I looked at it from a distance with eyes of quiet wonder and amazement. From the comforting shadows in one of the areas near the gate where there were not many tourists, I stared and contemplated like a young child who had been shown ice the first time, as how Garcia-Marquez described and opened up his book of solitude. I did not even attempt to take a picture fearing the retribution of my naïve belief. My own silent soliloquy told me that I can preserve the solemnity of my gazing and my reverent soaking of this magnificence without the temerity of incarcerating that moment in a digital photo. I guess this is the metaphorical experience the world expects and had figuratively catalogued when this was named one of the seven wonders of the world.
“Sir, I will leave you here for a moment, so you and your wife can enjoy the view,” said Arjun. Arjun was the tall, smiling and loquacious middle-aged guide whom we met at the local train station upon arrival on an early trip from Delhi.
This is the Taj Mahal built in the 17th century during the Golden Age of the Mughal empire, irrefutably before us. Not just of my imagination nor the romanticized picture I saw a hundred times starting from my childhood days, but a looming presence with majestic symmetry. Welcome to this landmark that served as my visceral portal to the discovery of Indian literature and my love for its contemporary writers. I never thought that such a monument could inspire me to have a love affair with the written word of India, even before I got to see it in person. Moreover that longing to see it gave me a glimpse of the Indian psyche, an empathetic connection with the people through its prose, discourse and aesthetic backdrop of imperial and even post-colonial historical saga.
This is the ethereal Taj Mahal which is a testament of one’s love for a dear wife. This is the immortalizaton of the love of Shah Jahan who fell for Mumtaz Mahal which means “the most beautiful crown of the palace”. This is his vision of purity, harmony and graceful perfection in that era of opulence where some the world’s most precious and largest gems like emeralds, sapphires, rubies and diamonds were mined in the Indian soil. This is his grandiose oblation to a flawless memory for Mumtaz, constructed in white marble brought from the different parts of the empire. This is the Taj Mahal, a Mughal gem that stands proudly at the banks of the Yamuna River. This is the colossal and eternal symbol of incredible and mystical India.
No less than the Nobel laureate Rabindranth Tagore captured this in his tribute to Taj Mahal when he said this is “one solitary tear on the cheek of time”.
“Though emeralds, rubies, pearls are all
But as the glitter of rainbow tricking out empty air,
Yet still one solitary tear
Would hang on the cheek of time
In the form
Of this white and gleaming Taj Mahal”
As we stood at the side of the royal gate or Darwaza-i Rauza, a different emotional experience engulfed me. It was the feeling of melancholy. It was kind of melancholia that blatantly surprises you upon seeing things that are too beautiful and ineffable to behold.
It was a sadness of the love story and the tragedy that characterized Taj Mahal. The external decorations though the finest in Mughal architeture as Arjun expertly detailed to us had that sadness inlaid in the plant motifs, the reflective tiles, the marble jali lattices and the Arabic calligraphy. The internal decorations that surpassed all decorative designs in that time like the the flowers in carved marble with inlaid semi-precious stones spoke about the loneliness that befell Shah Jahan as he watched the Taj from the tower of his prison in the Red Fort across the river. The minarets, the sarcophagi and the actual tombs, the vaulted dome over the tombs, the main marble dome and decorative spires, all had the sadness and pain not just of Mumtaz’ death but also of his son Aurangzeb’s power take-over. The son who believed his father had gone mad, declared himself emperor.
That was the sadness more compelling and more reverent. It was about the thousands of people who have labored and enslaved themselves in building this structure. I imagined hundreds of artisans that were asked to carve those intricate flowers designs in marble. I imagined the stone-cutters, painters, calligraphers, masons, dome builders who were conscripted for labor from different parts of the empire, from Iran and central Asia. Each day, on biting winter, oppressive summer heat or harsh monsoon season, they bent to finish the work in faithful execution to the architectural plan; a fraction of digression is equivalent to a cruel punishment and maybe even death. Maybe there were some whose loyalty and obeisance imbued them with a sense of greater purpose and inspiration. Yet for the rest, the unbearable weight of isolation in this vast plain of Akbarabad, away from their loved ones defy the essence of why this structural folly has to be built for approximately 20 years that required more than 20,000 workers. It even threatened to empty the rich coffers and treasures of the empire which gave impetus to the son’s overthrowing and imprisoning his love-obsessed father. Sahir Ludhiavi, a poet who wrote in Hindi and Urdu and a film lyricist wrote and I quote,
“This bank of Jamuna, this edifice, these groves and lawns,
These carved walls and doors, arches and alcoves,
An emperor on the strength of wealth, Has played with us a cruel joke.
Meet me hence, my love, at some other place.”
Maybe this is the poem of those thousands of simple workmen and artists who were covered in the dust of anonymity and the smallest footnote of history. Maybe this is their faint voice of regret and honoring to those who have labored and whose skills and talents and sweat had brought them to the abyss of family separations, extreme fatigue, tropical diseases and even cruel death for some. I imagined that these were the people during the Mughal times who had forgotten about their equally compelling and complicated love stories. Maybe a number of those who worked recited poems in their native tongues, sung melodies of longing and simple dreams during the long nights and never had the chance to consummate their love because they had never seen their loved ones again.
Lastly, that was the sadness that touched on mortality which stares at you unblinkingly. At that point, I perfectly knew that even with how the best of poets fervently attempt to make the material approximates eternity, the invisible emperor of time still reigns supreme and remains exacting. Completed in 1653, it has endured the fate and the power struggles of empires, rebellions and colonial decimation, the ravages of environmental pollution, the poverty, urban decay, the conflagration of moneyed tourists and the threat of structural integrity. Yet, the lingering thought that this tear on the cheek of time or the other tears that dot the face of earth will soon dry up, is a humbling remembrance of our own humanity. At that point, I remembered Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poem Ozymandias. Although he talked about power being a temporary thing, the poem allows us to reflect too that beauty is no different at all. Beauty is mutable and finite.
“Sir, we need to go, if you still want to see the tomb of I’timad-ud-Daulah”, Arjun nudged me. He spoke with an eagerness of a sincere guide who just did not want to flaunt everything the glossy travel books had described but also was practical on how to navigate Agra which was besieged by traffic congestion on that December morning. He continued to show sovereign enthusiasm by displaying his encyclopedic knowledge of Indian culture as he promised to bring us to another mausoleum sometimes called the “Baby Taj”. It is often regarded as the draft of the Taj Mahal.
As Arjun drove us in his dusty sedan, I said to him carefully as not to dampen his enthusiasm, “Thank you Arjun. The silence that you gifted us at the Taj allowed us to live in that precious moment.” He smiled slowly in response. It was a smile close to that of the emperor of time.