Wednesday, August 25

The Taj Mahal

History tells us that Shah Jahan loved his third wife, Arjumand Bano Begum (also known as Mumtaz Mahal or the ‘chosen one’), more than any other. Sadly, after twenty years of marriage she died in labour while giving birth to their 14th child. We know this because Shah Jahan went on to construct one of history’s most stunning Islamic tombs in which to intern her body and immortalize her memory. The white marble monument was completed in 1653 after taking more than 20,000 worker and a thousand elephants 22 years to build.

His monument to love still stands today. We know it as the Taj Mahal. On Tuesday, Garry and I caught an express train from Delhi for the day to see it for ourselves. This was Garry’s first visit, my second. I first saw this majestic complex in 2002. It was a truly magic experience – one of those rare occasions when an iconic location more than lives up to its postcard billing in real life. I’m pleased to say it continues to leave you in awe even after a second encounter. We were also blessed by fine, albeit very humid, weather despite departing Delhi hours earlier during an early morning monsoonal downpour.

The magic of the Taj Mahal unfolds from the moment you enter the grounds. Gone in seconds are the dirty, noisy roads of Agra filled with hustling street hawkers and beggars. Instead, you’re greeted by green lawns, neat symmetrical red stone walls, even pathways and dramatic entrance gates topped with glowing white cupolas. The contrast couldn’t be starker. From the tranquil outer courtyard visitors then pass through the main red stone gate into the central grounds. It’s here that you experience your first glimpse of the dazzling white marble Taj Mahal framed by a dark, silhouetted gateway.

The Taj Mahal really is as white and majestic as every photo suggests. The main white marble mausoleum, or Rauza, stands at the end of a long, narrow water feature and really does take your breath away. The exact science used to design the building only adds to its stunning first impression. For example, its four 162.5 feet minarets have been carefully shortened to emphasize the scale of the central spherical dome. This dome, 58 feet in diameter and 213 feet in height, is in turn bordered with four subsidiary domed chambers also scaled to focus the eye.

The octagonal Rauza sits on a raised, square platform clad in white marble. Access is gained via a set of covered stairs. Visitors are only permitted to enter after they don paper shoes designed to protect the marble expanse from ugly black scuff marks. As you draw closer it becomes clear that the mausoleum is not pure white but in fact is covered by ornate inlaid precious stones that form intricate Islamic patterns. Its main doorway is adorned by dramatic Koran verses inlaid using black oynx. These ornate decorations are unbelievably even more stunning inside. The craftsmanship involved in the creation of this monument is truly breath taking.

We spent an enjoyable couple of hours exploring the monument and gardens. Most visitors are surprised to discover there’s more to the Taj Mahal than the Rauza. The complex consists of another three stunning buildings set among verdant gardens. These buildings include Darwaza, the red stone main gateway; Masjid a red stone mosque and it’s symmetrically complimentary companion building, Naggar Khana, also known as the rest house. I was particularly fascinated to see workers on scaffolding carefully cleaning the white marble dome of the Masjid. Our guide told us the Indian marble used to build the Taj Mahal isn’t porous and thus it rarely stains. He told us these workers were cleaning the dome using nothing more than soapy water.

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