The morning was bright and sunny as we drove past rolling farmlands and quiet towns on the excellent national highway. We were in India on the way to a meeting at Katmandu in Nepal and had made a stopover at New Delhi. Our connecting flight was a few days away so our Indian director and friend suggested we do a quick visit to the Taj Mahal in the city of Agra, Uttar Pradesh.
Considered as one of the most beautiful structures in the world and the iconic symbol of India, the Taj Mahal is actually a mausoleum built in the 17th century by a Mughal emperor in memory of his favorite wife. We were about to see one of the most recognizable and famous architectural wonders of the world – something which we have heard and read about so much as far back as our grade-school days.
The city of Agra is just 4 hours-drive away from India’s capital city so it was possible to do this trip within one day. Just before arriving at Agra city proper we stopped at the suburb of Sikandra to visit the Tomb of Akbar the Great, a 16th century Mughal emperor. (The Mughals were descendants of the Timurids, who ruled over most of the Indian subcontinent from the 16th to 18th centuries.) Built in red sandstone with white marble features, this UNESCO World Heritage Site predates the Taj. The curious thing about this structure is that its eventual occupant, Akbar the Great himself, planned it and chose the site. Memorial plans were probably unheard of back then but we’ve learned that this is Tartar tradition.
Arriving at Agra around the lunch hour we immediately set about looking for a place to eat. We can’t remember the name of the place but we and our Indian friends ended up at a restaurant serving Mughlai cuisine – dishes developed in medieval India at the time of the Mughal Empire and representing a fusion of central Asian and north Indian cuisine. It turned into the most memorable Indian meal we’ve ever had with 7 different types of nan bread and various types of mutton, chicken and vegetable curry. We were so stuffed that we did not eat for the rest of the day and had a very light breakfast the following morning.
Still reeling from that thoroughly satisfying culinary experience we were off to see the Taj Mahal which happened to be just a short drive away from the restaurant. The white marble tomb is of course the centerpiece of the Taj but the latter is really a complex of buildings, reflecting pools and ornamental gardens. The entrance to the complex is guarded by the Great Gate (Darwaza-i Rauza), a red sandstone structure with white marble features reminiscent of Akbar the Great’s tomb that we just saw in Sikandra.
Other structures include a masjid or mosque on the western end of the tomb. On the opposite side, across the mausoleum is a practical copy of the mosque – a jawab whose main function is to ensure symmetry of the whole structure but has apparently been used as a guesthouse as well. Both structures are also set in red sandstone and white marble like the Great Gate. The whole complex is set on a huge 300 square meter garden with a reflecting pool.
The white marble tomb topped by a huge onion-like dome and surrounded by four 130-foot minarets at each corner of its square base foundation is naturally the most recognizable building in the whole complex and the one structure synonymous to the name Taj Mahal. The mausoleum may not look as imposing on photographs but once you get to see it personally, the 82 foot high interior walls and 115 feet high dome will overwhelm you. The tomb, including its flooring, is made of white marble with intricate decorations including bas-relief, calligraphy and extremely delicate inlays in semi-precious stones.
A Tragic Love Story
The Taj Mahal was built by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan in memory of his favorite wife Mumtaz Mahal who died while giving birth to their 14th child. The emperor was so taken by Mumtaz Mahal that her sudden death brought him much grief. Consequently he spared no expense in building a mausoleum for her. The construction of the Taj Mahal eventually involved 20,000 workers and took 21 years to finish after construction commenced in 1632.
The Indian government takes great pains in preserving this UNESCO World Heritage site. Repair and maintenance work is done regularly; visitors are required to remove their shoes when setting foot on the mausoleum’s marble flooring. We overheard a tour guide who claimed that a group of craftsmen doing maintenance work were actually descendants of the workers originally employed by Shah Jahan to build the Taj almost 400 years ago. We smiled to ourselves, thinking that the guide was just spinning tall tales as what usually happens in many historical tourist sites. However a documentary on the Taj Mahal that we watched fairly recently showed craftsmen doing repair and restoration work using techniques learned from their ancestors – the original builders of the Taj Mahal. It seems that guide was not drumming up a fairy tale after all.
As the capital of the Mughal Empire, Agra is home to many Middle Age structures. Another UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Agra Fort is situated just 2 kilometers away from the Taj Mahal. Also called the Red Fort for the red sandstone used in its construction, this structure was first built by Akbar the Great. His grandson and builder of the Taj Mahal, Shah Jahan finished the work. A short time after the Taj was completed, Shah Jahan was overthrown by his own son Aurangzeb and imprisoned in the Red Fort. (If you have 14 children from just one wife – and Sha Jahan had several wives – it must be awfully difficult to please everyone.) When Shah Jahan died, Aurangzeb had him buried at the Taj Mahal to be near the remains of his mom Mumtaz Mahal.
The Taj Mahal is very much visible from the Red Fort so it isn’t hard to imagine Shah Jahan casting a gaze over the Yamuna River towards the white, onion-domed marble structure that is his favorite wife’s – and eventually his – final resting place.