Archive for May 2011

Part III: A Teardrop On The Cheek Of Time: Taj Mahal

It took nearly 22 years to build the Taj Mahal. I thought it would take me almost as long before I got around to finishing my Agra trilogy!There is so much that can be written about this monument that has come to symbolise India, that I hardly know where to begin.

The first time I saw the Taj, I must have been around five or six years old. After a day spent going around in a horse drawn 'tanga' we finally saw it in twilight. I seem to recall seeing it bathed in moonlight. Maybe my memory has faded and imagination has taken its place - people ought to see Taj Mahal in moonlight. But the image in my mind is beautiful.

We entered the Taj complex at 3pm. Not the best time to see it - April and that too a Sunday. Take my advice people, if you plan to go here, then early mornings are the best time. The complex opens at 6am. Without the multitudes thronging the grounds, you will have a peaceful visit and actually be able to appreciate the splendour of this grand monument. Do not get taken in by the guides / touts who say that the line is very long and they will get your ticket for an extra payment. The line is long no doubt, but it moves fast.

Armed with our tickets, we moved towards the enormous gateway leading to the Taj. This itself is a lovely structure in warm red sandstone with marble inlay work. I was apprehensive - what if my imagination was all wrong and all that people say about this wonder of the world is hype? What if I was underwhelmed and felt let down? I need not have worried.

Through the gateway, the Taj appeared as an enormous white monument - almost like looking at a giant beast through the keyhole. The visual impact is powerful.

As I emerged out of the gateway, the entire Taj complex lay  sprawled before me. The white marble edifice, the green gardens and the thronging tourists. The sheer beauty and elegance of the monument diffused through my mind. I was reminded of the poem 'Tiger' by William Blake which celebrates the beauty of that powerful beast. Yet, some lines could be applied to the Taj as well: "What immortal hand or eye, Could frame thy fearful symmetry?"

As we walked towards the mausoleum, it seemed to grow in size and was towering over us. I recalled an alternate theory surrounding the history of the Taj.  

Shahjahan is described by historians as arrogant and vain. He was the emperor of the largest empire of his time and lord of immense wealth. Many of the most beautiful monuments of the Mughal era were commissioned at his command. He gave himself titles like "Lord of the Age", "Shadow of God", "August Representative of God on Earth". Modern researchers consider these important indicators in analysing his motives for the construction of the Taj Mahal. That he seemed to think he was God's representative on earth.

With this as the backdrop, the design of the actual Taj Mahal site and the inscriptions which adorn its structures take on a different significance. An Islamic academic treatise which existed at that time laid out the  plan of Paradise on The Day of Judgement. Comparison of this plan with the layout of the Taj Mahal gardens shows remarkable similarities like: four rivers, a tank of abundance and the Throne of God in very similar layouts. Unlike most Mughal mausoleums which are placed at the center of their sites, the Taj is placed at its far end. Put these indicators together and they seem to suggest that Shahjahan was creating at least a replica of heaven. 

So were the accounts of Shahjahan's undying love for Mumtaz Mahal just highly exaggerated accounts of his courtiers and chroniclers? Francois Bernier, a French traveler has written that he remained 'constant' to his dead wife till his own death. Now consider this in light of his sojourn in the Mussamman Burj.
The Mussamman Burj are the royal chambers in Agra Fort, to which Shahjahan was confined by Aurangazeb. As you know, there was a battle for succession amongst Shahjahan's four sons in which Aurangazeb triumphed. He imprisoned his father at the Mussamman Burj for eight years. Built of white marble with rich inlay work, the chambers hardly look like a prison. Legend has it, that the aging monarch lay here, gazing at the Taj, on the other side of the Yamuna. The picture of romance and heart break. But, cynic that I am, the picture doesn't quite ring true. Here's why.

The story that Shahjahan remained sexually faithful to Mumtaz is pure humbug if you ask  me. He was known to be a man with a huge sexual appetite. In fact, it is rumoured that he had an incestuous relationship with his daughter Jahanara on grounds that it would be "unjust to deny the king the privilege of gathering fruit from the tree he himself had planted." Mumtaz Mahal died at the age of around 39 (in child birth while bearing him his 14th child) and Shahjahan at 74 (overdosing on aphrodisiacs according to some accounts). That would mean close to 35 years of celibacy for an Emperor who considered himself King of the World!!

I see that I've wandered far away from the monument into speculation of the lives that are linked with its history. But in my opinion, that is what makes the Taj Mahal fascinating. The stories behind its splendour and magnificence. The stories that lie in the shadow of its shining white marble-War, blood, betrayal, fratricide, incest.

Before I close, I want to share one more thing. A few years ago, I attended a conference on public health. An IAS officer was slotted to speak on government schemes on maternal health. I will never forget his opening slide. It was a picture of the Taj Mahal - that wonder of the world, the pride of India. But also, a monument of grief, symbolising the death of a woman - who was married at fifteen, endured fourteen pregnancies and died in child birth. And that my friends, is the teardrop on the cheek of time.

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Part II: Time And Timelessness - Agra Fort

Apologies everybody. I've been very tardy about updating my blog. The past few weeks have been so busy - work, home, work, home - that all I could do at the end of each day was fall exhausted into bed and sleep like the dead. Well here I am, on a lazy Sunday (oh! Its been so long since I had one), nothing much to do except update my blog.
Our next stop was at the Agra Fort. Built of the red sandstone so typical of  the Mughals ,this timeless piece of architecture truly deserves its status as a World Heritage Monument. It has been home to the greatest Mughul emperors at some point or other. Babur lived here for a while after defeating Ibrahim Lodi. Humayun was crowned here. Akbar rebuilt the fort and declared Agra his capital. The fort as we know it today was built by Shahjahan.

Amar Singh Gate
We entered the fort via the Amar Singh Gate and engaged a guide. A word of advice to those who are not so aware about the Fort's history. It is a good idea to engage a guide. They charge about Rs. 400 for a full guided tour. Bear in mind however, that their accounts may not be historically accurate. So, if you're serious about learning the Fort's history, do some reading before or after your visit. If you're interested only in soaking up the history and ambiance of the place, then the guide's account would be more than enough. Peppered as it is with folk lore and legend, it makes for a romantic hearing.

As we entered the fort area, we crossed a deep moat. The guide informed us that during the reign of the Mughals, there was a 'double moat'. One filled with water and crocodiles and another that was forested and had wild animals to provide a double safety cordon. I have heard about the water moat of course. Most forts have it. But it was the first time I heard about the wild animals moat. And I think it is what historians would call 'an interpolation' although it sounded very grand!

Jahangiri Mahal
The Jahangiri Mahal inside the fort, is a beautiful palace made of red sandstone and used to be the main residence of Akbar's  Rajput wives. Architecturally speaking, the palace incorporates Central Asian design features with Rajasthani styles. The guide however, spiced it up with a story of how Akbar, being of a secular bent of mind, used Hindu, Muslim and Christian features in the construction of this palace. He added that Akbar had a Hindu, Muslim and Christian wife and probably wanted to please all three of them. He demonstrated it by showing us the Chatris sitting atop slender, elegant columns, symbolising Rajput / Hindu influence. Then he showed us the arches typical of Islamic construction and finally, a Magen David inlaid in white marble on the elaborate red sandstone gateway into the palace. He did not realise that the Magen David is a  Jewish symbol.

See the 3 Magen-like stars at the top?
While I knew all about Akbar's interest in world religions and the Din-i-Ilahi and also about his Hindu wives, this was the first time I was hearing about a Christian wife. Perhaps there was some Portuguese connection here? After all they had started arriving in India around this time. The guide told us that the Christian wife's name was Mariam. When I looked it up, it said that Akbar married a Rajput princess called Harka Bai who became Mariam-uz-Zamani. She was the mother of Jahangir and was also known as Jodha Bai. So it appears that Akbar did not have a Christian wife after all.

What about the Magen David then? Not much information online. Except a blog reference that said it is not a star of David, but a Hindu symbol. The circle in the middle of the star is an important distinguishing feature. I really must check out these facts with my history prof.

Jahangir's Hauz
Pic courtesy: Flickr
Right outside the Jahangiri Mahal is a very interesting thing - Jahangir's bath tub or Hauz. I kid you not! Take a look at the picture. It looks like a large cup without a saucer! It was made in 1611 and is hewed out of a single piece of stone. It is 5 feet high and 8 feet in diameter at the rim and has Persian inscriptions on its outer rim. There are even small steps leading up into the bath tub. Only a few of the steps survive today. The guide, adding his bit of garnish, said that it was covered in gold foil during its hey day. These royals sure had life easy. I wish I had a bath tub like this! Although perhaps it may not be entirely practical. I have an 8' X 5' bathroom and water is rationed. And given that I have a 'balti bath' daily and which I like very much, I may perhaps drown in such a large tub!

Moving ahead, we visited the Mussamman Burj where Shahjahan was imprisoned. But I will include that in my next post. From this we headed for the Diwan-i-khas or Hall of Private Audience. This had a splendid view of the Yamuna. From a black granite bench on the edge of the terrace, the Taj was visible in the hazy heat of the day. Drawing our attention towards it, the guide asked us to describe how it looked. It was a small, blurry speck in the distance. 'Hold that thought' he said. 

Angoori Bagh
From here we looked over to the enclosed quadrangle of the 'Angoori Bagh'. As the name suggests, it was a vine yard and soil had been brought in specially from Kashmir to grown the grapes. Skirting this, we moved over to the side directly opposite the Diwan-i-khas, passing the Sheesh Mahal where the public were not allowed, and the Ladies Bazaar to the administrative block. From here, the guide asked us if the Taj was still visible and how did it look. Indeed it was still visible and lo! it looked bigger in size than when viewed from the terrace near the Diwan-i-khas. This was an optical illusion he explained. When the Taj is viewed from the balcony of Diwan-i-khas, the river Yamuna is seen winding its way around it. This creates some sort of perspective effect that causes the Taj to look smaller than it actually is. When viewed from farther away, with the Yamuna out of sight, the perspective effect is negated, and the Taj is seen in its actual size. This piece of information did check out when I looked it up. 

Where the Peacock Throne was once housed

Nearing the end of our tour, we approached the Diwan-i-Am or Hall of Public Audience where the Peacock Throne was once housed. It is a large hall with colonnades of arches. The throne room is located a few feet above ground and according to our guide, from here, each of the arched pillars is visible individually. The throne room is connected to the royal chambers and from here the royal ladies could witness the proceedings of the court. The courtyard outside the Diwan-i-Aam has the grave of an Englishman named John Mildenhall, apparently the oldest known European grave in Northern India.

This completed our tour of the fort complex. I emerged feeling all soaked up in  history and legend. If the walls, columns and latticed windows of this fort palace could speak, what would they have said I wonder? Would they have spoken of glory and power? Or the tears, sweat and blood that went into it? Do we know everything there is to know or have we only scratched the surface? I guess we can never be sure. 

PS: All photographs in this post are my own except the one of Jahangir's Hauz.

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