The Taj Mahal. The world’s greatest monument to love. One of the Seven Wonders of the World. India’s pride and glory. The most iconic Mughal structure. A tomb like no other, an eternal promise, a thing of beauty. One that has moved millions to tears, provided the backdrop for countless love stories through time, a symbol of hope and faith, that the great love, the kind that lives forever does indeed exist. What can I say about this vision in white that hasn’t already been said?
The Taj Mahal – The world’s greatest monument to love
Shah Jahan, the prince who would go on to be the 5th Mughal Emperor fell in love with a young Persian princess at the age of 14. Keeping his promise and declaration 5 years later they were wed. Living out a fairytale marriage, Mumtaz Mahal, the favourite among his several wives held the royal seal, bore 14 children and inspired the kind of love one only imagines in movies. The kind of love that incited this great Emperor to send his court into mourning for 2 long years, and spend the next 22 focused on honouring his beloved with the greatest, grandest, most beautiful tomb the world will ever see.
A second chance at love
The last time I saw the Taj Mahal, I was a child on a family vacation. We walked around the marvellous but unkempt site in the hot sun, took touristy perspective bending pictures like me holding the Taj on my palm or by the tip of the minaret. At that age, I couldn’t grasp the significance of their love, but I do remember looking up at the gaping holes where jewels once sat inlaid in the marble. I remember feeling heartbroken. Not for Shah Jahan. But for mankind. For seeing the steady deterioration of a public treasure of this calibre made me weep from within. To be honest, I was just a child, being dragged through the motions. I didn’t feel swept away, awed or any other emotion. I did not feel the love at the world’s greatest monument to love.
One seldom has a chance to return to those once-in-a-lifetime sights, so I was both thrilled and extremely curious about how the Taj Mahal would seem to my now grown up eyes and sensibilities. Standing outside the main gate, watching visitors join the endless queue to my left, I was glad to be there as a guest of the state tourism board, with a convoy of officials walking us past security and right into the monument at first light. The moon was still overhead and day was just beginning to break.
The Courtyard and Entrance Gate
We made our way across the narrow walkway, passing the forecourt area. Empty arched stalls lined the walkway until we made our way to the gardens, and the grand entrance gate. While this Darwaza was never actually used by Shah Jahan (since he just took the boat across the Yamuna from the Red Fort), it is breathtakingly beautiful. Constructed in a combination of red sandstone and marble, it is covered in stunning Arabic calligraphy of Koranic verses and beautiful floral patterns. A line of umbrella shaped domes top the structure, but the piece de resistance is the spiderweb pattern on the inside of the entry dome. Our guide told us, the spiderweb is like a metaphor for security, because this is where one passes from the communal areas, into the sacred space of the tomb. The Taj Mahal isn’t visible until you’ve passed the threshold, and then suddenly, it’s right there before you, framed by this beautiful archway, appearing to grow in size as you step closer.
The watercourse and gardens
Laying eyes on the Taj at sunrise is a special treat indeed. The translucent quality of the marble makes the entire structure glow with a pinkish hue when kissed by the morning rays. I was of course upset that the fountains were dry for cleaning on this particular day. The gardens however were prettier than I remembered. I looked around, at the birds chasing each other on the branches and across the clear sky. Listening to their chirps, drowning out the chatter of tourists, I tried to channel what walking through these grounds would have been like back in the mid 1600s. A pathway to heaven indeed, for that is what Shah Jahan wanted to create for the mortal remains of his beloved, a portal that embodies paradise itself. Walking towards the raised platform of the tomb, we did chance upon a stray pool of water on the still, calm surface of which the Taj lay reflected. So this is what all the fountains in paradise look like.
Up close with the intricate beauty
To ascend the short but steep stairs to the raised platform, I was glad to notice that just like at the Sultanahmet Mosque, they provided us with booties to cover our footwear. Such a convenient way to keep the monument clean and scratch-free. Standing up close to the marble facade, I gasped as my eyes took in every little detail. The delicate carving on the marble, the intricate inlay work of the finely cut precious gems, the beauty of the translucent marble, the seemingly endless detailing for as far as the eye could see. What was incredible was how the Taj Mahal excels on either end of the scale, whether in terms of its massive size, or intricate attention to detail. 22 years suddenly seemed like a very short moment in time, for something as grand as this. I remember hearing rumours as a child, that the artists had their hands chopped off after they finished working on the Taj, lest they create something to rival its beauty. Our guide assured us it was indeed a rumour, but the truth was that 22 years of working on something as tasking as this, probably did mean several of them retired, with wounds, carpal tunnel syndrome or merely blinded by the constant spray of stone chips in their eyes. Walking around, felt like a dream. The sun now shone brightly through a morning haze, playing peekaboo with the four minarets around the structure. Standing up close, I realised how intrinsic these four columns are to the identity of the Taj Mahal. To the side sat a beautiful sandstone Jama mosque, one that is functional even today. Mirroring it on the other side (purely for the sake of symmetry, oh how I totally get the OCDness of the architect) sat a similar but empty structure. I walked around, and stood behind the Taj, watching a lone boatsman lazily idling across the calm, tranquil Yamuna river.
Within the Mausoleum
Stepping into the Mausoleum almost makes one bow their heads rather subconsciously in reverence. The octagonal structure is quiet, large, cool, dark and beautifully respectful. A stunning marble jaali (lattice) conceals the decorative tombs beneath which lie the real ones of both Mumtaz Mahal and Shah Jahan. This is the epicentre of their love. He lies beside her even in afterlife, at an ode to her which still remains the most beautiful monument to love in the world, visited by millions who smile for a quiet moment when they see their tombs, hearts aflutter with hope and faith. We weren’t allowed to take photos inside, and while it most certainly is beautiful, I am glad it allowed me to focus on the silence and the beauty and let time stand still as it has for this legendary love story.
Breakfast with a view
After our tour of the Taj, we were in for another rather special treat. All the rubble leftover from the construction of this masterpiece was dumped a short distance away, creating a small mound on which sits the Taj Khema. Serenaded by peacocks, watching the Taj Mahal ahead of us, we sat on the lawn and enjoyed a wonderful breakfast to cap off the morning.
I returned to the Taj with no expectations, and left with a heart filled with love and hope. There were several moments I definitely wished Charles had been on this trip with me, (he was in our favourite playground – Europe) and I hope we do return to the Taj Mahal together someday. The icing on this cake was the beautiful albeit touristy show I witnessed later that day, Mohobbat E Taj; a song and dance re-enactment of the Shah Jahan – Mumtaz Mahal saga in Urdu at the Kalakriti Centre. Have you ever visited the Taj Mahal? Is it on your bucket list? Does it make you believe in eternal love?