A yellowish copy of an old portrait appears in every travel booklet in India. The portrayed lady gently gazes upon tourists from all over the world.
Her dark eyes were once softly shining like deep water in moonlight. Her exquisite beauty once cast a spell on a king. She married him in 1612, when he was still Prince Khurram.
He fell for her at first sight when they were both 15 in 1607. Ever since that time, it had been Khurram’s dream to marry her. But before his wish came true, he had to marry a Persian princess first for political reasons. His beloved, therefore, had to settle for the strange role of second wife in his harem.
In Khurram’s heart, however, she was always first. Even before Prince Khurram became King Shah Jahan, he had changed her name from Arjmand Banu Begam to Mumtaz Mahal, which meant “the most beautiful crown of the palace.”
Once in a war, Shah Jahan missed Mumtaz so much that he wrote a poem to her:
When my mind and body hungered for you
My spirit burned to death
Your love reaching from afar
Breathed life into my dead ashes
As the love of God once did to create men
He was more and more attached to her through the years of marriage. War had been the only cause of his departure from her. But later, even war could not separate them anymore. She began to go to the battlefield with him, even when she was pregnant.
She was the only woman that bore him children. She gave birth to 14 children in 19 years of marriage. However, the 14th childbirth took her life.
For seven days and seven nights after her death, the King didn’t eat. On the eighth day, he finally walked out of his chamber. The servants and guards were all shocked to see that his hair had turned from black to gray.
He put on white mourning clothes and ordered the construction of a most beautiful monument. The chosen material was pure white marble, symbolizing his flawless memory of her.
After 17 years of toil by more than 20,000 craftsmen and laborers, the miraculous construction of the mausoleum was completed. The year was 1648. Mirrored by a crystal clear manmade pond in front and the slate blue Yamuna River behind, the peerless monument was named the Taj Mahal.
In 1666, when Shah Jahan was on his deathbed, his last wish was to be carried to a window facing the Taj Mahal, to whisper again the name of his lifelong love.
With the flow of the Yamuna River, hundreds of years have passed. Now, in 2004, the Taj Mahal is still located in Agra, the kingdom’s old capital city.
From modern metropolis, Delhi, to Agra, the 120-mile (about 200 km) ride gets bumpier and bumpier. Potholes dot a dirt road. Trucks are hurling gray and yellow dust into the air.
I am sitting in the backseat of a taxicab, the closed windows keep out the air pollution. And thru the dusted glass I can see rickshaws, donkey-driven carts, bicycles, pedestrians and cows that are regarded as holy animals here, all struggling to move through the crowds in the suffocating air.
Along the dirt road are huts that function as both residences and shops. In front of one grocery store stands a little girl. Her haircut is as short as a boy’s, but her face is still feminine. In a faded who-knows-what-color dress, she is so excited to see my taxi that she starts waving. On her dirt-stained face blossoms a smile like a fresh lotus in the morning sun.
Can this little girl read the Taj story in Hindi? In this country, where there is no free public education, does she go to school?
The tour guide in the front seat is an educated man. He speaks English with a thick Indian accent and predicts that there will be begging children near the Taj Mahal. “Don’t give them money.” He warns, “If you give one money, a thousand will come.”
On the way from the parking lot to the Taj Mahal, some bare-footed children indeed come up to me, holding their hands out, with smiles on their faces. They keep saying “hello, hello.” No matter how much I try to ignore them, as I have been advised, they won’t go away. Instead, more and more of them come, surrounding and following me, like a giggling group of pupils on a field trip.
Two of them keep murmuring, “Pen, school pen.” It seems to mean: “If you don’t give us money, at least give us a pen.”
In the meantime, all the vendors in the neighborhood flock over, hustling postcards, film and drinks. It is difficult to find a way through them to the Taj Mahal.
The main gate is built of red sandstone. A few guards are standing in front of it, checking people’s tickets.
The begging children know they cannot follow anymore. They all stop. But they are still grinning and beaming, waving to say good-bye.
Now I am too overwhelmed not to give the ones standing closest a little change. But then the others all start screaming, “Me too! Me too!” And I have to flee past the front gate instantly.
In the middle of the front yard is a long, narrow, rectangular manmade pond, reflecting the grand Taj Mahal at the end of it. Soft golden sunshine comes through morning mist, outlining the contour of the dome in the center and the pillars at the four corners against the pale blue canvas of the sky. It is a giant masterpiece of art, too magnificent to look real.
No picture of it can compare with this original copy. Painting and photography cannot duplicate such grandeur. Neither can they capture the ever-changing light of the magnificence of it all.
The white marble takes on a pinkish shade of a new-born day at sunrise, glares like snow during a sunny day, turns grayish whenever clouds cover the sun’s face, and glows with a tint of fading orange light at sunset. Then, the tourists have to leave. The Taj Mahal is no longer open at night. I can only imagine how it reflects silver moonlight.
The various reflections of light come not only from the white marble but also from the colorful inlays, which decorate certain parts of the building. Red flowers and green leaves glisten in their delicate shapes carved in the white marble. Every tiny petal and thin stem is made of precious stones, which fit in the marble perfectly, leaving no cracks or bumps on the smoothest surface. To achieve such brilliant detailed work, the many craftsmen and jewelers certainly had to exhaust their skillful fingers.
Among the thousands of workers who built the Taj Mahal, how many of them were enthusiastic about the job?
Did Shah Jahan force people into slavery for his own dream construction? Was it fair to the people that he spent all the taxes from them just to memorize his love? Did he ever think about what they loved?
Throughout history, how many kings and queens did think about the people? Even now, when democracy has replaced monarchy in many countries, how many leaders do care beyond winning elections to see what people’s needs are?
I cannot forget those children who kept following me on the street, begging for a little change, for a pen.
Those children may have come in here to see the Taj Mahal on admission-free Fridays, when the mausoleum is closed to tourists and only open for offering prayer. Does it mean anything to them how marvelous this world wonder is?
When the tour guide explains the aesthetics of the Taj Mahal, he emphasizes that there is no mountain or other building behind it. Its only background is an endless sky. This gives an impression that the Taj Mahal is located where Heaven and Earth meet.
The Taj Mahal is more poetic than poetry, standing between Heaven and Earth, dream and reality.
The Nobel-prize-winning Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941) once described the Taj Mahal as “an eternal teardrop on the cheek of time.”
This teardrop! Is it only Shah Jahan’s mourning tear? Or is it also a tear of those enslaved laborers who toiled for the architectural miracle, and of those begging children who smile at every foreign tourist? A tear they never shed.
If You Go
According to the UNESCO World Heritage Center, the Taj Mahal is the jewel of Muslim art in India and one of the universally admired masterpieces of the world’s heritage. It is open every day but Fridays (except for offering prayers between 12 – 2 p.m.) from sunrise to sunset. Entry fee is 250 Rupees or US$ 5 for tourists, older than 15 years.
India Ministry of Tourism
Archeological Survey of India
Taj Mahal Islamic Art and Architecture