Described by Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore as “a teardrop on the face of eternity”, the Taj Mahal is undoubtedly the zenith of Mughal architecture. Volumes have been written on its perfection, and its image adorns countless glossy brochures and guidebooks; nonetheless, the reality never fails to overwhelm all who see it, and few words can do it justice.
The magic of the monument is strangely undiminished by the crowds of tourists who visit, as small and insignificant as ants in the face of the immense mausoleum. That said, the Taj is at its most alluring in the relative quiet of early morning, shrouded in mist and bathed with a soft red glow. As its vast marble surfaces fall into shadow or reflect the sun, its colour changes, from soft grey and yellow to pearly cream and dazzling white. This play of light is an important decorative device, symbolically implying the presence of Allah, who is never represented in physical form.
Overlooking the Yamuna River, the Taj Mahal stands at the northern end of a vast walled garden. Though its layout follows a distinctly Islamic theme, representing Paradise, it is above all a monument to romantic love. Shah Jahan built the Taj to enshrine the body of his favourite wife, Arjumand Bann Begum, better known by her official palace title, Mumtaz Mahal (“Chosen One of the Palace”), who died shortly after giving birth to her fourteenth child in 1631 – the number of children she bore the emperor is itself a tribute to her hold on him, given the number of other wives and concubines which the emperor would have been able to call on. The emperor was devastated by her death, and set out to create an unsurpassed monument to her memory – its name, “Taj Mahal”, is simply a shortened, informal version of Mumtaz Mahal’s palace title. Construction by a workforce of some twenty thouand men from all over Asia commenced in 1632 and took over twenty years, not being completed until 1653. Marble was brought from Makrana, near Ajmer in Rajasthan, and semi-precious stones for decoration – onyx, amethyst, lapis lazuli, turquoise, jade, crystal, coral and mother-of-pearl – were carried to Agra from Persia, Russia, Afghanistan, Tibet, China and the Indian Ocean. Eventually, Shah Jahan’s pious and intolerant son Aurangzeb seized power, and the former emperor was interned in Agra Fort, where as legend would have it he lived out his final years gazing wistfully at the Taj Mahal. When he died in January 1666, his body was carried across the river to lie alongside his beloved wife in his peerless tomb.
The Taj Mahal: a monument under threat
The Taj Mahal: a monument under threat
Despite the seemingly impregnable sense of serenity and other-worldliness which clings to the Taj, in reality, India’s most famous building faces serious threats from traffic and industrial pollution, and from the millions of tourists who visit it each year. Marble is all but impervious to the onslaught of wind and rain that erodes softer sandstone, but it has no natural defence against the sulphur dioxide that lingers in a dusty haze and shrouds the monument; sometimes the smog is so dense that the tomb cannot be seen from the fort. Sulphur dioxide mixes with atmospheric moisture and settles as sulphuric acid on the surface of the tomb, making the smooth white marble yellow and flaky, and forming a subtle fungus that experts have named “marble cancer”.
The main sources of pollution are the continuous flow of vehicles along the national highways that skirt the city, and the seventeen hundred factories in and around Agra – chemical effluents belched out from their chimneys are well beyond recommended safety limits. Despite laws demanding the installation of pollution-control devices, the imposition of a ban on all petrol- and diesel-fuelled traffic within 500m of the Taj Mahal, and an exclusion zone banning new industrial plants from an area of 10,400 square kilometres around the complex, pollutants in the atmosphere have continued to rise (many blame the diesel generators of nearby hotels), and new factories have been set up illegally.
Cleaning work on the Taj Mahal rectifies the problem to some extent, but the chemicals used will themselves eventually affect the marble – attendants already shine their torches on “repaired” sections of marble to demonstrate how they’ve lost their translucency. The government has responded by setting up a pollution monitoring station to check on levels of N2O and SO2 in the atmosphere, but in 2007 a parliamentary committee reported that, aside from the threat from these acidic gases, particulate matter in the air was slowly turning the Taj yellow; the report recommended treatment with a non-corrosive clay pack – something like a building-sized face-pack – to remove particle deposits from the marble.
From time to time scare reports surface to the effect that the Taj’s four minarets are listing and in danger of keeling over. Luckily. this proves to be a false alarm: the minarets were deliberately constructed leaning slightly outwards in order to counteract an optical illusion which would have made them appear to lean inwards when seen from ground level if they were actually exactly vertical. Despite their lean, they are quite stable.
The south, east and west entrances all lead into the Chowk-i-Jilo Khana forecourt. The main entrance into the complex, an arched gateway topped with delicate domes and adorned with Koranic verses and inlaid floral designs, stands at the northern edge of Chowk-i-Jilo Khana, directly aligned with the Taj, but shielding it from the view of those who wait outside.
Once through the gateway, you’ll see the Taj itself at the end of the huge charbagh (literally “four gardens”), a garden dissected into four quadrants by waterways (usually dry), evoking the Koranic description of Paradise, where rivers flow with water, milk, wine and honey. Introduced by Babur from Central Asia, charbaghs remained fashionable throughout the Mughal era. Unlike other Mughal mausoleums such as Akbar’s and Humayun’s, the Taj isn’t at the centre of the charbagh, but at the northern end, presumably to exploit its riverside setting.
The Taj’s museum, in the enclosure’s western wall, features exquisite miniature paintings, two marble pillars believed to have come from the fort and portraits of Mughal rulers including Shah Jahan and Mumtaz Mahal, as well as architectural drawings of the Taj and examples of pietra dura stone inlay work.
Steps lead from the far end of the gardens up to the high square marble platform on which the mausoleum itself sits, each corner marked by a tall, tapering minaret. To the west of the tomb is a domed red-sandstone mosque and to the east a replica jawab, put there to complete the architectural symmetry of the complex – it cannot be used as a mosque as it faces away from Mecca.
The Taj itself is essentially square in shape, with pointed arches cut into its sides and topped with a huge central dome which rises for over 55m, its height accentuated by a crowning brass spire almost 17m high. On approach, the tomb looms ever larger and grander, but not until you are close do you appreciate both its sheer size and the extraordinarily fine detail of relief carving, highlighted by floral patterns of precious stones. Arabic verses praising the glory of Paradise fringe the archways, proportioned exactly so that each letter appears to be the same size when viewed from the ground.
The south face of the tomb is the main entrance to the interior: a high octagonal chamber whose weirdly echoing interior is flushed with pale light. A marble screen, decorated with precious stones and cut so finely that it seems almost translucent, protects the cenotaph of Mumtaz Mahal in the centre, perfectly aligned with the doorway and the distant gateway into the Chowk-i-Jilo Khana, and that of Shah Jahan crammed in next to it – the only object which breaks the perfect symmetry of the entire complex. The inlay work on the marble tombs is the finest in Agra, and no pains were spared in perfecting it – some of the petals and leaves are made of up to sixty separate stone fragments. Ninety-nine names of Allah adorn the top of Mumtaz’s tomb, and set into Shah Jahan’s is a pen box, the hallmark of a male ruler. These cenotaphs, in accordance with Mughal tradition, are only representations of the real coffins, which lie in the same positions in a crypt below.
Taj Mahal viewing practicalities
Taj Mahal viewing practicalities
A day ticket to see India’s most famous monument costs foreign visitors Rs750 (Rs250 to the Archeological Survey of India, Rs500 in local tax), but few regard the expense as money wasted once they are inside. To appreciate the famous play of light on the building, you’d have to stick around from dawn until dusk (ticket valid all day, but only for one entrance). Ticket queues are longest at the west gate, shortest at the south gate, and at the east gate the ticket office has been shifted half a kilometre down the road to the Shilpgram crafts village. You are not allowed to enter with food (and none is available inside), nor with a mobile phone or a travel guidebook – these can be deposited at lockers near the entrances. Foreigners are given a free bottle of water and a pair of shoe covers on entry. The Taj entrance ticket also entitles you to tax-free entry at a few other sites if used on the same day.
It’s possible to see the Taj by moonlight on the night of the full moon itself and on the two days before and after. Only four hundred visitors are admitted per night (in batches of fifty between 8pm and midnight, but not Fridays or during Ramadan). Tickets have to be purchased a day in advance from the ASI office. If a viewing is cancelled, you’ll get a refund.
You can see the Taj for free by climbing onto a Taj Ganj hotel rooftop, or heading down the eastern side of the compound to a small Krishna temple by the river, where you can see the Taj, and also take a little boat ride to see it from the river. Better still, head across the Yamuna River to Mehtab Bagh. From the opposite bank of the river the view is breathtaking, especially at dawn. You cross the river on the road bridge north of Agra Fort, and turn right when you reach the far bank, following the metalled road until it enters the village of Katchpura; here, it becomes a rough track that eventually emerges at a small Dalit shrine on the riverside, directly opposite the Taj and next to the entrance of the Mehtab Garden. You can see the Taj from the garden’s floodlit walkways, and from outside the gardens on the riverbank. Unfortunately, you can no longer access the gardens by boat from across the river by the Taj itself.