While visiting the Taj Mahal, we had the privilege of learning about the expansive history and hearing the vibrant stories about the building of this work of art. The stories paint pictures of perpetual work and effort to celebrate the lives of two ill-fated lovers. Our tour guide explained to us in detail the obsessive, and yet sensitive, caring and compassionate nature of King Shah Jahan.
He had four wives but favored one above all; her name was Queen Noor. She was said to be divinely beautiful and was known for her kindness. The queen gave birth to fourteen children in eighteen years. The two could not stand to be parted and so, while pregnant with their fourteenth child, the queen followed the king on one of his campaigns and died in childbirth. The king was heartbroken and planned to build the most beautiful tomb the world had ever seen.
The Taj Mahal is made entirely of ivory colored marble and luminous gemstones. The detail is impeccable. It is truly incredible. From a distance, the glowing exterior of the Taj Mahal looks like a painting. The tombs of the queen and king are hidden behind walls of marble carved into vines and intricate flowers. Two beautiful red buildings lay on either side of the Taj Mahal; one is the mosque and the other is the guesthouse.
After our tour of the Taj Mahal, our guide took us to see marble engravers at work. The artists showed us the process and told us how much time, care, and patience is required for mastery of their art. After the demonstration we had time to explore the gift store. Inside we found sculptures, tables, rugs, and other works of art. The rooms reminded me of a labyrinth.
After shopping we boarded our bus and made our way back to Dehli where we will rest and then continue on to Haridwar tomorrow. I have never been so excited to meet a group of children. I have heard only amazing things about them. I look forward to the next chapter of our journey.
Today we awoke bright and early to a beautiful morning in Agra, the home city of the Taj Mahal. We skipped breakfast and hopped on the bus by 6am to arrive at the Taj Mahal before the immense crowds. As the sun peeked over the horizon we caught a glimpse of the majestic structure in the glowing haze that has become ever present on our trip. As we walked through the red sandstone entrance, beautiful green parrots silently flew overhead and watched as we passed under the dark rusty red edifice. While the last of the mosquitos were disappearing from the warming air, we slowly made our way toward the white marble building.
Although I have been once before, there is no getting used to the Taj Mahal in all its glory. The golden haze of the morning only amplified the beauty of the tomb and gave it a fitting regal glow. Up close, one can see verses from “the heart of the Koran” written on the giant marble face. Most of the Taj Mahal is covered in intricately carved designs and embedded with precious stones. Inside, there are two caskets surrounded by a beautifully carved circular marble gate. The casket of the queen, for whom it was built, is directly in the center, while the king’s is off to the side. This is the only asymmetrical piece of the whole memorial. We were told that their actual caskets are under the main floor and that the ones we saw are only meticulously created replicas.
While experiencing the Taj Mahal, one can only assume that it was created out of a mad love and devotion for the queen it was built for. Every intricate detail was made to represent the love the king had for his favorite wife. It is the perfect representation of epic love.
Leaving the Taj Mahal, I almost didn’t want to look back in fear that I’d lose myself in its splendor and be left behind. As we walked back out through the red sandstone entrance, and bid farewell to the parrots, the glowing white dome could be seen just as I saw it when we entered. Now having seen the Taj Mahal twice, I can confidently say that it is the most stunning man-made structure I have seen in my life and the reason for which it was built only adds to its beauty.
I don’t think anyone likes to see himself or herself as a tourist. I have travelled to India visiting family many times and travelling now to a different part of India with my California class makes this an especially complicated and rich trip for me. Even short visits can make the business, motion and colors of India a familiar, in some ways even comforting thing. A lot of us feel like we’ve already been here for a week or two. At the same time, I keep remembering how big a billion people and a subcontinent actually are, and that I really don’t know this country at all.
There is nowhere in India, and few places in the world, as ready for tourists as the Taj Mahal. We wait in line and walk through metal detectors while our guide tells stories about Mughal emperors that may or may not be true. We stand for group photos every 20 feet while locals photograph us and try to sell us postcards and pictures of ourselves. We are surrounded by people like us; often white with cameras and distinguishable by their patterned handicraft Indian clothing (as opposed to the jeans or slacks and striped polo shirts most Indian men wear.)
I have been to the Taj Mahal before. It is a very beautiful building but it took this trip for me to realize that it is not just buried dead people and stone. The Taj Mahal is still a living place making people walking through it look – arranged bushes below the symmetries of cream-white stone crescented yellow by the rising sun; horizontally, colored inlay and floral carvings; stone meshes capturing light; the incredibly beautiful lengths of black onyx calligraphy surrounding gates with Arabic lettering. This place too can touch us.
And yet being a tourist is much more confusing and complicated in the streets outside where people live, honk their car horns, throw their trash, and walk to school along with the assortment of temples, mosques, churches, shrines. It is something I am just now coming to terms with. There are some things that bug me – the cruelty of snake charmers, tour bus restaurants with marble counters and new-agey club music, serving overpriced food that is mostly cream – but I have now accepted being a visitor, a kind of voyeur. There is a lot to see.
And yet we aren’t the only ones watching. As we are about to leave the Taj Mahal, a women in a very Indian family asks the girls in our class, wearing Indian clothes, to be in a picture with them. Sometimes the tourists are as much a part of the scenery as the locals.