A Visit to the Taj Mahal

The Taj Mahal is the most beautiful thing I have ever seen. Breathtakingly sublime, from the first glimpse in the distance, all the way to a close eyeball's inspection of the tiniest stone flower inlays, it's hard to imagine just how this thing could have possibly been summoned into this universe by human hands. It's enormous and, at the same time, exquisitely detailed. The white marble structure is reflected in a long watery garden, at the center of 3 enormous stone gates. At the very center of the entire complex, directly under the central dome, rests a Mughal Emperor's queen and just to one side, as if as an afterthought, rests the Emperor himself.  (The actual bodies are interned several feet below, but the symbol is at least as important as the physical detail here.)

At 6:15am, I am one of the first 10 visitors of the day to enter the compound. The sight of the sun slowly rising on the colossal marble structure, turning imperceptibly from a pale misty white to a dusty pink that seems to glow from inside the stone itself, leaves me dizzy, so I step carefully down the path, speechless. Flocks of dark birds swim gracefully back and forth through the dense, humid air. I recognize them from pictures I've seen of the Taj and figured that they just happened to be passing through when the photo was taken, but now I see that they, drawn by the beauty also, aren't going anywhere else.

After slipping on the neon pink booties that protect the marble from the millions of foot falls it bears each day, I climb the steep steps to the marble terrace that surrounds the main structure. After several more minutes contemplating how something like this could ever come to be, I shuffle into the entrance to the crypt, passing ever more detailed inlays of malachite, onyx, jasper and lapis lazuli flowers. Except for one small dim bulb directly above the queen's coffin, the only light in the crypt is from natural light. Stray flecks of soft morning sun find their way through the carved marble screens to gently rub the white stone orange, as if there were a burning ember just below the surface.

20,000 artists labored for 12 years to finish the Taj Mahal in 1643, over 350 years ago. Just under my skin is a sense of enduring timelessness and yet, the entire structure shifts with every moment, like a flower blooming on fast forward, or a silent symphony. Of course, the sense of permanence is an illusion. Shahjahan, the Mughal ruler who built the Taj Mahal, originally installed a gold screen around the crypt, gold spires for the top of each dome and silver doors. Before he died, he wisely replaced the gold screen with what must have been the equally beautiful inlaid marble screen that remains today, fearing that the gold would prove too tempting to future never-do-wells. Since his death, the doors and finials have been replaced with more modest versions of wood and brass. The originals, along with many of the stones in the wall, were at some point carried off for other presumably more noble purposes.

It is not an exaggeration to say that every single flower, vine and scripted inlay is in itself a piece of art. Each flower alone can be assembled from upwards of 30 individually cut and fitted pieces of stone, laid into a particularly hard local marble. One flower can take upwards of six hours to cut and then to score and cut the marble to fit each piece into. There are many craftsmen doing this work in Agra now and you can find tons of plates, tables, boxes, vases and assorted animals that have been created using this painstaking process of inlay. But rarely, if ever, can you find a piece of work that has lines as graceful and balanced as you see in the work at the Taj Mahal.

Around the time the British were thinking about packing up to leave India, the Taj was placed under auction with the intention of disassembling it and packing it off to England. Luckily, the deal fell through and they had to leave it behind, although still in pretty tough shape. Since then, the Taj has been largely restored and appears to be in pretty good shape, even up close.

Still, it's amazing to me that the soldiers, all armed with scary looking automatic weapons (the pink booties they all wear don't really make them any less scary looking), don't have a problem with me sitting on the porticos or running my fingers along the inlays. Being able to actually walk through the mausoleum seems like a privilege that can't possibly last, but then again, this is India.

At the northern edge of the terrace, I am separated from a precipitous drop into the Yamuna river by a low string with this sign on it: "please give clearance from edge to avoid falling". The river is unusually high due to a heavy monsoon season this year, but even so, the waters have already receded nearly 15 feet from their high just a few weeks ago. In 1857, the 15th and last Mughal Emperor and several members of his court saved their lives by jumping into the Yamuna river to avoid certain death at the hands of British soldiers, who were delivering a vicious retaliation to an equally vicious rebellion of Indian sepoys, or members of the British army. I'm pretty sure that, if they tried that today, they would die of cholera or at least suffer a wicked case of dysentery. Strewn amongst the endless stream of fast moving sewage and muck, I count two condoms, a dead dog and several other less identifiable clumps.

You might think that such things would detract from such a pristine scene, but in a weird way, it only seems to highlight its otherworldly, ethereal beauty. India is a land of contrasts. The Taj Mahal could only be a slender shadow of itself in London, or any other context. It and India are inseparable.

On my second pass through the mausoleum, it's starting to get crowded and I can still feel the heat from the day before, which still hasn't dissipated. Standing exactly at the centerline opposite the entrance, I can see all the way down the mall through the main south gate and beyond, through the second gate into Agra, all perfectly lined up to the millimeter. From here, the queen looks to be at the center of the universe -- her husband, just off to the right.

As I walk around the middle hallway that surrounds the crypt, I am required to step over small marble thresholds between each room. Every part of the structure is a meditation on beauty. No compromises are conferred on behalf of the living. I can't get enough of it, but after a couple hours of soaking it in, I am still reluctant to leave. Staying longer seems futile.

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