The Taj Mahal – Before walking up to the ticket counter on that already sweltering June morning, I did not realize that international visitors are largely responsible for funding the maintenance and care of India’s Taj Mahal, this by virtue of the fact that they pay 35 times more for admission than do Indians. With over a quarter million foreign visitors forking over around $20 per visit, the resulting income sounds impressive, but it is actually only around $5 million. That sum is shared between the municipality of Agra and the agency that oversees the country’s 3,000+ monuments.
Nonetheless I can attest that every penny of the $19 is well spent – it gains one entrance to an architectural icon unlike any other and one which so many have sought and failed to adequately describe. “The Taj Mahal rises above the banks of the river like a solitary tear suspended on the cheek of time,” was Rabindranath Tagore’s poetic take on the reverse teardrop dome. Neither palace nor conference center, the Taj is a mausoleum, the last resting place of a beloved wife, Mumtaz, whose very name has come to mean perfection. Yet, unlike even the most beautiful of humans, the Taj has yet to visibly age more than a notch or two. Every angle and curve is just as crisp and clean and seductive as it was when Shah Jahan and what was probably a team of expert architects conceived and designed this world landmark. Granted, bits and pieces have fallen off or been stolen but most of these impairments have been restored or replaced. There is also some concern about the structure sinking or the narrow spires tilting, but the average visitor will not be aware of problems brought on by age. The body of the piece, the lines, grace, and esthetic gift that choruses from every inch of the white marble, lives on, eternally one hopes in spite of the lurking elements of physics.
The marvel is not in its still gleaming brilliance, size, symmetry, or architecture. The wonder is that it exists at all. The Taj and its partner monuments at Fort Agra are sublime examples of what was possible in a country where potable water was not a basic right of every citizen, where whole sections of the population were held in contempt, and where the scramble for supremacy touched every facet of society. With my friend Anima, I braved 45.6 degree heat to walk the length of the reflecting pond, to snap innumerable shots of the dome, the pillars with their optical illusion of angles, the intricate Arabic script of verses from the Qur’an, and the inlaid mosaics. Before entering the Taj itself, I slipped white surgical slippers on over my Tevas, a gift that came with my admission price, as did a local guide and a bottle of much needed mineral water.
It took 20,000 workers 22 years to construct the Taj and most of them lived on the grounds while the building was going on. In those times, a grandfather, father, and son might all have worked on the same project with perhaps two of those dying before it was completed. There is a sense of continuity in The Taj, a connectedness from past to present to future, from the devotion of one man for one woman to all of those lucky people who have experienced the depths of love and commitment. The Taj was built as a promise kept. When Mumtaz, the Shah’s third and only Muslim wife was dying after childbirth, so the guide said, she demanded several boons of her lord: first, that he not marry again or marry again depending on what legend one is told, second, that he should be kind to his family, and third, that he should build her a tomb to stand as evidence, as a monument to all he felt for her. Years and millions of rupees later, his vow was fulfilled. Shortly after, as Shah Jahan was about to embark on another monument, this time in black marble and for himself, his son rebelled, captured the Shah, and took over the throne.
No doubt the original story has changed with the ages, but the building remains, a testament to the possibility of
creating something that would last longer than the truth of the story.