Friday, January 7, 2011

Touring the Taj Mahal

India is 12 time zones ahead of the United States at a minimum. That guarantees at least 16 hours of travel either on one of the handful of nonstops from the New York and Chicago or using a tried and true connection through Europe, most typically London. In my case it was an add-on following a stop in Hong Kong as part of a business trip to Asia. I knew this would most likely be my one and only time ever to go to India whether on mine or the company's dime so I was surely not about to waste the opportunity. This trip, once my business was taken care of, was all about the Taj Mahal, two hours by train south of Delhi along the river near the city of Agra.

After dealing with the train and working past the abject poverty of the surrounding streets a shockingly reasonable admission ticket provided access to the walled grounds of "the Taj." At the far end of the compound which allows for slack-jawed admirers of all ages and through the ages to stand and gawk at the pearl white features of the main building and the four minarets guarding each corner. Hyperboles have tried and failed to describe the stunning beauty of the creamy structure bathed in blue skies and surrounded by the greens and reds of the land and ground around it. I had the immediate feeling that to take the eye away from one view in favor of another was still to shortchange the whole as literally any vantage point and viewing angle was just as good as the next.

Amateur and professional photographers jockeyed for position to capture that full-front, high gloss National Geographic cover image or to find some rarely shown angle on a nearly 400 year old building. Others on a day tour like me walked lazily around or charged full tilt through the place trying to grab as much of the experience as possible before being called back to the organized tour bus. Being a day tripper on my own my driver-guide gave me as much time as I wanted to explore, find my own angles, use some of his suggestions and explore the more delicate features of the main building.

It's a mausoleum. A graveyard for initially only one person and a personal tribute to one of the greatest love stories of all time. Emperor Shah Jahan commissioned the entire complex in 1632 as a burial site for his third wife, Mumtaz Mahal, who died giving birth to a daughter, the 14th and last child of the Shah. He was later buried there himself, throwing off the symmetry he fought so hard to maintain but since their crypt is in the basement of the main building, that nitpicky little detail isn't noticed above ground and outdoors. Theirs was the love that sustained an empire; the Taj Mahal is said to be second in beauty only to hers.

Balance was the key. Of the two facing mosques only one has a completed interior and serves as a house of worship. The second was built literally and simply to balance the first. It has no other purpose. The reflecting pool allows a mirror image of the whole from the main garden. Inlaid semi-precious stonework and carved reliefs cover much of the exterior surfaces along with a few disturbingly large beehives. While Muslim tradition forbids elaborate decoration of graves it apparently says little about how grand the building above the grave can be.

For a trip to the Taj Mahal, the insurmountable distance, the high heat, sweltering humidity and shocking poverty are worth enduring for the building itself, thankfully, has endured. Security is tight and environmental controls around the complex limit its exposure to pollution which had begun to turn the pure white marble a dull yellow. I was only there for a day trip but would have enjoyed one of the night viewings offered during and around the full moon of every month. Now that would have surely made the cover of National Geographic?!

If you want a better idea of how something this wonderful is possible, view this treat on YouTube and experience "Deliverance," written and performed by Yanni across the Yamuna River with the Taj Mahal in the background in tribute to India's 50th anniversary of independence. It is a personal favorite piece of music while the magnificent setting speaks for itself.

Gotta go.


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