Had I been one of Shah Jahan’s harem, I might have had to do my wifely duties once, say, every 18 months. Had I not loved him, I probably could have lived with it. But knowing I was just one of many would have done my head in. The seventeenth-century ‘King of the World’ had three legal wives. Wife No. 1 was Christian. Wife No. 2 was Hindu. Wife No. 3 was Muslim. The 460 other wives in his harem were probably a mix, too. Wives 1 and 2 were without issue but Wife No. 3 produced 14 children in 19 years, 6 of whom lived. And as it is said that she was so beautiful the moon hid in shame when she appeared, Mumtaz Mahal was clearly the Shah’s favourite wife of all. Born Arjumand Bano Begum, the name the Shah gave her – Mumtaz Mahal – means Chosen One, or Jewel of the Palace. On her deathbed, she made him promise to build her a tomb, a testament to his love. And he did. And we know it as the Taj Mahal.
We’d driven through three hours of dense fog to get to Agra from Greater Noida, leaving the hotel at 5.30 am. I was really looking forward to seeing this wonder of the world up close and personal. I was hoping to get there by sunrise and see it in its dawn glory but as it turns out, I was lucky to see it at all. The fog was terrible. But I took heart that I hadn’t paid $1000 for a room in the Oberoi Hotel boasting a view of the great monument. That would have been a right waste of money.
No matter which side you view it from, the Taj looks the same. Perfectly symmetrical. The four minarets tilt slight outwards so that if they collapse, they won’t damage the main building itself. Inside there are just four tombs – two are real, belonging to the Shah and his favourite wife. These are open for viewing on 7 July each year. The two that are on view year round are exact replicas. I’d never have known the difference had I not been told.
There are four gates through which you can enter. Back in the day, the south gate was for the workers, the west gate for the VIPs, the east gate for the locals and the north gate for the royals. This is the one in use today. It has 22 domes on top, one for each year it took to build the Taj: one year to build the structure and then 21 years to add the detail. It took 20 000 craftsmen to do the job, most of whom were important from Kabul. Seventeen generations later, their descendants are still plying their trade in the city of Agra.
Security was grim. They took my pocket torch. I wondered what damage I could do with a torch and when inside I saw. My guide borrowed one from the security guard and showed me how the semi-precious slivers of gems in the marble glow in the light. Magnificent. Among the 28 or so types of precious stones uses, the malachite comes from South Africa, the lapis from Chile, the onyx from Belgium, the mother of pearl from New Zealand and the turquoise from Turkey. The marble – a lot of which comes from the town of Makrana in Rajasthan – reflects the light so that at various times the Taj appears to be a different colour: pink in the morning, milky white in the evening, and golden at night when lit by the moon. It is said that this change in colour resembles the changeable moods of women … and presumably that of the favoured wife.
excerpts from the Quran are etched on the wall – the pressure not to make a mistake must have been fierce. I wonder if it was proofread? The level of detail is simply stunning. I have it on good authority that the building itself is made of brick and is covered in marble. Whatever works. It certainly doesn’t take from anything. Rumour has it that the Shah had intended building himself a black Taj across the river, but his son and heir decided that he was frittering away his inheritance and promptly put him in prison – well, a prison of sorts.
Some of the pillars, while made of three slabs of marble, are designed in such a way that there looks to be six. What would it cost to build the Taj today, I wonder. And would we even know where to begin?
I came, I saw, and I left wanting more. I want to come back, on the night of a full moon in summer and see it in all its glory.