“The world believes it was built by love but reading Shah Jahan’s own words on the Taj, one could say it was grief that built the Taj Mahal and it was sorrow that saw it through till completion.”
~ Aysha Taryam, The Opposite of Indifference: A Collection of Commentaries
This last week I travelled to Agra. I was keeping a promise to myself to revisit the city at a slower pace, in a more mindful way. It was my 4th visit. Needless to say, my previous ones were of the mass-produced variety.
The universe, weaving its magic in my favour, decided to back me on my plan and gave me one of my most memorable and beautiful travel experiences ever. I did not use any guide. I merely read up a lot, and wandered around the sites a lot more, often seating myself at a quiet spot or another to absorb the place at leisure. May I suggest you do the same? Live Agra’s treasures. Don’t just visit them.
In this post I am uploading a series of pictures of the Taj Mahal, easily Agra’s biggest attraction, taken from 7 am to 12 noon [yes, I was there for five hours 🙂 ], and some basic context one needs to know. I hope it inspires you to let your soul and feet revel in the 350-year-old monument, like mine did. They will both thank you, profusely.
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Note: This post is the first of a 7-part series on why Agra should be on every travel bucket list. To read the entire set click here.
Facts and figures: 22 years, 20,000 labourers, and one man’s dream to create paradise on earth as a tribute to the woman he loved, and lost. The man was Shah Jahan. The woman, Mumtaz Mahal. Completed in 1653 and hailed the world’s most beautiful building, the UNESCO World Heritage Site’s chief architect was Ustad Ahmad Lahauri from Afghanistan. The monuments are made of brick encased in white marble [for the mausoleum] and red sandstone [for the mosque, Mehmaan Khana, and entrance gate].
Who were the Mughals? They were the rulers of the second largest empire in India founded in 1526 by Babur, a descendant of Timur the Great and Genghis Khan. His successors had a mix of Persian and Rajput lineage as a result of marriage alliances by subsequent generations. Spread over 4 million sq. kms with a population of 158 million at its peak , the Mughal empire had its capitals in Agra, Fatehpur Sikri, Lahore, and Shahjahanabad in Delhi, till it came to a close in 1857 with the siege of Delhi.
An introduction to Shah Jahan: Born Khurram to a Rajput princess and emperor Jahangir, Shah Jahan meaning “King of the World” was the 5th Mughal emperor (1628 – 58). He came into power after killing all his brothers and stepbrothers, crowning himself in Agra. During his reign the Mughal empire and its arts and architecture reached its peak. He was eventually deposed by his own son, Aurangzeb, and put under house arrest till death in Agra Fort. Though at times called bluff, legend has it Shah Jahan chopped off the Taj Mahal artisans’ hands so they would not create another such masterpiece, ever again.
An introduction to Mumtaz Mahal: Born Arjumand Banu to a Persian noble family, Mumtaz Mahal was Shah Jahan’s step-mother, Nur Jahan’s niece. Well-read and talented, a poetess and multilingual, she was said to have been both shy and frank, and incredibly beautiful. Shah Jahan loved her so much he conferred upon her the title Mumtaz Mahal meaning “The Exalted One of the Palace.”
Monument of marital love: Betrothed in 1607 and married in 1612, Mumtaz Mahal was 19 when she became Shah Jahan’s second wife. He loved her dearly, and though he had two other wives, remained monogamous to Mumtaz Mahal throughout her life. His companion and confidant, their marriage was both intimate and erotic. She died during childbirth of her 14th child, aged but 38. Shah Jahan was so devastated by her death he greyed overnight, wept profusely, and went into seclusion. When he came back to public life, he built the Taj Mahal.
The zenith of pietra dura: Shah Jahan’s artisans perfected the art of pietra dura or pictorial mosaic work using semi-precious stones in the Taj Mahal. Forty different types of semi-precious and rare stones such as agate, turquoise, lapis-lazuli, coral, onyx, cat’s eye, jade, and blood stone from across the Mughal realm and beyond its borders including Afghanistan, Burma, China, Egypt, Russia, Sri Lanka, and Tibet embellish the floral arabesque patterns and calligraphy carved onto the marble surfaces.
A bevy of optical illusions: From the Taj Mahal appearing bigger as you walk away from the main gateway to minarets which defy perspective by leaning 2 degrees outwards. From calligraphy panels with chapters from the Koran that widen as they rise above the ground for reading clarity to circular columns which appear fluted like an open book. The Taj Mahal is an engineering feat, as much as it is a work of poetic art and ethereal beauty.
Taj Mahal’s perfect symmetry: As high as it is wide [55 metres], the octagonal mausoleum sits on a square platform in a square complex with the left and right sides mirroring each other across Mumtaz Mahal’s cenotaph in its centre. The only anomaly is Shah Jahan’s cenotaph which he insisted be placed next to his wife’s. Note: The actual tombs are in an underground chamber and cannot be accessed.
Highlights of the Taj Museum: Built into the Naubat Khana inside the complex, the compact museum is definitely worth a visit. There are original miniature paintings of Shah Jahan made during his lifetime by his court artists, celadon plates said to split into pieces or change colour if brought into contact with poisonous food, and architectural drawings of the Taj Mahal. The showpiece, however, is a set of exquisite 17th Century ivory paintings of Shah Jahan and his wife Mumtaz Mahal. It is nice to have a face to the two protagonists. Shah Jahan for one, was very handsome.
Mosque and Mehmaan Khana: There is more to the Taj Mahal than the marble mausoleum. To its left, facing west, is a red sandstone mosque [still functioning] and to its right is the Mehmaan Khana or guest house, a mirror image of the mosque [sans mihrab] in keeping with the site plan’s demand for flawless symmetry. Don’t forget to check out the mosque floor which has 569 marble prayer mats inlaid into the flooring.
Best time to visit? In winter and at sunrise. As the skies change from dove grey to ice blue to powder blue, the Taj Mahal also changes its hue from light grey to snow white to a creamy warm white—the semi-translucent marble reflecting the colour of light around it. Secondly, the crowds are at its lowest during this time. It’s a lovely feeling to have the monument [almost] to oneself!
Travel tips for Taj Mahal:
- The best time to visit is sunrise. Use the western gate. Ticket counter opens at 6:40 am, Gates open at 7:00 am [November to March].
- Ticket and timing: Rs. 40 for Indians, Rs. 1,000 for foreigners; Open 6 days a week from sunrise to sunset; Closed on Fridays; Photography allowed except inside the mausoleum and Taj Museum.
- You need to keep your ID card with you when entering.
- No big handbags, plastic bags, knives, keys, tripods, food or drink allowed inside.
- For more information, visit the Taj Mahal official website here.
- For spectacular views of the Taj Mahal from outside the complex, visit Mehtab Bagh [sunset views] and the roof top restaurant of Saniya Palace in Taj Ganj—click here.
Travel tips for Agra:
- Staying there: I stayed at the Crystal Sarovar Premiere through makemytrip.com. Ask for a Taj Mahal-facing room [no extra charge] and one that is at the beginning or end of the corridor. Else, you end up also looking out at KFC’s exhaust pipes.
- Getting to Agra: I took the Gatimaan Express from Delhi to Agra and back. The train offers fantastic on-board services with a travel time of 1 hour 40 minutes one way.
- Getting around: Auto rickshaws and car hire services are plentiful.
- How many days: Try and spend at least 3–4 days in Agra. There is plenty to explore, I assure you!
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Note: This post is the first in a 7-part series on why Agra should be on every travel bucket list. To read the entire set click here.