Shah Jahan's beautiful Taj Mahal

March 23, 2017

It was a short drive from our hotel to the gate then in through security, followed by a walk of a few hundred yards. More security, and then we walked into a courtyard. Still no sign of the Taj Mahal. There was a strange mix of expectation and anxiety. Several of us got into a discussion about the risks of being disappointed. One of our number said she had been really disappointed by the Sydney Opera House, another said the Grand Canyon. Mine was the White House in Washington (effectively a small Georgian style house, ten a penny in Bath, Edinburgh or Dublin). Then we were directed through the archway entrance and suddenly, through the quickly lifting mist, the majestic marble monument appeared. It was a magnificent sight, shimmering in the haze and sunshine, bright white from the marble. Rather strangely, it didn’t look that big, but on a more careful look, the perspective was deceptive. It seemed quite close, but people on it were milling over it like ants.


Despite the huge crowds it was incredibly peaceful. There was a bit of a bottleneck as we went through the arch into the gardens. It was, after all, the first sight most people got, and the beautiful effect of the sun through the mist silhouetting the dome was breath taking. Unfortunately, the light, whilst making for a stunning view, was beyond all but the most expert of photographers.


Despite the crowds, just a few steps into the gardens, and the masses appeared to vanish.


The gardens are perfectly symmetrical, and enormous, and at all times dominated by the white marble Taj. We took our time strolling up to the Taj Mahal itself. We, the tourists, were separated from the locals, and had our own special stairway to get onto the plinth on which the Taj sits. In truth, the only difference between the two routes was that we had benches to sit on to remove our shoes whereas the Indians had to stand or sit on the floor to remove theirs. 


 Once inside the mausoleum itself, it is rather plain. Despite the fact that the Taj Mahal is a tomb for two people, and we had all been asked to be respectful of that, there were lots of people talking and ignoring instructions, and the décor was rather simple. All the money, probably quite sensibly, had clearly been spent on the outside. A huge plinth, entrances either side, minarets on each corner, intricate carvings on all of the doorways and entrances. It had been built as a mausoleum by Mogul emperor Shah Jahan for his wife, and was completed in 1643. Following his death in 1666 he was also interred there – his tomb being the only element of the entire site that is not perfectly symmetrical


Leaving the mausoleum, it was only a matter of tens of yards before the crowds again dissipated, and peace and calm again reigned. We decided to go slightly to one side where there was, at that stage, no one else. I found a place to take photographs from a different angle to the usual straight on view (I took a few of those too, surprisingly easily despite the fact that everyone wanted the same view point). I cannot describe how tranquil it all was despite the huge numbers of people there.



I took a few photographs from the side, but no matter what I did, the Taj seemed slightly at an angle. Yet every time I looked at it with the naked eye or through the lens it looked perfect. Back to the camera, all looked good, but on reviewing the image, it looked out of line. It wasn’t until several months later that I realised that it was due to the Taj Mahal being built on a river bank. The river inevitably runs slightly downhill, and therefore so does the bank. It is only marginal, but the plinth on which the Taj sits is perfectly horizontal. The ground beneath it is a few metres higher on the left than the right. And that is enough, when looked at in two dimensions, to throw out all the perspective. I now understand why every photograph of the Taj Mahal is always taken straight on, where the slight gradient on the ground does not impact so much. Despite that, I have chanced using an angled shot to illustrate.


I am acutely aware of the need to see and experience sights in person and not just through a lens, so the camera went away and we headed for a bench nearby. I then saw a couple of chipmunk type rodents so, despite my best intentions, went to photograph them while Tanya sat down. When I went back to the bench, all of two minutes later, I found Tanya surrounded by a large Indian family, with the nominated photographer snapping away as the family smiled around her. I watched and laughed to myself. Then the head of the family saw me, and waved me over with some determination. He motioned that I should sit on the bench between him and Tanya, but there was not enough room. No problem, the youngest of the family, a boy of about 8, was dispatched from the bench to make room, and we all posed for happy family photographs. All except the 8 year old. Strange, very strange, but something of an honour nonetheless.


We then spent a little time sitting peacefully on the bench. No Indian families wanting photographs, no photographs myself, and despite the thousands of people nearby, no one close enough to disturb the peace. Just me and Tanya, sitting on a bench, looking at the beautiful marble mausoleum shimmering in the now rapidly rising, but still fresh, heat of the morning. It had taken over 40 years from first seeing a picture of the Taj Mahal in a picture atlas given to me as a Christmas present to getting there in person. It did not disappoint.


From the Taj Mahal, we went on a short coach trip into Agra to visit the Red Fort. Unlike the peaceful order of the Taj Mahal, this was chaos. There were coaches everywhere, and trying to find somewhere to drop us off was not easy. Eventually we did get off, and had to run the gauntlet of the numerous hawkers along the pavement leading to the entrance. At that point, I knew for sure I was in Asia. Up until then, India had not smelt too bad, but now that overwhelming sickly sweet stench of rotting vegetation and rotting carcases, so common across Asia, infused the air, and got stuck into every orifice. Fortunately once we got past the moat and into the fort proper, the stench began to fade. 


Our tour took us through the enormous fort. It was more of a palace cum small town than a fort. From the top there were stunning views along the river to the Taj Mahal – or would have been had the mist not descended, and the Taj become barely discernible in the distance.


However, it was easy to imagine how wonderful the view would have been at sunrise or sunset. Shah Jahan had been overthrown in 1658 by his son, and had been imprisoned at the top of the Red Fort. His cell was some degree better than Wormwood Scrubs, but perhaps his real punishment was that the view from his cell window was straight down the river to the Taj Mahal, offering him a constant reminder of his wife Mumtaz Mahal.

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I am a lawyer, and I believe in what I do, but sometimes wish I could have made a living from travel, food or wine, or all three. But as I can't, I'll settle for writing about it.


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© Andrew Pritchard 2019