The third day four of us hired a van to drive us two hundred kilometers to Agra. It took four miserable hours going out--it was hot and dusty and I swear the driver kept nodding off to nap every few minutes--then we arrived.
And we saw it. The Taj Mahal. Built four hundred years ago by the Mughal dynasty's most architecturally ambitious emperor Shah Jahan for Mumtaz Mahal, his favorite wife. Mumtaz died in childbirth after giving Shah Jahan fourteen children; he started work on the mausoleum that same year and it took him twenty-two years to finish--Austin of Bordeaux and Veroneo of Venice had helped in its decoration, and the main architect was Isa Kahn, of Iran. Marble from nearby quarries, coral from the coast, onyx from Belgium; Mumtaz's tomb is decorated with forty-three different gemstones, and the marble screen surrounding her tomb is filled with exquisite carvings. Each of the four gigantic entrances have words from the Quoran written on them, a breathtaking sight: flowing Arabic script, each word roughly a foot square in size and difficult enough to write well with ink on paper, cut from black onyx and inlaid in white marble!
It's a massive edifice, but the overall effect isn't of heaviness at all; the perfect symmetry, the pale, almost translucent marble (you can see into it to the depth of a few inches, I think), the soaring height, the way the lines break up the sun's rays into different shapes of light and shadow give it an unbelievable sense of grace and otherworldly mystery. It doesn't seem rightly of this earth; when I looked at itthat morning I couldn't believe I was there, or that it really existed, or that this all wasn't a dream. Looking back, I'm even less sure than I was then.
Story has it that Shah Jahan had planned a twin mausoleum across the river, made of black instead of white marble, but his son Aurangzeb revolted and put him in a fort upstream, where he spent the rest of his life gazing at his wife's tomb. When he died, his son refused to spend the additional money to build his mausoleum and had his tomb placed beside his wife, the only element that mars the building's perfect symmetry.
Bullshit. Incarcerated with the Shah Jahan had been his entire harem, and I wouldn't be surprised if he spent as much time frolicking with his newest mistresses as he did gazing at his wife's monument. And the Taj Mahal is surrounded by numerous smaller mausoleums, for his lesser wives (to the left of the Taj Mahal is a mosque, however). Knowing things like this can put a real dent in a monument's romantic history...
Only it doesn't. When you're actually there, in its presence, you don't care if Shah Jahan had screwed his harem three different ways every week for the rest of his life--the sheer beauty of the structure, the passion and energy poured into it by its craftsmen and architects and workers is overwhelming. Despite its builder's sordid history, it IS the most extravagant monument ever created in the name of love.