Agra/ Taj Mahal : Love Letters
Agra Travel Blog› entry 216 of 268 › view all entries
'Come to me.' She speaks to me. I think I love her.
It's the first week in February 2008. I'm experimenting, pretty much for the first time in travelling alone. Keeping my own company on The Road. Preparation? I'm lying on a bed in a shoe-box room of a hotel in Keswick, in England's Lake District and tears are flowing onto my pillow. Why? I've just seen the Taj Mahal you see. From the window onto the world that is the rooms television set. The mere momentary contemplation - provoked by Monty Don's Around the World in 80 Gardens (India Episode) - of the possibility that I could one day actually behold such an awe inspiring sight with my own two eyes has set the waterworks in motion.
So here I am 20 months later. I'm looking at her again now. The Taj Mahal. And frankly, if I'm honest, I'm not all that impressed. Seriously. It's tacky. Poorly constructed. A lot smaller in reality than one's been led to believe. Just another mass produced piece of plain old Mughal architecture. 'Made in India'. And what's with all that phoney glittery sparkle tat anyways?!
Oooooh! C'mon, I'm sh*ttin' you! The Taj currently under scrutiny measures about 3 centimetres cubed, is made of plastic and is being dandled in front of me by an Agra street urchin who's pattered along beside me for 10 minutes and more trying to sell me his tiny little plastic snow-dome replica of Shah Jahan's masterpiece.
[ I would like to note here that I am not in the habit of haggling the worlds most downtrodden down to the lowest financial rung obtainable. I didn't want it. I don't buy souvenirs on this trip. For any reason. Period. But he was so desperate for something, anything, that the gesture of final acceptance alone seemed to be what he most wanted and made him happy ]
And I'm just about the first ever to set eyes upon it. Today that is. Yep, meeting the Taj Mahal is a once in a lifetime date so no messing around. Up at 5.03am and in the queue at the West Gate by 5.30. I'm number 2 in line. Oh yes my friends, there is always someone - always just that one! - who's thankfully even more desperately crazed than you are. Unless you're him of course. Man Number 1 :)
But there is delay. Bureaucracy. Tension. India. The sky has already painted its eyes with seductive pre-dawn pinks, purples and mauves... we're champing at the bit to get in. Souls twitching. Cameras itching. But no. The man behind the 'Foreigner' ticket counter just placidly keeps date stamping tickets.
... and there she is! At last. The Taj Mahal. She sits. Subtle in the soft dawn distance. 'I have been waiting for you all of your life'.
Arriving here this early is the only way of getting that classic 'virgin' glimpse of the Taj, sat in all her crisp elegant symmetry and solemnity, without a single speck of a human fly in the compositional ointment. Ahead of the cattle stampede. It's a strange and beautiful moment of calm. There lies her reflection in the watercourse - the classic Taj image - as yet undisturbed for the morning breeze still sleeps. More people gather from the rear. But I have to say human traffic, even 5 hours later when all the Delhi day trippers have arrived, is not too disfiguring or distracting to my visions of happiness today. The Taj absorbs you so entirely you just don't really care to notice.
You know the story I guess? The Taj Mahal, is in name an abbreviation of Mumtaz ( 'Taj' ) Mahal, the second and most favoured wife of Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan and in form the building constructed to be her mausoleum. An act of creation, a posthumous love letter written in stone following her death in child labour for their 14th child in 1631. Heartbreak at her death is said to have turned the Emperor's hair white over night. Construction started immediately and was not completed until 1653, some 20,000 labourers seconded to work upon it in its initial stages and later over 1,000 artisans . Hard upon its conclusion the Shah was overthrown and imprisoned by his ambitious son Aurangzeb. Incarcerated in Agra Fort, the Shah was forever more only able to glimpse his final, magnificent expression of his love for his wife through the tiny window of his cell.
It is on this profound expression of love that the Taj has its foundation. Great passion. And great power too of course. It is the essence of the Taj's success I feel that, possibly uniquely in all of man's architectural efforts the world over it represents such a perfect unity of form and intent. Its delicately curved arches, its smoothly arcing domes, its restrained repetition of marble-inlay decor and carved floral reliefs and faultless aesthetic and geometric symmetries speak deeply of respectful ardour and so continues to provoke this feeling in the millions upon millions of visitors who must set their eyes upon it year on year.
A large part of the majesty; the genius of the Taj's appearance lies in the use of locally quarried (Jaipur) semi-translucent, grey-veined white marble. The temptation for pure, sun-blinding white resisted, this softly variegated marble lends to the structure a shimmering, pearlescent ethereality that brings the whole shining edifice, this house of spirits to life. In death. And again, as the Taj is seamless itself, another seamless unity of form and intent has been achieved. A perfect symbiosis of structure and symbolism. Life and death.
It’s magnificent and you will have to forgive all my doting. Whilst I did other things. Saw other things.
I look towards her once more. Time to go I suppose. 'But will I ever see you again?' 'That is for your heart to decide.' She speaks to me. 'Oh I see. Yes. I suppose you're right.' I turn my back to leave. I can't tell you - faux artistry set aside - how hard; emotionally hard it was for me to turn my back on the Taj. I fear almost to look back one last time, in case as with Orpheus's wife, she should vanish from me forever as a punishment for this final guilty glimpse of her beauty.
'Come to me'. She speaks to me still. I know now I love her.