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

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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.

Pic­ture: Cor­bis

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

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