In the Shadow of the Taj Mahal


Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan must have really loved his third wife. If it’s not obvious from the jewels dangling from the woman’s body in almost every portrait, then maybe it’s the fact that he built the world’s finest and best known mausoleum for her: the Taj Mahal.

The wife, Mumtaz Mahal, died giving birth to the their 14th child. So maybe in addition to being a symbol of Shah Jahan’s love for and grief at the loss of his wife, it was a way of saying “good job” for all the hard work.

Assumptions aside, the Taj Mahal is a true gem in the world of architecture. Constructed of pure white marble and straddling the banks of the Yamuna River, it graces the otherwise under-developed, over-touristed landscape of the surrounding city Agra. Against cloudless blue skies, one’s imagination could easily picture the main onion-shaped dome and building, it’s lofty white façade and intricate inlaid carvings, floating off into the sky. It’s really no wonder that it’s a wonder of the world.

I’m sure when Shah Jahan set out to build this memorial for his beloved he didn’t have global notoriety – at least not in terms of the tourist hordes it would attract — in mind, but I was glad he and his army of artisans did such a fine job. Otherwise standing in line at 5:30 in the morning to be the first ones into the mausoleum complex would have been a tiring, lackluster experience. The final product –four minarets framing the immaculately white tomb and its surrounding gardens – didn’t fail to impress.

Entering the grounds from the east, the Taj Mahal was hidden behind large walls and a grand entrance gate. Walking up to the gate, the great white wonder came into view, a bit blurry due to the misty morning air that gradually cleared as I walked through. As one of the first batch of tourists, my first few photos were void of other camera totting, silly hat wearing visitors.

The main stretch leading up to the Taj Mahal was lined with an array of neatly trimmed shrubs and beautiful fountains that magnified its splendor. Each step brought the marble complex closer until I was finally directly in front of it. To enter the main tomb, I had to take off my shoes or wear odd booty coverings over my sneakers. I opted for the former. The marble floors felt cool and smooth on my feet, almost slippery as a thin layer of quickly evaporating morning dew gleamed on the white surface. It was kind of like walking on water.

I walked around the tomb to get away from the sun, rising quickly and heating up the ground, and admire the elaborate carvings and calligraphy. Small flowers pocked the stone, each carefully painted as columns of calligraphy rose to dome’s peak. Standing in the great mausoleum’s shadow, I felt tiny, yet inspired. One guy had this whole thing built for one woman. Wow.

Shah Jahan also rests in the tomb. He was eventually overthrown by his son, who wanted to stop his father’s squandering on grandiose tombs, and locked up in Agra’s Red Fort, just north of the Taj Mahal on the same river. From his cell, Shah Jahan could have still had a view of his precious monument and, in a way, a connection to his wife.

The Taj Mahal was the second wonder of the world I’ve seen. In 2009 I stood in similar awe and disbelief in the shadow of the Great Wall of China. The Great Wall’s “wonder” status comes from its impressive location (on the top of high ridges and not-so-gently rolling hills) and length (almost 4,000 miles across China’s northern half).

True, the Taj Mahal lacks the wall’s scale, but it was no less great. The Great Wall was built as a defensive structure that ultimately failed its purpose: keeping the Mongols out. The Taj Mahal was built out of loss, in memoriam, for love — and every smooth marble brick and detailed calligraphy carving was a testament to that purpose.

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