Mourn­ing in all of its glory

The Sunday Mail (Queensland) - Escape - - LOVING MEMORY -

TOUR guide Alok Singh can em­pathise with the lovelorn Mughal king who spent nearly a quar­ter of a cen­tury build­ing his late wife a tomb. Some­times, love can be a curse.

It struck for him as a 17-yearold. He locked eyes with a stun­ning young woman at his col­lege and knew in an in­stant he was doomed. He was in the throes of a de­gree in his­tory and yet, sud­denly, all he could think about was the fu­ture.

But there was a catch – a hur­dle so great it would lead to a fiercely guarded, 15-year se­cret. A for­bid­den re­la­tion­ship with po­ten­tially deadly con­se­quences.

“As with most re­la­tion­ships in In­dia, my fam­ily was in­sis­tent my mar­riage be pre­ar­ranged. I lost count of how many pho­tos of el­i­gi­ble women my fa­ther handed me,” Alok says, tak­ing seat in the grounds of the as­ton­ish­ing Taj Ma­hal.

“I was al­ready in love. But in this coun­try, even to this day, the prac­tice of hon­our killings is alive and well. And we were just not pre­pared to take a chance.”

Di­vert­ing briefly, he ex­plains that the world won­der ris­ing up be­fore us took 22 years to build. A colos­sal shrine to Shah Ja­han’s beloved wife, Em­press Mum­taz Ma­hal.

“She died giv­ing birth to their 14th child,” Alok says.

“They say his hair turned grey overnight. He stopped lis­ten­ing to mu­sic, stopped wear­ing jewels and he wore only white clothes. He de­voted the next 22 years of his life to build­ing her tomb.”

Not want­ing to end up en­tombed him­self, my love­struck guide ex­plains how he played out his own game of ro­mance in the shad­ows. For a decade-and-a-half he and his wife used only the most trusted al­lies to ar­range se­cret meet­ings. Those same friends would be the con­duits for hand­writ­ten and heart­break­ing love let­ters.

They were lovers forced apart by cen­turies of gen­er­a­tional In­dian tra­di­tion.

“My fam­ily is very or­tho­dox: out-of-caste mar­riages are a sin. It’s seen as bring­ing dis­hon­our to the fam­ily. Many cou­ples are killed by their par­ents in this coun­try for that very rea­son,” Alok ex­plains.

“But as Napoleon used to say, ‘Noth­ing is im­pos­si­ble’.”

That same phi­los­o­phy was most cer­tainly adopted by Shah Ja­han as he de­signed the Taj. It took 22,000 work­ers 22 years to com­plete. En­cased in translu­cent, non-por­ous mar­ble and once spot­ted with sap­phires, pearls and di­a­monds, it looks ev­ery bit an im­pos­si­ble king­dom to heaven.

“It is per­fectly sym­met­ri­cal — a mar­vel of 17th-cen­tury physics,” Alok boasts.

At peace in­side, king and queen are en­tombed in twin coffins — each metic­u­lously de­tailed with sub­lime mar­ble in­lay work.

Of course, as per­mit­ted in Mus­lim cul­ture, the great Shah Ja­han had three wives. But we can safely as­sume Em­press Ma­hal was his favourite – his other wives were buried in much more mod­est struc­tures

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