17 February 2020
Michelle recommended we see the Taj Mahal in three different settings: dawn, dusk and from across the river. For the first tranche we were picked up from the Double Tree at 6.00 am for a quiet drive through the streets to the beginning of the Taj dawn experience. And so did about twenty thousand other people who lined up in a huge queue to witness a Taj dawn – which unfortunately broke in the street. The queue shuffled along, went through pointless but elaborate security and finally filed through the grand 22 dome tower gate to behold the Taj Mahal – now washed in a rising rose-gold light. The sight grabs the heart, like a dream that has become a reality. I forgot the trample and the selfish selfies. I was in the presence of wonder. The closer I got to the building the larger it seemed to grow, its white marble with intricate Islamic inspired inlays simply hard to believe.
The Taj’s Islamic architecture is typified by precision and symmetry, built around the number eight. It is 80 metres high and all the columns are eight sided. I was surprised to discover that the Taj Mahal has four identical sides, so that no matter where you stand, it looks the same: no front, no back. Either side of it are two identical buildings – almost as grand as the Taj itself – although made from reddish local sandstone to lessen the rivalry. One is a mosque and the other a guest house.
The Taj is not made from solid marble, but bricks and mortar covered with marble tiles. Because of pollution and zillions of clammy visitors it is continually being cleaned and covered with protective coatings. In case of earthquake it is built over a huge water pit to cushion a tremor and its four minarets are constructed so that they will fall outward and not into the building. In times past, visitors were allowed to climb the circular staircases right to the top inside the minarets until a woman fell out and killed herself – along with the public permission for the climb.
For the record, the Taj Mahal was commissioned in 1632 by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan to house the tomb of his favourite wife, Mumtaz Mahal; it also houses the tomb of Shah Jahan himself. It took 22 years and 22,000 people to build it. Reproduction coffins are on the ground public floor, but the real ones are below, and only rarely open to public gaze.
Wanting more Tarj, we went to what is nicknamed the Baby Taj, also finished in white marble, and the last resting place of Ghiyas Beg who became Emperor Akbar’s prime minister and was a highly regarded chap. His tomb was built before the Taj Mahal and it not as grand or magnificently domed. But is still has Islamic beauty and symmetry with four identical gates and four identical gardens.
Since this was a day of tombs, we pressed on to Emperor Akbar’s tomb. You may remember he lived rather nicely in Fatepur Skiri with his three wives and 600 concubines. I get the feeling that he had plenty of self-esteem because he grabbed 119 acres of prime Agra city land and began building a lavish mausoleum for himself in advance of falling of the perch. The massive project only took eight years to complete because Akbar died earlier than expected and therefore needed to move in. His son Jahangir pressed the fast forward button so the Emperor could be laid to rest promptly. But Akbar was destined not to stay there permanently because the whole building was ransacked during an attack by Raja Ram Jat, who took all the valuables including Akbar’s bones which were burned. Enter Lord Curzon, the British Viceroy again. He had a soft spot for Akbar and ordered the restoration of the tomb and the massive gardens where today there are deer, monkeys and squirrels among the livestock.
And speaking of livestock, I discovered some cow rules. There are heavy punishments for striking a cow unless in self-defence. Most cows wandering the streets are owned by non -farmers who send them out so that other people are obliged to feed them because they are holy. When a cow is too old to give milk is it goes into government funded cow care for a happy retirement. While you are not allowed to eat beef in India, you can hoe into buffalo, goat, sheep or chicken.
Agra is so much more than the Taj Mahal, wonderful though the Taj is. For instance, today we visited the Agra Fort, a massive construction over 97 acres built in 1565 by the very busy Emperor Akbar. It was home to successive royal families, their servants, religious advisors and 5000 soldiers to guard the premises. They had some help from a double moat, the larger one filled with hungry crocodiles. It was a remarkable engineering and architectural feat as well, with naturally powered heating and cooling systems, and beautifully decorated buildings with carpeted floors, luxurious cushions and exotic curtains.
My imagination was captured by an innocent looking doorway with steps that led down to an escape tunnel in case the fort was breached, and the royal family had to do a runner. The tunnel ran for 50 kilometres and was big enough to ride a horse through. There was also a branch down to the river in case the escapees needed a plan B. The long tunnel came out at Akbar’s Fatepur Skiri, the walled city we’d visited on the way to Agra. Along the way were ventilation and light shafts to enable travel.
The one outrage of this visit to the Agra Fort was right at the beginning while we were waiting to buy entry tickets. One of the team of freelance helpers offered me a wheelchair to convey me up the slope inside the drawbridge. How insulting! And on my birthday too. Then the penny dropped. Singapore Airlines had obviously sent out a general wheelchair alert to all tourist destinations in India to look out for Fraser the cripple and wheel him about. The cheek!