Monday, 16 January 2012

14. Wonder: The Taj Mahal

(For the Taj Mahal preview, please click here.)

"A teardrop on the cheek of time." Indian poet, Rabindranath Tagore.
"I cannot tell you what I think for I know not how to criticise such a building, but I can tell you what I feel. I would die tomorrow to have such another put over me.” Lady Sleeman, wife of Sir W. H. Sleeman, soldier and administrator in British India.
“The builder could not have been of this earth. For it is evident the design was given him by heaven.” Verse composed by Shah Jahan and inscribed on the Taj Mahal.
"Wow." Myself, Burness, and Danielle.

Well, well, well, the Taj Mahal. A monument that needs little introduction, although I feel that Tagore, Lady Sleeman, and Shah Jahan do it some justice (myself, Burness, and Danielle promise to work on our poetic prose). A monument built for love, a symbol of India, and one of the most recognisable buildings in the world, the Taj Mahal comes with more than a little hype. And hype is a dangerous thing. High expectations led to me being a little disappointed with Angkor Wat and the Pyramids (although both substantially improved the second time round). Would the Taj Mahal suffer a similar fate?

Quite simply, no.

Burness, Danielle and I rolled into the city of Agra at 8am on a brightening Saturday morning. Despite having heard the worst about Agra's touts, we suffered very little pestering off the train and a pre-paid auto-rickshaw took us to our hotel of choice, even if our driver tried to give us the hard sell for his day tour of the city, looking very hurt when we politely declined. Our hotel was called the Shanti Lodge, picked by Burness from the Lonely Planet for its rooftop cafe, and quite simply Burness pulled a blinder. The Shanti Lodge itself is a basic, functional, slightly grubby multi-level lodgings that in almost any other city in any other location would slip into obscure anonymity. But in Agra, in its precise location, it just happens to have one of the best views on earth.

"Have a tea or coffee on the rooftop," the harried and distracted receptionist told us, while our rooms were prepared. Another hotel worker led us up the narrow stairs to the open-top restaurant; we took a seat, and collectively gasped. As we sat on a scruffy rooftop on plastic chairs by a plastic table with a tatty menu before us, we had a clear and uninterrupted view of the Taj Mahal. It was right there, a couple of hundred metres away only, its soft white against the growing blue of the morning.

Can there be many better views in the world? I doubt it, and for the duration of our morning tea I was transfixed. The Taj Mahal is hyped and expectation is very high - my expectations were exceeded.

Later that afternoon, Danielle and I went for a somewhat romantic visit to this monument of love, and I posed the question: what makes the Taj Mahal so beautiful? There is no question that it is a bewitching building to gaze at, but why? The Mughal emperor Shah Jahan built it as a mausoleum to his late wife, Mumtaz Mahal, and pulled out all the stops, no expense spared. The Mughal empire was known for its very refined taste in art and architecture, as well as lavish expenditure, and the Taj Mahal was preceded by a number of other buildings and mausoleums that show clear influences in style. One of these is even in Agra, the Tomb of I'Timad-Ud-Daulah, a tomb for a trusted advisor to Shah Jahan's grandfather, Akbar the Great, and the grandfather to Mumtaz Mahal. It's nicknamed the "Baby Taj" by the Agra touts, and it's not hard to see why.

So the Taj Mahal is not a wholly original design plucked from the ether, rather it is a much refined and combined set of ideas. Although a Muslim empire, the Mughals under Shah Jahan were pretty relaxed and enlightened religiously, and so the Taj Mahal is a synthesis of Hindu and Muslim architectural styles. It has a quadrilateral symmetry that is very pleasing to the eye - it was always designed to be viewed from all angles; although we're very familiar with the picture postcard front, it looks pretty much the same whether viewed from the rear, across on the other side of the Yamuna river, or from the side whether close-up or a few kilometres away at Agra Fort. The contrast between right angles and curves as well as large and small is also appealing. The Taj Mahal is composed of a large central block, with a large portal on each of its four sides; four smaller portals flank each large portal with additional portals at each corner. Each portal has a smaller doorway at the centre. The huge dome, perhaps the Taj Mahal's defining feature, and at around 12,000 tons an engineering Wonder of its own, is echoed by four smaller domes at each corner. And then we have the four tapering minaret towers on each corner, each crowned with another small dome. The towers, incidentally, were built to very slightly incline away from the main building, so in the event of a disaster and their collapse, they would fall away from rather than into the tomb.

To the west of the Taj Mahal is a red sandstone mosque, with a mirror image on the east. The eastern building faces the opposite way to Mecca and is thus no good for prayer. It's simply there for symmetry. In fact, symmetry and decoration are what the Taj Mahal are all about. The four minaret towers are purely decorative as there is no call to prayer around a tomb. Shah Jahan built for beauty and not for function.

I could go on and on about symmetry and contrast but I'll spare you, but if I may I would add one more thing, and that's poise. The Taj Mahal is set upon a large marble-faced platform, and it makes all the difference. It becomes a stage that elevates the Taj Mahal, setting it above its surroundings and above the mosques on two sides. It shows the Taj Mahal off. Most of the aesthetic focus is on the dome, the portals, or the towers, but the platform is easily as crucial: just try and imagine the Taj Mahal without it, at ground level. It would be significantly less grand.

So, an architectural marriage of art and engineering, a perfect and harmonious symmetry and contrast. All of this adds up to the aesthetic appeal of the Taj Mahal. And so I mused to Danielle, as we sat on a bench and admired Shah Jahan's tribute to his late wife. But I suspect she had stopped really listening, just gazing at the Taj Mahal backed by the blue sky. And rightly so. For sometimes it does little use to analyse, and it's better just to admire. The Taj Mahal is beautiful. It is perfect. It is flawless. It needs no explanation.

In fact, there are a few little errors in the interior, but they were deliberately made. In Islam, attempts to repeat God's perfection shouldn't be made, so subtle mistakes were made with interior details. You'll be hard pushed to find them though, I certainly couldn't. The only other irregularity was made by Shah Jahan himself, or by his tomb at least. Entering the main portal, below the main dome, is the cenotaph of Mumtaz Mahal, at the centre surrounded by a screen. This is a false tomb, with the real thing being in a lower room not open to the public. When built, it would have continued the perfect symmetry of the Taj Mahal; it was Shah Jahan's death that screwed it up. With Mumtaz's cenotaph right in the centre, Shah Jahan's had to be placed off-centre, thus asymmetrically. This notable imperfection has given rise to speculation that Shah Jahan planned to build his own elaborate mausoleum, notably a black marble mirror-image Taj Mahal on the other side of the Yamuna river, but there is no evidence for this and it seems a mere rumour first started by the fanciful writings of a visiting jeweller, Jean-Baptiste Tavernier, in 1665. The centre and off-centre arrangement is not unprecedented in Mughal tombs. Perhaps Shah Jahan had intended his own mausoleum, but as he spent his last years imprisoned in the Agra Fort and a world of grief and concubine orgies, we will never know.

Being celebrated as the most beautiful building in the world, it is no surprise that much speculation has been made as to who the architect behind the masterpiece was. Quite simply, we don't know. The chronicles, which were then more interested in wars than construction, don't mention an architect. They do, however, mention two administrators, called Mir Abd-ul-Karin and Mukranat Khan. But what exactly is an administrator? It's sometimes suggested, with more than a tinge of Western arrogance, that the architect may have been a European, but this is not the case; rather it is a myth propagated by a 17th Century Portuguese friar named Father Sebastien Manrique, visiting during construction (although claiming not to have met the architect in question). As well as there being no European architectural features, no other European visitors during the construction mention a European architect, which they surely would have done. However, European books, rather than craftsmen, may have been referred to. Other claims are that the designs came to a Sufi mystic in a dream, and stronger ones that Shah Jahan, if not the actual architect, had a very strong role in the design. But the most likely name, in my opinion, is that of a man called Ustad Ahmad Lahouri. He was behind other projects of Shah Jahan's, such as the Red Fort in Delhi, and after his death his son credited him with the design. There is a stylistic consistency. But as with most of history, we can guess but never know. Time swallows absolute truths. We can probably conclude as very unlikely, though, that Shah Jahan had the architect's hands cut off after completion, so he could never build again; forms of this rumour seem to crop up time and time again, from St Basil's in Moscow to Ananda Temple in Bagan, and ultimately is a flattering myth to have (I note that London's Millennium Dome or the Scottish Parliament Building in Edinburgh has no such myth).

Time has been kind to the Taj Mahal, and it has not suffered the ravages of war, natural disaster, or willful desecration. Nonetheless, by the late 19th Century, it was suffering from a long period of neglect. Shah Jahan's son and jailer, Aurangazeb, ran the Mughal empire into the ground, and soon after his death the empire collapsed. The Taj Mahal was plundered, of its silver gates and the many jewels embedded into the monument. Although the empire survived in name, under rule by first the Persians and later the British, there was not much interest in the upkeep of a mausoleum to a long-dead emperor's wife. The gardens grew wild to point of unrecognisability - the gardens we see now are British creations from about a hundred years ago. Likely the Mughal gardens were as, if not more, immaculate, and would have contained a lot more fruit trees. By the 19th Century, the Taj Mahal was used for open air balls by the English, with brass bands and dancing - the contemporary equivalent of a rave. Not that the locals treated it with any more reverence, with it being recorded that the mausoleum was used for fairs. The minarets even became popular suicide spots. Enter the Imperial Viceroy of India, Lord Curzon. He has cropped us before, as the guy who kickstarted the preservation of and archaeological interest in Bagan in Burma, and he did the same with the Taj Mahal and the nearby Agra Fort. In 1900, he was responsible for renovations to the Taj Mahal, with around £40,000 spent (around £3 million in today's money), the first and last time extensive works have been required. Gardens were redesigned, the building was cleaned and fixed: the Taj Mahal was beautiful again.

During the Second World War, scaffolding was put up to protect from German or Japanese raids, but this never eventuated, and since 1983 when it was World Heritage listed it has been UNESCO who has been the Taj's defender. The greatest threat to the building is pollution. Agra is a dirty city, with many factories, power stations and a whole ton of traffic. UNESCO have seen the closure of 250 nearby factories - not without controversy and the loss of 100,000 jobs - and a protective zone around the complex bans large vehicles. UNESCO are still requesting a larger protective zone. At night, the Taj Mahal is no longer lit up, so as not to attract insects and their corrosive excreta. But it's not just the accidental impact of pollution that threatens, there is much in the way of wilful attempts to damage. Terrorism is an ongoing threat, with more than one Al-Qaida plot to blow it up, though these are usually cheap hoaxes. Corruption too threatens. The single-named Mayawati is the Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh, containing Agra, who likes to erect statues of herself in expensive public parks. In 2002 she approved what was effectively a $40 million shopping mall - with the ironic name of the "Taj Heritage Corridor" - just a few hundred metres from the Taj Mahal and between it and Agra Fort. It was all kept very quiet, and the ASI (The Archaeological Survey of India, responsible for protection of India's historic sites) not told, but when they and UNESCO eventually found out, they had the Indian government quickly intervene to stop it. Still, 200 million Rupees (£25,000) of work had already gone ahead, with foundations sunk into the river bed, diverting flow of water, with a risk to the Taj Mahal foundations. Mayawati is still on the go, and backing such projects as a giant London Eye in the vicinity.

For the casual visitor, the biggest threat, or annoyance really, are what could be termed pests, well-meaning or not. The touts are certainly the biggest pest, and make entry to the Taj Mahal a quite unpleasant experience sometimes. Danielle and I first visited in early afternoon, and found ourselves being quite insistently harassed by touts by the entrance. The process of buying a ticket is not a difficult one, and I am pretty used to dealing with touts by now, but the relentless hassling under the pretense of helping us was exhausting. No, we're not going to visit your shop, you little turd. It meant that by the time we'd entered the Taj Mahal, and were free of the touts, we'd been put into an instant bad mood. Everyone I've spoken to has complained about Agra's touts and hassle, and given that the Taj Mahal is one of the most famous landmarks in the world and an Indian icon, this is pretty embarrassing for India.

The well-meaning pests were not so bad - random photo friends. Random photo friends is the term Burness and I have applied the the Asian phenomenon of Westerners being asked to pose for photos by the locals. It happens across Asia, most often at tourist spots, and I don't usually mind at all. The request are friendly, and although the concept is odd, it appears that having a Westerner in a photo is appealing for many Asians. But God, at the Taj Mahal, it was overload. At several points, Danielle and I had to move away because we couldn't get any peace - one time, during what should have been a private moment admiring the Taj Mahal, we had a baby literally shoved into our hands for a series of photos. The baby, I have to say, was not at all impressed.

But let not any of that take away from the Taj Mahal itself. Go in the morning if you want to avoid the crowds and the random photo friends, and the touts only hassle you outside the complex. None of it matters anyway once you're there. Find a quiet bench and just gaze upon it. This is a building to fall in love with and fall in love to. Whether its perfect symmetry from a distance, or the elegant decoration close up, I have not a bad word to say about the building itself. It is a wonderful monument.

Some criteria.

Size: 65 metres high, and 55 metres wide at either side, the Taj Mahal is suitably big - neither over-sized or too petite. Its 95 metre squared platform gives it additional grandeur.
Engineering: The huge dome was a feat in itself; otherwise the four still-standing minarets are testament to the quality of work. Earlier Mughal tombs set precedents in style and technique.
Artistry: All I could ever say would just mean this: perfectly beautiful.
Age/Durability: In good condition 350 years on, it has been called timeless by many commentators. UNESCO, ASI and public affection should save it from local threats.
Fame/Iconicity: The most famous building in India and one of the most famous buildings in the world.
Context: Despite the crowds, the size of the gardens mean there is usually a peaceful spot to sit and appreciate it. Being on a platform, and having the Yamuna river behind and a good bit below the main monument means that wherever you stand, (usually) blue skies make the backdrop. The only let-down is the city of Agra.
Back Story: Shah Jahan's tribute to his beloved late wife, the Taj Mahal has become synonymous with love, and also with Shah Jahan's lavish reign and decline as Mughal emperor.
Originality: Other Mughal tombs set precedents in style and are clear influences, but the Taj Mahal did it bigger and better.

The French physician Francois Bernier, who was present during the construction of the Taj Mahal said, “This monument deserves much more to be numbered among the wonders of the world than the pyramids of Egypt,” which were “unshapen masses and heaps of stone.” Although I would disagree with his views on the Pyramids, it's hard to disagree with his overall sentiments. One of the primary reasons I'm on these Wonder travels is to more definitely decide what, in my view, the actual Wonders of the World are. The "New7Wonders Foundation" named the Taj Mahal as one of theirs, and although I strongly dispute their methods and motives, I cannot disagree with their outcome. The Taj Mahal is without question the finest man-made structure I have ever seen in my life, and is a country mile clear of Angkor Wat, the next best thing I've seen on these travels. I will be gobsmacked if the Taj Mahal does not make my final Seven, and would venture that I doubt anything will better it. The Taj Mahal was built for love, and I love the Taj Mahal.

The Seven Wonders of the World So Far 
1. Taj Mahal
2. Angkor Wat
3. Sydney Opera House
4. Borobudur
5. Akshardham
6. Petronas Towers
7. The Golden Temple

Notable Landmarks (or National Wonders)
Temple of the Emerald Buddha
Shwedagon Pagoda
Bodhi Tataung Standing Buddha
Banaue Rice Terraces

Interesting Places
Ananda Temple in Bagan
Marina Bay Sands

Ayutthaya Historic Park


  1. The people back when were amazing! How did they came up with this idea? It is really stunning how taj mahal is and it's a very historical structure indeed.

  2. The background looks so beautiful. It reminds me of the castle of Jasmin from Aladdin. India is such a lovely place! I love the Taj Mahal as well.

  3. Thanks guys for your insightful comments!


Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.