ROMANCE OF THE STONE
The Taj Mahal in Agra has been declared one of the New Seven Wonders of the World. Stanley Stewart muses on its magnificence
ON the banks of the Yamuna River, just downstream from the Taj Mahal, they are burning the dead. Eddies of black smoke drift across the water and bells are ringing in the temples to alert the gods to the departing souls.
The ferryman says life is a river crossing and death a landing stage. He is a Hindu and sees no point in tombs. The Taj Mahal may be a fine building but it will do nothing to aid passage to the next life. We must step on to the landing stage, he says, unencumbered by the luxuries of this world.
To assist me with this metaphor, he adds an extra 50 rupees ($1.50) to the agreed fare to take me to a landing stage where I can get ashore without wading through mud. Folding the money into his waistcoat pocket, he muses that the gods look after those who look after themselves. His is an unromantic religion of practicalities.
The great thing about the Taj Mahal is its romantic impracticality. For two decades the resources of a vast empire were harnessed not for the construction of palaces or forts, irrigation systems or roads, but for an elaborate tombstone. The result was the most magnificent construction in the great canon of Mogul architecture, a tomb with no purpose beyond its own beauty, no practical function other than memorial and reflection.
It is a building of pure sentiment. The Taj Mahal is said to be the greatest monument to love. But it seems to me that it also says something else, something more disturbing.
To many of his own courtiers, Shah Jahan was a disgrace, an emperor in love with one of his wives. This was precisely the kind of catastrophe from which the vast imperial harems were meant to protect the empire. A man in love, so court wisdom went, was a man deranged. The intricate politics of dynastic succession did not allow for such mishaps.
Jahan’s beloved was known as Mumtaz Mahal, the Chosen of the Palace, and when she died giving birth to their 14th child in 1631, Shah Jahan was heartbroken. For two years he withdrew not only from public life but from all the indulgence and luxury that his palaces offered. Even before the period of mourning was over, building had begun, as Shah Jahan turned grief into architectural energy.
The Taj Mahal — its name is a diminutive of Mumtaz Mahal — is said to have taken more than 20 years to build with a workforce of 20,000 men. Peter Mundy, an English traveller of the period, reported that the work went on ‘‘ with excessive labour and cost, prosecuted with extraordinary diligence, gold and silver esteemed common metals, and marble but as ordinary stone’’. A French traveller who visited the site was amazed to find that the scaffolding was built of brick, another indication of the time and expense lavished on the monument.
Shah Jahan spent much of his last years gazing at his creation. When his son, Aurangzeb, seized the throne in 1658, Shah Jahan was interned in Agra Fort, where he was consoled by the view of the Taj Mahal from the window of his room and the stream of Tartar girls sent up to him from the harem. On his death in 1666 he was buried beneath its great dome, next to his beloved wife.
No matter how many photographs you have seen of the Taj Mahal, nothing can prepare you for the reality. It is a measure of its triumph that it so effortlessly transcends the commercialism, the crowds and the expectations that surround it. Everyone arrives with a degree of trepidation, even cynicism. How can a building so famous possibly live up to its own hype? But everyone is seduced. It is quite simply one of the most exquisite buildings in the world.
The first sight of the monument is pure theatre. As you approach through an outer courtyard, garden walls hide what lies beyond. Only when you enter the gateway does the Taj appear, its dome framed by the entrance arch. As you pass through the arch, the min- arets drift into view with the gardens, whose central pool contains the next coup de theatre , the dome reflected in the water.
There are crowds at most hours. But far from distracting from the impact of the tomb, they act as a strange counterpoint to it. Too powerful to be disturbed by the ant-like figures around its base, the Taj manages to transform them. They are soothed, calmed, distracted and moved. It helps, of course, that the crowds are mainly Indian. The women in their saris, the men in their turbans, add colour to a picturesque scene.
In front of me an Indian family, just through the entrance gate, has stopped in their tracks, staring at the monument ahead. Crossing the court outside, the children have the surly reluctance of 10-year-olds dragged along to a historic monument. Now that the Taj stands before them, with its watery mirror image, they are suddenly attentive. They drop
their parents’ hands and run ahead, headlong towards the marble tomb through the vast, inviting spaces of the gardens.
The pools and water channels divide the gardens into four parterres in the traditional Persian charbagh style, its elements intended as a representation of paradise.
At the far end of the gardens the great tomb stands on a vast marble terrace. On the left of the terrace is a triple-domed red sandstone mosque. On the right is its jawab or echo, another sandstone building, this one without function. It is there purely to preserve the exquisite symmetry of the whole ensemble. On the terrace, the crowds orbit the tomb in a state of reverie.
Handsome, shining, perfect, the Taj offers an illusion of simplicity with its uncluttered lines and exquisite proportions. God here is in the detail, in the divine decoration of the surfaces, carved in relief and inlaid in pietra dura with carnelian, coral, jasper, onyx, amethyst, lapis lazuli, turquoise and jade. The Koranic calligraphy is like some strange musical notation, its rhythmic orchestrations unfolding across the marble vaults. The floral arabesques, reminiscent of Persian carpets, have the precision of jewellery.
Technically it may be a virtuoso performance, but artistically it is a triumph of restraint. The decoration enriches but never chokes the architectural forms. In one of the carved lattice screens I find a tiny spider web whose intricate symmetries so perfectly match those of the building that I hardly notice it is natural until suddenly it is shredded by a gust of wind.
The Taj is almost too life-enhancing, too gorgeous for a tomb, and it is only when you pass inside do you remember its funereal purpose. There in the gloom, shrouded in dappled light, is the cenotaph of Mumtaz Mahal, so small and narrow it could be a child’s grave. Her real sarcophagus lies below, at a basement level, but it, too, seems disturbingly small and vulnerable beneath this great monument. Next to her lies the cenotaph of Shah Jahan.
A guardian sings a long bass note to illustrate the echo, which reverberates beneath the dome for a full 20 seconds, a pure ringing sound in pure curving space.
I stay for the sunset, which stains the river and the great dome gold, then linger into the twilight. The crowds are departing and the light is failing.
A smoky blue dusk is stealing up the river where the ferryboat floats in midstream above its own still reflection. Lapwings call along the banks. I linger until the bats begin to stream out of the minarets and Venus appears above the dome.
With the crowds gone, the Taj recovers some of its own reality, a tomb touched by the melancholy of graves.
The guards, deep in card games and murmured conversation, seem in no hurry to hustle visitors away and I stay until the full dark brings out the constellations and I am alone with the great tomb, once again a silhouette, a postcard outline. When I leave, departure is a wrench as if there has been some strange intimacy here.
But Agra is not a one-sight town. Even if the Taj did not exist you would come here for the Red Fort, one of the most magnificent Mogul palaces.
Its outer public face is brooding and defensive, enclosed by fortified walls. Its inner reaches are a delicate marbled world of royal apartments and formal courtyards and audience halls. As you wander from the Palace of Mirrors, where the women of the harem bathed by reflected lamplight, to the decorative pavilions above the river, there are views of the Taj from every window.
Should you have developed a taste for tombs, you are in luck. The Moguls were great tomb builders and in Agra there are two other fine examples. The most famous is the tomb of Itmad-ud-daulah, known as the Baby Taj. Built in the early 1620s, about 10 years before the Taj Mahal, it looks like a rehearsal for its more famous neighbour with its use of inlaid marble. Few people come here and you can wander virtually alone through the inner chambers where the lattice screens are as delicate as lace. On the riverbanks below, buffaloes wallow in the shallows and a dobi wallah pounds underwear on the rocks.
More impressive is the tomb of Akbar the Great, at Sikandra, a few kilometres to the north. The Taj Mahal is often referred to as the feminine face of Mogul architecture, a style noted for its decorative assurance. Akbar’s tomb is one of the great examples of the earlier masculine style, in which red sandstone rather than marble predominates. In the glorious arcades around the tomb, the diminishing perspectives and rhythmic arches are untouched by decoration. A slow ramp leads down to the domed tomb chamber holding the sarcophagus of the Mogul emperor. A guardian hands us roses to place in tribute on the plain stone, next to a guttering candle.
‘‘ We still miss him,’’ he whispers, the phrase lingering strangely in the stony air.
But I already miss the Taj and I return to it at dawn, when a delicate pink blush illuminates its eastern face, and again in the late afternoon when I cross the river with the ferryman to see the great tomb from yet another perspective.
On the way home, on the darkening river, he performs puja for the little god stationed in the bow of his boat, lighting incense and laying a tribute of flowers. He too requires his moments of reassurance.
On the far bank where the Hindu dead are burning, the mourners are already dispersing and stray dogs begin to gather, waiting for the flames to abate. The silhouette of the Taj Mahal looms above us. At this disturbing hour, it seems forlorn, less like a monument to love than a statement of grief.
In lavishing so much care on his wife’s tomb, Shah Jahan seemed to express another human emotion: anxiety. Like the rest of us, he was unable to reconcile himself to the frailty of life, to the fact of death.
ROOMS WITH A VIEW
OBEROI’S Amarvilas at Agra, two hours by express train from New Delhi, offers a unique inducement: every room comes with a view of the Taj Mahal, framed like a precious cameo. The hotel has corridors running along its rear, so there’s no chance of a bad room, and most have private terraces set with tables and chairs (perfect for room-service breakfast: would you like a Taj with that?).
It’s a splendidly detailed hotel, lauded for its style and service; there are vast courtyards, terraced gardens and pool, and staff run guests 600m to the Taj Mahal by golf buggy and organise entry tickets.
Amarvilas is a member of Oberoi’s Vilas collection and its sister property, Udaivilas at Udaipur in Rajasthan, recently was voted the world’s best hotel by readers of Travel+Leisure magazine; Amarvilas came in at a notable No. 10.
Monument to everlasting love: No matter how many pictures you’ve seen of the Taj Mahal, nothing can prepare you for the seductive reality of its exquisite, transcendental beauty
Vision splendid: Amarvilas at Agra