Say the word "India" and an image immediately surfaces: a gleaming marble building surmounted by a dome and four soaring minarets. It is, of course, one of the world's most recognized landmarks - the Taj Mahal.
In the misty pre-dawn light, the city of Agra is just beginning to stir. I am with a group of people at the entrance to the Taj Mahal, and the murmur of our conversation dies as the gates swing open. It is a moment so over-laden with expectation that I'm almost prepared for an anticlimax: the disappointment of discovering that the Taj is just another over-photographed cliché.
And then I get my first look at it. It glimmers, framed by the entrance archway - pure white marble perfection, floating against a violet-streaked sky. Ten minutes later, the sun rises abruptly over the horizon, and the Taj is transformed from virginal paleness to a bridal-like glowing translucence. Its minarets, cupolas and dome blush rose-pink, and the semi-precious stones inlaid into its mosaic designs, glint and sparkle seductively. Even the intrusive clicking of cameras cannot rob the Taj of its ethereal loveliness at that moment. And no photograph can capture the dreamlike serenity of the morning with parrots lazily screeching in the surrounding mango groves, the sky burgeoning into blueness and the Jumuna river flowing languidly below the Taj pavilion balustrades.
Flashback three centuries, to an era when the powerful Moghul Empire was at its zenith and Shah Jehan, the fifth Moghul Emperor, was the supreme ruler of two-thirds of the Indian subcontinent. Persian and European ambassadors stood awe-struck at the splendour of his court, its sumptuous furnishings, the gold-leaf and jewelled inlay work embellishing his Hall of Public Audience and the Emperor's enormous entourage of courtiers, servants, slaves and soldiers. And the seductive charms of over five thousand women in his harem.
But Shah Jehan's wealth and glory crumbled to ashes in 1631. He stood devastated with grief at the bedside of his queen, Mumtaz Mahal, who having given birth to their fourteenth child, lay mortally ill. As the weeping Emperor caressed her hands and kissed her tenderly, Mumtaz whispered one last request: that her husband build for her the most beautiful tomb the world has ever known. Shah Jehan's promise to his beloved queen is a monument that is as timeless and immortal as love itself.
Our guide tells us that the Taj took 22 years to build, cost approximately 32 million rupees and employed 20,000 workers. After it was completed, Shah Jehan reputedly blinded the Persian architect and the artisans, so that there would never be another building to equal it. The story also goes that the Emperor intended to build his own tomb, a contrasting black mausoleum, across the Jamuna River, both monuments to be linked by a silver bridge. However, he died before he could accomplish this, and his casket lies off centre, but beside that of his beloved Mumtaz in the main chamber of the Taj.
The Taj is so perfectly proportioned that when viewed from the entrance archway, it looks like a trinket that can be cupped in the palm of one hand. But as one gets closer, it is amazing to find that the platform on which it stands is as high as a single-storied building and the dome alone measures eighty feet in height.
Inside the main chamber, the tombs are enclosed within an exquisitely carved marble lattice screen. However these caskets are replicas; the actual tombs lie directly below them in a shadowed vault. The tombs and the surrounding walls are covered in a profusion of pietra dura inlay designs: garlands of flowers, leafy tendrils and stems, all as finely detailed as paintings. A guide points out how the shadow of the curl of each petal, each leaf has been worked in gradations of slivered lapis lazuli, jade, agate and carnelian. There is a collective intake of breath from our group, as he holds a flashlight against the milky marble, turning it translucent and glowing with color and texture.
Shah Jehan spent his declining years, enfeebled and imprisoned by his ruthless son, Aurangzeb in the massive Agra Fort. In deference to his wishes, his apartments faced the Jamuna, which allowed the Emperor to gaze his last on the Taj Mahal shimmering like a pale mirage across the river an elegy to love, which poet Rabindranath Tagore epitomized as "one solitary tear [hanging] on the cheek of time."
Agra, a few hours away from Delhi, is conveniently accessed by train, road and air. The city boasts a range of hotels and restaurants.
Author: Margaret Deefholts