Monday, 18 April 2011

India - The first Taj

April 14

Hello everyone!

My beautiful girlfriend Kristina has joined me in India, and our next two stops are the ‘ultimate monument to love’ and the ‘Venice of the East’. There is a risk of the next few blogs becoming a bit luvvy-duvvy and vomit-inducing, but I will endeavour to be as objective and concise as possible. Put the bucket away.

Let me be blunt. This could just have been a picture blog. We all know the expression ‘a picture tells a thousand words’. We all know the Taj Mahal. We all think it’s a rather aesthetically pleasing building. I could have just left this as a few textbook photos of poses in front of India’s most famous building and tourist attraction. You would all understand, at no context is needed.

Or so you may think. Do you know why it was built? Do you know specific architectural nuances that are displays of genius beyond their time? Heck, do you even know where it is? I’ll answer all of these questions for you, starting with the latter. We boarded an evening train from Delhi and headed southeast. The four-hour train was supposed to arrive before 10pm – we arrived in the city of Agra at 11.30pm. I passed the time in my usual way – chatting to locals, showing them pictures and wiggling my head – as well as showing a five-year-old how to use an iPod. I had to skip a lot of the Eminem songs. Amazingly, the man due to collect us was still waiting for us. Commitment.

Without the Taj Mahal, Agra would not be worth visiting. There is an exclusion zone in the area surrounding the Taj to prevent any vehicles from polluting it. They make up for it outside. It is a filthy city, and very much a tourist trap. The fort was a bit disappointing after Jodhpur – the best thing about it was the view of the Taj across the holy Yamuna River – and the main mosque, India’s second biggest, was a bit run-down. The place is rife with sellers, is incessantly loud, and I can’t imagine it would be on many people’s agenda if it didn’t have a certain structure within its community.

But what a structure. We opened our curtains at 7am, and stood open-mouthed as we laid our eyes on a large marble masterpiece that shimmered elegantly in the distance. Within an hour we were at the West Gate, one of three entrances to the Taj. We arrived early to beat the crowds, an objective we successfully accomplished. Having seen from a rooftop the crowds that accumulate in the afternoon, we made the right choice, and it is something I would advise to anyone visiting. It isn’t too hot in the morning either, which is another positive.

In we go, turning left through a large gateway…and then admire. Wonder. It is a fairytale moment – true blue sky as a backdrop, pretty green gardens latticed in the foreground, and then a glistening white monument rising dominantly, majestically, in between. It is absolutely stunning. I mentioned this could be a picture blog – I don’t think I have the linguistic talent to do it justice. Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore can do it for me. He described it as a teardrop that glistened "spotlessly bright on the cheek of time". Nice, eh?

Let me refer back to those earlier questions. The Taj Mahal is a mausoleum built under the guidance of an Emporer called Shah Jahan. His second wife died giving birth to his fourteenth (!) child in 1631, so he built the Taj to honour her. Construction began the following year, and the complex was completed in 1653. The Taj is made of marble laced with semi-precious stones, and was created by 20,000 workers. Both Shah Jahan, who spent his final eight years gazing longingly at his masterpiece from the prison in Agra Fort, and his wife are buried below the hall inside.

The interior doesn’t match the grandeur of the exterior. I didn’t expect it to, but it is a bit smaller and darker than I anticipated. To the west is the mosque and, in keeping with the symmetrical nature of the place, there is an identical building to the east. The arches of the four sides of the Taj are decorated with verses from the Quran, which seems to fit brilliantly with the intricate floral designs. As the mosque is an integral part of the complex, the Taj is closed on Fridays for prayers, so do not make your visit on that day!

Adding to the Islamic design are four minarets; one at each corner. Remember I said about interesting design features? Well, these minarets are not perpendicular (look it up if you can’t remember) – they are angled slightly away from the Taj. Why? In the event of an earthquake, they will fall away from the mausoleum, helping to protect it. Ignoring the obvious flaw of the earthquake shattering the main building irrespective of the minarets, how amazing is that?! There are numerous nuggets of trivia like that, all adding to the aura.

It is mandatory to do one particular photo pose at the Taj Mahal. The finger pose. I find it funny watching people do it from an angle where I can’t see the object involved…

We were busying ourselves with photos when Kristina pointed out that my trousers seemed to have developed a hole in a rather interesting region. Flying low at the Taj, not many people can say they’ve done that. Except I couldn’t just zip back up here, and it was a rather large split. Somehow it hasn’t appeared in the photos – my arm must have subconsciously felt a draft – bit it made me nervous about performing a ‘jump shot’. I still did it, of course. Zoom in close enough and you can spot it.

This is one of the greatest sights: one of the visually rewarding constructions by man on our planet. I said earlier that my words won’t do it justice, but I want to try. The Taj is often claimed to be the ultimate ‘monument to love’. The intricacy of its design and the stunning nature of the symmetry and approach to the tomb would incline me to agree with this statement. The Taj Mahal is the cherry on top of the beautiful cake of India, and leaves images in my mind that will warm my heart just as Shah Jahan tried to warm his by building this architectural and aesthetic masterpiece. Meh, I should just keep travelling and leave the quotes to professionals.

Love you all


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