The Taj Mahal, an immense mausoleum of white marble, built in Agra between 1631 and 1648 by order of the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan, is the jewel of Muslim art in India and one of the universally admired masterpieces of the world's heritage. It no doubt partially owes its renown to the moving circumstances of its construction. Shah Jahan, in order to perpetuate the memory of his favourite wife, Mumtaz Mahal, who died in 1631, had this funerary mosque built. The monument, begun in 1632, was finished in 1648; unverified but nonetheless, tenacious, legends attribute its construction to an international team of several thousands of masons, marble workers, mosaicists and decorators working under the orders of the architect of the emperor, Ustad Ahmad Lahori.
Situated on the right bank of the Yamuna in a vast Mogul garden of some 17 ha, this funerary monument, bounded by four isolated minarets, reigns with its octagonal structure capped by a bulbous dome through the criss-cross of open perspectives offered by alleys or basins of water. The rigour of a perfect elevation of astonishing graphic purity is disguised and almost contradicted by the scintillation of a fairy-like decor where the white marble, the main building material, brings out and scintillates the floral arabesques, the decorative bands, and the calligraphic inscriptions which are incrusted in polychromatic pietra dura. The materials were brought in from all over India and central Asia and white Makrana marble from Jodhpur. Precious stones for the inlay came from Baghdad, Punjab, Egypt, Russia, Golconda, China, Afghanistan, Ceylon, Indian Ocean and Persia. The unique Mughal style combines elements and styles of Persian, Central Asian and Islamic architecture.
The Darwaza, the majestic main gateway, is a large three-storey red sandstone structure, completed in 1648, with an octagonal central chamber with a vaulted roof and with smaller rooms on each side. The gateway consists of lofty central arch with two-storeyed wings on either side. The walls are inscribed with verses from the Qu'ran in Arabic in black calligraphy. The small domed pavilions on top are Hindu in style and signify royalty. The gate was originally lined with silver, now replaced with copper, and decorated with 1,000 nails whose heads were contemporary silver coins.
The Bageecha, the ornamental gardens through which the paths lead, are planned along classical Mughal char bagh style. Two marble canals studded with fountains, lined with cypress trees emanating from the central, raised pool cross in the centre of the garden, dividing it into four equal squares. In each square there are 16 flower beds, making a total of 64 with around 400 plants in each bed. The feature to be noted is that the garden is laid out in such a way as to maintain perfect symmetry. The channels, with a perfect reflection of the Taj, used to be stocked with colourful fish and the gardens with beautiful birds.
The Taj Mahal itself, situated in the north end of the garden, stands on two bases, one of sandstone and above it a square platform worked into a black and white chequerboard design and topped by a huge blue-veined white marble terrace, on each corner there are four minarets. On the east and west sides of the tomb are identical red sandstone buildings. On the west is the masjid (mosque), which sanctifies the area and provides a place of worship. On the other sides is the jawab, which cannot be used for prayer as it faces away from Mecca. The rauza, the central structure or the mausoleum on the platform, is square with bevelled corners. Each corner has small domes while in the centre is the main double dome topped by a brass finial. The main chamber inside is octagonal with a high domed ceiling. This chamber contains false tombs of Mumtaz and Shah Jahan, laid to rest in precise duplicates in a. Both tombs are exquisitely inlaid and decorated with precious stones, the finest in Agra.
The Taj Mahal's pure white marble shimmers silver in the moonlight, glows softly pink at dawn, and at close of day reflects the fiery tints of the setting Sun. From an octagonal tower in the Agra Fort across the River Yamuna, Shah Jahan spent his last days as a prisoner of his son and usurper to the empire, Aurangzeb, gazing at the tomb of his beloved Mumtaz.
VISITING THE TAJ MAHAL
Agra is on the main train line between the Delhi-Mumbai (Bombay) and Delhi-Chennai routes, and many trains connect Agra with these cities every day. Some east-bound trains from Delhi also travel via Agra, so direct connections to points in Eastern India (including Kolkata) are also available. There are close to 20 trains to Delhi every day, and at least three or four to both Mumbai and Chennai. Agra and Delhi are notorious for their thick winter fog which reduces visibility to almost zero. If travelling in late December or early January (the fog season), travelers should be aware that, because of the reduced visibility, all trains slow down and travel time goes up. The Bhopal Shatabdi, for example, may arrive in Agra well after 10AM, and might return to Delhi well after midnight. From a safety point of view, it is always preferable to travel by train during the winters. Driving in fog on the road is very risky.
The Taj is open from 6:00 AM to 7:30 PM every day except Friday. Entry costs ?250 (plus levy of ?500) for foreigners and ?20 for Indians. Get there as early as possible to beat the crowds, and plan to visit the Taj at least two different times during the day (dusk and dawn are best) in order to experience the full effect of changing sunlight on the amazing building. It is also utterly stunning under a full moon. To buy tickets, you can go to the south gate, but this gate is 1 km far away of the entrance and the counter open at 8:00 AM. At the west and east gate, the counter open at 6:00 AM. Alongside the ticket counter, you can also purchase a self-guided audio tour (allows two to a device) for ?100 in English and foreign languages and ?60 for Indian languages.
The Taj is located pretty much in the middle of town. Expect a line to get into the grounds. There are three gates. The western gate is the main gate where most tourists enter. A large number of people turn up on weekends and public holidays and entry through the western gate may take hours. The southern and eastern gates are much less busy and should be tried on such days.
There are night viewing sessions on the nights of a full moon and the two days before and after (so five days in total). Exceptions are Fridays (the Muslim sabbath) and the month of Ramadan. Tickets must be purchased 24 hours in advance, starting at 10am, but do not always sell out, so it can be worth looking into it when you arrive even if well after 10am. Tickets only allow viewing from the red sandstone plaza at the south end of the complex, and only for a 1/2 hour window.
Make sure to wear mosquito repellent. It is a good idea to bring a flashlight, because the interior of the Taj Mahal is quite dark (even during the day) and to fully appreciate the details of the gem inlays, you need a good light.
1. The Taj Mahal, Agra, India
"...the Taj Mahal is a tear on the face of eternity..." - Rabindranath Tragore