Saturday, 3 May 2014

... Crouch With Tigers, Hide With Dragons: The Jewel in India's Crown

Upon arriving in Agra you could perhaps be forgiven for wondering why on earth you're here. Dusty and dirty looking, it appears to have about as much personality as a plank of wood. There are touts and vendors who would probably try and sell their mother to you given the chance. And of course, there are tourists galore. Over 3 million come here every year.

In case I've totally lost you, Agra is the home to what is considered to be the most beautiful building on the planet. Rudyard Kipling described it as "the embodiment of all things pure".

The Taj Mahal.

Constructed between 1631 and 1654 by a workforce of 22 000, the Taj Mahal was built by the Muslim Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan as a mausoleum for his 3rd and favourite wife, Arjumand Bano Begum, better known as Mumtaz Mahal. Mumtaz had already borne the emperor fourteen children when she died in childbirth. Her death left the Emperor so heartbroken and construction of the Taj began the following year in her honour. Not long after it was completed he was overthrown and imprisoned in Agra fort by his son, Aurangzeb. It is said that Shah Jahan died in Muasamman Burj, a tower with a marble balcony with an excellent view of the Taj Mahal. It is the romantic origin of the Taj as much as its architectural splendour that has led to its fame worldwide.

So it was a 4am alarm this morning, a quick shower and a breakfast of cold porridge and banana that started my Taj experience in time for sunrise. The gates opened at 540am and there's a security check point you have to clear first. There are really strict rules about what you can and can't take into the grounds: cameras, mobile phones, water (they give you a free bottle) are all good; food, any flammable type stuff, chargers and apparently small plushy beaver toys from Canada are not. Chip, my trusty mascot got confiscated for reasons unknown. May be they thought he was a terrorist beaver? Or perhaps had contraband hidden in his tail? Thankfully he was only taken from me temporarily for safe keeping so will have to be photoshopped into any Taj pictures. He was, of course, gutted.

After entering the east gate and surviving the security breach with the criminal plush beaver, I walked a little while longer. Then there it was, framed in the arched gateway like a picture, the stunning vision of the Taj Mahal. Taj means crown and you can see why. You can't help but feel a little bit awestruck. Believe the hype, it's as every bit as amazing as they say it is. I always expected that I would be pretty impressed by the Taj Mahal and I was. It's absolutely stunning.

The translucent white marble, mined near Jaipur, was already softly glowing. Even the maddening crowd (apparently less for sunrise) can't spoil what your eyes are seeing. It truly is a thing of beauty and there's a real energy in the air. You allow yourself to get wrapped up in it for a good few minutes, may be a little longer watching the sunrise before the clicking of cameras remind you that you should probably get some photos of your own. Watching the sunrise over the towers was kind of spellbinding.

Actually an integrated complex of many structures, the Taj Mahal is considered the finest example of Mughal architecture, itself a combination of Islamic, Hindu, Persian and Turkish elements. It stands on a raised marble platform at the northern end of the ornamental gardens with it's back to the holy Yamuna river. This raised position means the only backdrop is the sky. From afar it is stunning but close up is possibly even more so. The large central dome, once topped with a gold but now brass finial, represents the vault of heaven. Marble inlay work (pietra dura) found on the inside and outside walls are believed to have had 35 different precious and semi-precious stones, many in a floral design as a representation of paradise. Pishtaqs (the huge arched recesses on each side) provide depth and latticed marble screens allow patterned light within. Strips of calligraphy with quotations from the Quran surround each and get larger as they get higher thus giving the impression of uniformed size when viewed from the ground.

You can enter the mausoleum although you are not supposed to take any photos once inside. Of course some people were blatantly ignoring the umpteen signs stating photography was forbidden. Interestingly the two cenotaphs for Mahal and Jahan are fake tombs. The real ones are in an underground vault closed to the public. You are given disposable shoe covers for this section but think about helping the environment by going barefoot - you can always wash your feet later. I suspect it's probably one of the cleanest parts of Agra in any case! There's a place for you to store your shoe, which means less chance that a wily monkey will take off with them.

Having been discoloured by increased pollution a huge restoration project took place in 2002 with the use of multani mitti, a blend of soil, lime, cereal and milk once used by Indian women to beautify their skin.

Note: There is a red sandstone mosque to the west and the Taj is closed every Friday to anyone not attending prayers.

Despite the somewhat crazy heat, later in the morning I visited the walled city of Agra Fort. It was first taken over by the Moghuls, at that time led by Akbar the Great, in the late 16th century. Akbar liked to build from red sandstone, often inlaid with white marble and intricate decorations, and it was during his reign that the fort began changing into more of a royal estate. However, it was only during the reign of Akbar's grandson, Shah Jahan (he of Taj Mahal fame) that the site finally took on its current state. Unlike his grandfather, Shah Jahan preferred buildings made from white marble, often inlaid with gold or semi-precious gems, and he destroyed some earlier buildings inside the fort in order to build others in his own style. It's hard to believe how it was built with all the beautiful carvings and that it still keeps its amazing red colour. No wonder I felt like I was baking in a large terracotta pot.

The size of it is quite astounding not to mention very impressive. I kept reminding myself of that fact whilst standing in the stifling heat as I started on my second litre of water. Architects back then seemed to have such amazing foresight when it came to ventilation, surface water after rain storms, stability of buildings/monuments that have stood for generations and managed to preserve longevity. Make sure you get a look at the Taj Mahal from either the Musamman Burj or the Khas Mahal.

The fort was also a site of one of the most important battles of the Indian rebellion of 1857, which caused the end of the British East India Company's rule in India, leading to a century of direct rule of India by Britain. Today much of the fort is used by the Indian military so if out of bounds to the general public.

I'timad-ud-Daulah, nicknamed ‘Baby Taj' as it's often considered to be a draft of the Taj Mahal, is the tomb of Mizra Ghiyas Beg. It was built before the Taj Mahal by Nur Jahan, Queen of Jehangir, for her parents. Whilst it doesn't have the same presence or beauty as the Taj, it is the first Mughal building to be faced with white marble and where pietra dura was first used. People often say it looks like a jewel box. The tomb is much more intricately decorated than the Taj Mahal and worth a visit even if, due to the heat, you make it a quick one. The lack of crowds made it a more peaceful experience for sure and although much smaller site is a lovely place to visit.

After all the hustle and bustle of the day so far, I'm off for a nap in the presence of some much needed and deserved AC!

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