A blog about writing, reading, travelling and great characters I meet in life. I love these things more than cheese-on-toast times trampolines times monkeys.

Saturday, 29 October 2011

Up close and personal – inside the Taj Mahal grounds

The Taj Mahal...

...inspired by love and loss.

Shah Jahan lost his beloved wife Mumtaz Mahal in 1631. The story goes that it was Mumtaz Mahal’s dying wish that Shah Jahan create a lasting memorial to celebrate their love. She also asked him not to marry again. Now there’s a lady who knew what she wanted!

(Must ring fictional husband Adam and tell him that when I die, I want a castle built for me).

After Mumtaz died, Shah Jahan set about finding the finest artisans across Asia and Europe. Marble and jewels and sandstone were brought to the site of the Taj Mahal in Agra by camel and elephant. A workforce of some 20,000 people was assembled to conceive and create the Taj Mahal complex – completed in 1653.

The world over – the Taj Mahal is known as a great love story...

A husband’s response to losing the love of his life. Legend has it that Shah Jahan was utterly inconsolable when Mumtaz Mahal died.

For me, the Taj Mahal is also a baby story...

I can’t remember who said it but there is a phrase that goes something like this – ‘scratch the surface of any woman and there’s a baby story.’

And Mumtaz Mahal certainly has a baby story – she gave birth to 14 children, 7 of whom died in their early years. Then Mumtaz died due to complications of childbirth at the age of 38, a day after giving birth to her 14th child – a daughter.

Sunrise inside the Taj Mahal...

I get up before sunrise for my visit inside the Taj Mahal grounds. I’m really excited to be going there, the walk along the empty streets at dawn to the Taj’s West Gate is full of anticipation for me as the first threads of daylight colour the streets of Agra.

I meet my guide for the morning as I queue for my entrance ticket – he’s called Imran. He has a friendly round face and an orange tourist guide’s cap – and Imran says I can jump the long queue if I take him on as a guide. Sounds like a good deal to me.

Imran tells me about the almost perfect symmetry of the entire Taj complex – this was one of the ways the King decided to represent paradise. The gardens, the buildings, the Taj Mahal mausoleum, the gardens and the gates into the Taj Mahal grounds – all of them designed with symmetry as the central principle.

The most obvious example of asymmetry in the Taj Mahal complex are the Queen’s and King’s tombs. They sit next to each other inside the filigree marble screen of the main mausoleum. The King’s tomb is offset from the Queen’s right in the centre of the Taj Mahal.

Perhaps this example of asymmetry tells the story of the King’s demise from power. Shah Jahan was deposed from power and imprisoned by his own son in Agra Fort – having spent most of the Kingdom’s fortune on creating the Taj Mahal. Shah Jahan’s tomb disturbs the symmetry of the entire layout – perhaps the last word from his son about his feelings towards his father's creation?

My guide Imran points out the ‘Diana seat’...

...there is a long queue of tourists waiting to have their Diana snaps. I find it incredible the long-lasting impact of that world famous photograph of Princess Diana, taken in 1992 as her marriage to Prince Charles failed.

I ask Imran more about Mumtaz Mahal...

...the iconic woman of this story. Mumtaz was betrothed at 14 to Shah Jahan. They married in 1612 when Mumtaz was 19 – a date decided by court astrologers as the most likely to bring a harmonious union.

Mumtaz played the roles of consort, wife and mother throughout her 19 year marriage to Shah Jahan. She travelled with Shah Jahan to battles, pregnant for 10 of the 19 years they were married. She was also a philanthropist – helping widows and orphans.

'And tell me about you, Madam?'

Throughout my tour of the Taj, Imran is very keen to know about my marital status. So I tell Imran about fictional husband Adam.

‘Why is he not here with you, Madam?’ Imran says. ‘You cannot come to the Taj Mahal alone.’

I say I’m just about to meet up with Adam – he’s coming to India after he’s finished on his latest photography shoot.

‘And how many children do you and Adam have, Madam?’ Imran says. He fixes me with his brown eyes.

‘We don’t have any children.’

Imran stops walking at this point. Turns to me. He wobbles his head from side to side. The look on his face is a mixture of earnestness and concern.

‘But Madam, you must have a child,’ Imran tells me. ‘You must have a child right now.’

‘What here? Now? In the Taj Mahal?’ I think to myself.

‘Really Madam,’ Imran insists. ‘It is most important.’

I smile. ‘Ok Imran, will do.’

I make a note to have some fictional children with Adam before the day is out – the names Billy and Bobby come to me, naughty 7 year old twins who drive their mother up the wall most of the time, apart from when they’re out at work sweeping chimneys.

For the rest of the day inside the Taj Mahal...

I enjoy the fantastic palette of sights and smells, sounds and feelings, offered by the Taj complex...

All the glimpses you are offered of the Taj Mahal and the Principal Gate from archways - like you are stealing a peek into a Secret Garden.

The bright saris are like Smarties against the cream marble.

A group of schoolchildren in white pass me by, they are like little birds with their bare feet.

Then come their teachers – they all want to ask me lots of questions about England and have their picture taken with me :-)

I love the feel of the marble floor outside the main entrance to the Taj – it is cool and smooth to sit on, not at all uncomfortable.

And the view up the main walls of the Taj Mahal - the calligraphy scripts from the Quran.

The breeze from the Yamuna River is like a glass of water.

Then there are those world famous reflections - available at many points of the Taj Mahal grounds - that change colour throughout the day.

The exquisite details of the pietra dura marble inlay work - created with precious gem stones.

The attention to detail of the carved marble - the flowers everywhere - representing paradise.

The care applied to ceilings and walls and floors everywhere.

In the Taj gardens, there’s the gentle whirr of a mower and the smell of cut grass. A man in a smart shirt and trousers tends the lawn with its star-shaped beds. Another man collects grass cuttings into large hessian bags and empties them into a large box on the back of cycle-rickshaw.

An Indian palm squirrel (also known as a three-striped palm squirrel) plays with a piece of green cloth on a tree. He darts up and down a big leaf mahogany tree. He’s joined by another rodent friend and they squeak at each other.

There are birds whistling all around.

And I have my tourist pics done - cheesy but so much fun! Mum, these ones are for you xx

The Taj Mahal gets me thinking about who I really love...

My irreplacable friends, my family - they are the great loves of my life.

In the afternoon, I send some Taj Mahal postcards home.

I love writing to my friends and family by email – and I love their wonderful replies.

But sometimes whilst away from loved ones travelling, only postcards will do. Hand writing a card is more personal, more fun.

I head to the post office in Agra, which is hidden down a small lane. Five men drink chai behind the counter. I lick loads of Indian stamps and hand over my postcards for England.

I finish the day realising how lucky I am. To have the friends and family I have. What a talented, creative bunch they are!

Love comes in many forms and is always available – this is something I often forget.

Thanks Mumtaz Mahal and Shah J for your example!