Mourning in all of its glory
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