May 6, 2000
The Taj Mahal is also on the World Heritage List, which is a list of valuable cultural and natural sites that deserve protection for the benefit of all humanity. In any case, it certainly is impressive. Seeing it, for me, was somehow familiar, since like most of you, I have often seen it in pictures and on television. So often, in fact, that when finally I did see it with my own eyes, it seemed as if I was not seeing it for the first time!
As I stood and marveled at this beautiful structure, I wondered, "Who built this masterpiece and why?"
Shah Jahan was the local Mogul ruler in the mid-1600's, and when his wife (her name was Mumtaz Mahal, which means "beautiful wife") died giving birth to their fifteenth child at the young age of thirty-nine, he was so heartbroken that his hair turned white overnight.
Not satisfied with merely a change in hairstyle to express his grief, he decided to build a huge, elaborate mausoleum to his beloved, departed wife. Thus, the idea of the Taj Mahal was born.
"Taj" means crown, and "Mahal" means palace. The year after his wife died, 1631 CE Shah Jahan had construction started on this monument. It was to be a tribute to her, and a show of his great love for her.
With a small group of other travelers, I took an exhausting four hour car drive from Delhi, on streets choked with cows, scooters, people, cars, rickshaws, bicycles, and beggars on wheels. I felt blessed just to have made it safely to the main road, since on average six people die daily in Delhi in car accidents. When finally we arrived in Agra, minus three liters of sweat each, we were already exhausted and felt as if we had been riding in a pressure cooker. We walked out into the furnace-like afternoon and moved weakly towards the entrance. We could not see the Taj yet, but we knew we were close since dozens of beggars, guides, and salespeople swarmed around us. "Guide? Guide?" we were asked by some, but more than anything else, there were loads of children trying to sell us postcards, pens, or other items as we made our way towards the gates. By India's standards, it is quite expensive to enter the Taj Mahal -- about $8.00 (505 rupees). For those who cannot afford it, the Taj is open for free on Fridays. We were happy to pay and avoid the crowds that appear each Friday. We got our tickets, were searched for food and other prohibited items, and finally -- BOOM! We caught our first glimpse of the graceful beauty that is the Taj Mahal. It was better than we could have imagined.
It took 20,000 workers, working day and night, 22 years to complete the Taj. The main building is 105 feet (35 meters) high. The architect for the project came from Iran, and other experts were brought from Europe. (This is not to suggest that the Taj is anything other than an Indian masterpiece!) The marble and precious stone came from all around the world. Shah Jahan was so pleased with the results that he did not want anything as beautiful ever to be built again, and so he had many of the craftsmen's thumbs and hands cut off to ensure that they never again could create such beauty. (This happened, obviously, before he had the idea to build a second structure across from the first, but we will get to that later.)
I have been told that visiting the Taj should be done again and again, since the monument gives off different impressions at different times of day, in different lights. Dawn is supposed to be an enchanting time to view it, and sunset equally lovely. A visit during the full moon, however, is reputed to be exceedingly gorgeous.
Besides chopping off fingers and hands, it is not all a story of love and goodness. For one thing, the Taj Mahal is considered by some to be on the verge of collapse. Why? Well, the once pristine white marble building is now covered in cracks, and the stone has been yellowed after years of exposure to harsh pollution. When the Indian government realized that their number one single tourist attraction was being eaten away by the foul air of Agra, they instigated several measures to improve the condition of the building. India's Supreme Court has ordered 53 nearby iron foundries to cut down on their emissions of dangerous gases. More trees have also been planted around the Taj so that the building will have a bit more protection, and cars are not allowed as close as they once were. Will this be enough to save this precious heritage? Maybe, but Agra is a city that suffers greatly from pollution. The World Health Organization classifies Agra as a "pollution intensive zone", and rightly so. Breathing the air in Agra for one day is the equivalent of smoking one to two packs of cigarettes.
Every Monday the Taj is closed to the public so that master craftsmen can work on restoration and repair.
It is claimed that the master workmen who toil on the Taj are the direct descendants of the first men who built the masterpiece. They are also hardcore salesmen who browbeat tourists into buying their elaborately designed marble table tops, inlaid with floral designs. This trekker thought they were lovely, but would add just a bit too much weight to his pack.
Shah Jahan was not content to build only the Taj Mahal. He had great plans to build another, identical mausoleum, out of black onyx. Had it been built, it would have been just like the Taj, but his own tomb. His sons, however, did not want their father wasting valuable time and resources on what they considered folly, so they did what any greedy sons might do. They imprisoned their dad in a special jail cell, from which he could view the Taj Mahal; the final resting place of his dearly departed wife. He remained imprisoned there until he joined her in the great beyond.
p.s. - Please e-mail me at ...firstname.lastname@example.org
Brian - Beginnings and Endings
Jasmine - Indiana Jazz and the Temple of Doom . . . or Not
Kavitha - Delhi -- The City I Love to Hate
Monica - The Eternal Light Shines Brightly: Amar Jyoti, a School for the Differently-abled
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