Serendipity brought me to India, filled me with delicious foods, then sent me home with a woolen Nehru vest and a lifetime of memories. In between, I visited the Taj Mahal.
I struggle with the famous landmarks, the UNESCO Heritage sites, the places on earth that receive – as does the Taj – six million visitors per year (that's over 16k per day including the day I was there). The world is full of authorities greater than I on subjects like the architecture of Mughal India, the rise of Islamic powers from the Fergana Valley, and the endless struggle between Islam and Hindu nationalism that persists to this day. So, just a few thoughts:
One: What a testament to what humans can design, craft, create. Particularly when time and money are limitless, and the goal is perfection rather than immediacy. Imagine how long it took to hand carve all that stone. The price in 2023 terms would be $70 billion – not a bad price tag for a building.
Two: The place is a mausoleum to Shah Jahan's second wife. There's no mention of the first wife, who I can only assume was buried in a burlap sack behind the kitchen. Maybe the first wife was chosen by the family, and the second wife was chosen by the Shah himself. He must have loved the sex; she was pregnant just about continuously from the age of 16 until her death while delivering her fourteenth child. Not much of a life for the young woman.
Three: It's a mausoleum, fer chrissakes, getting six million visitors per year. I doubt that's what the poor girl wanted; she probably just wanted a quiet place to rest. God help us. You can bury my ashes in a pine forest thank you very much, and I'd like no visitors other than the squirrels and foxes that tread on quiet paws.
Four: Story goes, Shah Jahan was planning a second Taj across the river, this time in all black marble, for himself. Perfect symmetry, man and wife. His third son got sick of the profligacy and locked his old man up in the house until the end of days. Lesson: you've got to watch out for kid number three, definitely the one who will wreck your car, stab his brother, and lock you up and take the checkbook. That said, imagine having your old man, moony with grief over the death of his second wife, spend basically all your inheritance on his construction project. Then, just as it's wrapped up and you can go back to running the empire, he starts raving about doing it again. That's it old man, you're cut off. Hand over the check book; we'll be locking you up and making the big financial decisions ourselves from now on. Hey, dementia and equivalent must have existed back then too, and if my dad blew my $70 billion inheritance, I'd probably be touchy too.
Five: Shah Jahan's father Akbar had done a tidy bit of polytheistic blending when he created a religion both Hindus and Muslims could get behind. Thought to myself, that's the sort of thing I would probably do as leader if Muslim-Hindu animosity were causing me strife. Of course, it didn't work, and the kingdom was doomed to several centuries of strict Sharia law before the empire dissolved. How come the good ideas never take? This is why we can't have nice things.
Six: I asked how they managed to design around such straight lines and such perfect symmetry, in a world with none of the tools I'd rely on today (like a theodolite if I had one, but decent telescopes/lenses at least). I was told: plumb lines, that you'd separate by hundreds of yards and align perfectly three at a time. Still, holy crap, the lines of this design are absolutely perfect.
Seven: Our guide had a lot to say about the English, none of it good. Of course some Brit wanted to pack up the Taj and send it off to England. Of course, they'd ruin the dome with a series of steel hooks installed into the marble for the purpose of cleaning and maintaining it. Jesus H Christ, people, stop touching the exhibits. Similar, the grounds around the Taj were once a Persian garden of sorts, or an orchard. Of course it became a grassy lawn. Of course it did.
Lastly: it's easy to send your imagination back hundreds of years to when the Taj was built on the banks of a beautiful river and surrounded by gardens. This being the Anthropocene, the river now is of course a vile, stinking causeway, and nearly totally biologically dead. Well done, humans, well done.
The author does not allow comments to this entry