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.