As I stood, sweating through my red t-shirt under the Indian sun, squinting at the bright, white marble edifice in front of me, I felt strangely proud. It was the same feeling that travelers get when they snap a photo in front of the Eiffel Tower or the pyramids of Giza. It was a worldly sense of accomplishment. I had that, “I finally made it,” feeling.
The Taj Mahal seemed to represent one of those rare and important destinations in the world. It sure was a long way from the my sleepy hometown in Castro Valley, California, where, ever since I was a child, my mom kept a marble miniature of the Taj on a shelf in the living room. I used to look at that sculpture and imagine what the real life version must be like. I had no idea where India was, but I would go there in my mind. I was impressed by the white marble, the tall towers, the grand scale of it all.
When I finally saw the Taj Mahal in person, I was a 31 year old man who had been around the world and seen many impressive things. So perhaps this was why I was impressed less by the beauty and the grandeur of the Taj, than by its story. Yes, it was beautiful, and yes it was impressive, but it was more than that – it had a story to tell.
My guide for the day was Guarav Sharma, a young man from Agra who told me the story of the Taj Mahal as we stood in the shade, watching tourists from all over India and the world snap photos.
He told me of Shah Jahan, who was Mughal emperor in 1631 when his wife, a Persian princess named Mumtaz Mahal died during child birth. She was only one of many wives he had, but she had given him many sons, and he loved her deeply. Her death left the emperor grief stricken. He ordered that an elaborate tomb be built tom commemorate the love of his life.
He chose an idyllic spot by the river in Agra, and the construction commenced in 1632. He spared on expense. The marble was brought all the way from Makrana, Rajasthan in giant blocks, and then the blocks were hauled by teams of 20 or more oxen, up a 9 mile ramp to the construction site. A complex pulley system was then used to hoist the blocks into position. 28 types of precious and semi-precious stones were inlaid into the white marble, all carved by hand using ancient techniques. Jasper was brought from Punjab, sapphire came from Sri Lanka, jade from China, turquoise from Tibet, and Lapis lazuli from Afghanistan.
The scale of the project was unprecedented. All together, the tomb and the surrounding complex took 22 years to build. It still stands today, over 350 years after its completion, as a monument to Shah Jahan’s lost love.
“A monument to love.” That’s how Guarav put it. I paused to think of what monuments I could build for the people I loved in my life.
Legend has it that Shah Jahan wanted an exact replica of the Taj Mahal built out of black stone, across the river, to serve as his tomb. But soon after the Taj Mahal’s completion, his son, Aurangzeb, raised an army against him, declared him incompetent to rule, and confined him to house arrest in Agra Fort. When Shah Jahan finally died, years later, Aurangzeb denied him his Black Taj, or even a big funeral. He was more interested in spending money on wars and expanding his empire. Shah Jahan was eventually buried next to his beloved wife Mumtaz in the Taj Mahal.
It was interesting to me that before coming to India, I didn’t know any of this about the Taj Mahal. I always thought of it as simply a beautiful building. An iconic Indian Destination. When I was a kid, looking at mom’s marble statue of the Taj Mahal in miniature, I fantasized about seeing it in real life some day. In my childhood dream, the journey involved a boat, and camels, and horses and I was Indiana Jones with leather boots and fearless swagger. But when I finally got to see the Taj myself, I wore sneakers and a sweaty red t-shirt, and I dodged hundreds of other tourists, snapping photos in the sun.
As much as I wanted to be, I wasn’t Indiana Jones — there was no adventure to be had here. Still, the Taj would certainly have impressed my childhood self. The marble shone in the sun, the towers towered, and the interior space was carved with intricate inlaid stones. It was beautiful, as advertised.
But the true beauty of the Taj Mahal was that every marble brick, and every inlaid stone, was carried, and carved, and cemented into placed with the sorrow of love lost.
A monument to love.
I took that thought with me, as I rode back to New Delhi in my air conditioned car. My driver smoking bidis, and me, watching the fields and slums and fields and slums, blur together and disappear into the distance. I was feeling introspective. But soon I would be boarding a plane and heading to Mumbai, and I looked forward to drinks with friends there, and getting out of my head a little.
If you go to Agra and you want a guided tour of the Taj Mahal, you can contact Guarav here: Gaurav.firstname.lastname@example.org.