the marble appeared, ever so slowly, to change from milky white to dull orange. Even though my repeated efforts to capture this transition on film were unsuccessful, I can tell you it was quite an experience to witness this incredible transition.

The Taj Mahal’s reflecting pool

Shah Jahan was a member of the Mughal dynasty that ruled northern India (16th–18th centuries). When his father died in 1627, he survived a bitter power struggle with his brothers and crowned himself emperor in Agra in 1628. During all of this, at his side, was his wife, Mumtaz Mahal (which means “chosen one of the palace”), whom he had married in 1612 and cherished as the favorite of his three queens. Tragically she died during the birth of their 14th child and the shaken Shah Jahan, already known for commissioning a number of impressive structures throughout his reign, ordered the building of a magnificent mausoleum across the river from the royal palace to honor his beloved.

More than 20,000 laborers from India, Persia, and Europe, plus approximately 1,000 elephants, labored to construct the Taj Mahal. 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 been completed in its entirety in 1653 at a cost estimated at the time to be around 3 million rupees, which today would equal approximately 54 billion rupees or about 800 million U.S. dollars. Its design is intricate to say the least.

The Taj was constructed of white marble inlaid with precious stones such as jade, crystal, lapis, amethyst, and turquoise. Its striking central dome, which is 240 feet high, is surrounded by four smaller domes. Four slender minarets stand at the corners, and in accordance with the tradition of Islam, verses from the Quran were inscribed on the arched entrances.

The Taj Mahal attracts large numbers of tourists – more than 3 million annually as recently documented by UNESCO. There is the usual two-tier pricing system which offers significantly lower entrance fees for Indian citizens and more expensive ones for foreigners. The most popular months for foreigners are October, November, and February when the temperatures are cooler.

Replica tombs inside the Taj Mahal. The actual tombs are off limits to the public.

Age and pollution have taken their toll on the Taj Mahal’s gleaming white marble facade, which has turned brownish-yellow under the assault of heavy vehicular emissions. Cars and buses are no longer allowed near the complex. Visitors must either walk from parking lots several hundred yards away or catch an electric bus or employ a rickshaw to reach the entrance.

Every now and then, the Taj receives a spa treatment. A mud-pack called a multiani mitti is applied. It is from a traditional recipe used by Indian women to restore facial radiance. When the potion is washed off with brushes, the Taj’s blemishes disappear and its glow returns.

Shah Jahan intended to build a second grand mausoleum across the Yamuna River from the Taj, where he planned to be buried. The two structures would be connected by a bridge. But this did not happen. His third son, Aurangzeb, deposed his ailing father in 1658. Ironically, Aurangzeb was a son given Jahan by Mumtaz Mahal for whom the Taj was allegedly built.

Jahan lived out the last years of his life under house arrest in a tower of the Red Fort at Agra which did afford him a panoramic view of the majestic resting place he had constructed for his wife and where he himself would be laid to rest after his death in 1666.

The focus of the Taj, of course, is the tomb of Mumtaz Mahal (and later that of Shah Jahan), although visitors are not allowed to see these tombs per se. Rather, they see a facsimile of these tombs as they pass through the Taj. This facsimile is said to be an exact replica of the actual tombs which are on a lower level and not open to the public. Mumtaz Mahal’s tomb is a large, white marble structure standing on a square base and with an arch-shaped doorway topped by a large dome. The actual grave site is only area of the Taj that is not elaborately decorated. This is because Muslim law forbids graves to be so adorned. Such a practice is viewed as an inappropriate expression of vanity. This understanding explains the relatively drab appearance of the lower level of the Taj.

Like most Mughal tombs, the basic elements are Persian in origin. The base structure is a large cube with symmetrical, sloping corners forming an eight-sided structure that is approximately 180 feet on each of the four sides. Each side is framed with a huge vaulted archway with two similarly shaped arched balconies stacked on either side. This motif makes the design completely symmetrical. Four minarets frame the tomb, one at each corner resting upon a heavy base. The main chamber houses the sarcophagi of Mumtaz Mahal and Shah Jahan. The single exception to this absolute symmetry is the placement of Shah Jahan’s cenotaph (tomb). It is strangely positioned west of the central axis, throwing off the balance. This odd placement has led some scholars to conclude he was never intended to be buried there.

The Taj Mahal’s status as an Indian icon has made it a tempting target during times of international hostilities. For example, during World War II the Indian government went to great lengths to protect it from air attack. Architects added extensive scaffolding that concealed the structure. The enemy pilots would see what appeared to be a pile of bamboo instead of the Taj.

The Taj Mahal was constructed with impeccable symmetry, even on the exterior where minarets flank the domed pinnacle, and a central pool reflects the image of the main building. The gardens are intended to be an earthly representation of paradise. They are divided into quadrants, and twin red sandstone buildings (an east-facing mosque and a west-facing guesthouse) give the mausoleum complex a balanced harmony.

I have visited Agra on two occasions separated by more than 45 years. I can without a hint of equivocation state that it is one of the most amazing sites I have ever witnessed in all my years of travel.

Next time: “The Great Wall of China”