No matter how many photographs you have seen of this famous structure, nothing quite prepares you for your first glimpse of the Taj Mahal. Whether you first see it from across the Yamuna River in the Mahtab Bagh (Garden of the Moon) or as you cross the threshold of the great red sandstone gateway (Darwaza-i-Rauza), this iconic structure glistening in the sunlight is the jewel in the crown of the Mughals.
Located in Agra (Uttar Pradesh State), the Taj Mahal must be classified as one of the world’s greatest marvels that brings together all the classic elements of Mughal architecture, a unique combination of Persian, Islamic and Turkish features. The fact that it is linked to a love story makes it all the more compelling. Shah Jahan (Emperor of the Mughal Empire in the mid-1600s), the grandson of Akbar the Great, great-grandson of Humayun, was grief-stricken when his wife Mumtaz Mahal, died during the birth of their 14th child in 19 years. To demonstrate his love for her, he commissioned the construction of a grand mausoleum — the Taj Mahal.
The sky is just beginning to lighten when we arrive at the entrance gate of the complex. After a security check, a short stroll takes us to the Darwaza-i-Rauza. We walk through, and there it sits before us, in the middle of a lush, green garden, at the end of a long rectangular pool surrounded by flowers. The soft colors of dawn touch the glistening white marble dome. The silence is broken by the chattering of starlings in the tall cypress trees. Unbelievably, there are only a handful of us staring in awe at this wonder of the world, illuminated by the sun across the top of the dome in a soft, shimmering glow.
We walk around the edge of the pool to the raised white marble water tank at the center of the garden between the tomb and the gateway. In the reflecting pool behind it, a perfect mirror image of the Taj Mahal. To the left is the Mosque while to the right is a building that may have been used as a guesthouse. Structurally, it is a replica of the Mosque, ensuring the symmetry of the site. Four tall, tapering minarets (130 ft tall) stand on each of the corners of the plinth on which the Tomb is built. If you look closely at them, you will see that they tilt slightly outwards. Our guide explains that this was done deliberately to protect the mausoleum from damage, should the minarets topple for whatever reason.
In the center of the plinth stands the symmetrical, white marble building, decorated with inlaid semi-precious and precious stones, topped by a huge, 115 foot high, white marble dome. Small chhatris adorn the four corners. An arched shaped doorway, framed with inlaid, black marble Quranic inscriptions leads inside. Stacked windows decorate the remaining sides. We marvel at the painstakingly designed exterior decorations from the inlaid geometric vines to stylized flowers and fruits decorated with turquoise, lapis lazuli, jasper, jade, mother of pearl and more. The ‘pieta dura’ work is so exquisite that if you run your hand over the surface, you cannot determine where the edge of the translucent white marble ends and the stones start. The black marble inlaid quotations are uniform in size around the entire doorway, the result of optical illusion, the letters increase in size as they ascend so that the quotation is the same size and not distorted by distance.
Inside the richly decorated interior, protected behind delicate stone screens, are the sarcophagi of Mumtaz Mahal and Shah Jahan. Here is the only flaw in the perfect symmetry of the complex. Originally, only Mumtaz Mahal was supposed to be buried in the mausoleum, her tomb perfectly aligned under the dome. Shah Jahan, according to legend, was planning to build himself a black mausoleum on the opposite side of the Yamuna River in the Mahtab Bagh. However, he was deposed by his son, Aurangzeb, before he had a chance to do so. Our guide explains that his body was rescued from ignominy by his daughter who arranged to have Shah Jahan buried next to his wife in the Taj Mahal.
By the time we exit the tomb, the sun is high in the sky and visitors crowd the grounds, many exploring the luxurious ‘Charbagh’ (four gardens) of raised pathways divided into four quarters by waterways (the rivers of Paradise) and then again into 16 sunken flowerbeds. Even as you prepare to exit, it is hard not to keep turning back to marvel once again at the shimmering dome and its multiple reflections. Depending on the time of day you visit, the light reflected on the dome changes color from sparkling silver in the moonlight to the dusky rose of dawn to the shimmer of midday and the orange glow of dusk. Although most people spend an hour or two exploring this magnificent complex, you could spend the entire day. Whether it is your first glimpse or your last, the Taj Mahal is a wonder to behold.
IF YOU GO
The Taj Mahal is open from 0600 to 1900 except Fridays. On nights of the full moon, plus two days on either side, 30 minutes special visits are allowed. A limited number of tickets (400) are sold 24 hours in advance at the Archeological Survey Office of India (Agra Circle 22, the Mall; www.asi.nic.in). Strict security regulations limit what you are able to take into the complex. No tripods or backpacks are allowed. Official guides can be requested at your hotel or through your tour company. For those interested in photography, the best vantage point to photograph the Taj Mahal at sunrise is just inside the Darwaza-r-Rausa or from the raised water tank. For sunset shots, visit the Mahtab Bagh on the far side of the Yamuna River.