Sunday, March 9, 2014

Agra 1: The Taj Mahal

The Taj at dawn. Now there's a picture I bet you've never seen before. Actually, this is maybe the world's single most iconic image, but since the entire tomb complex is oriented around creating this very composition, you mustn't blame me for taking a cliched snap. 

This is the first post in a series I'm going to do on a very intense week long trip I took to Agra in October of 2013. My two main purposes in re-visiting Agra were to go to the places I had not been to before (and there were many), and also to conduct reconnaissance for trips I'm planning to lead. I had been to the Taj Mahal no less than three times previously, yet this was the first time that I had the chance to see it at dawn, so that's where I'll start. 

Agra elicits mixed feelings from those who visit. While there are many people who come to India specifically to see the Taj Mahal, and they are rarely disappointed, from what I gather, for the average tourist their visit to Agra is little more than an afterthought. What one frequently hears is "If I'm in India, I have to see the Taj Mahal."But Agra is rarely the focus of their trip, the result being that they rush to the city, sometimes with as little as 12 hours to spare, and only see the Taj Mahal (usually not in the best lighting, which makes a huge difference) and maybe some of Agra Fort. This is a pity, as the city has much more to offer. Also, it's an annoying fact of Indian travel that a tourist in a hurry is a tourist more ready to part with cash. The locals who live off of the tourist trade are aware of this, and they exploit it ruthlessly, making the more frequented parts of Agra tout gauntlets where if you're a foreigner you can expect to have people trying to bully you out your money virtually every step of the way.

 This gives the city its backpacker reputation as a "Shithole." There is even a whole class of travelers to India who actively pride themselves on not seeing the Taj Mahal. Others get so annoyed by the touts and rickshaw weirdos and crippled hawkers that they forget even to look at anything, and leave as soon as possible, though not before forming an overwhelmingly negative impression of the city they failed to see. Then you have folks who wander around the city feeling superior to the buildings, who see visiting the architecture as an insufficiently "deep" or "immersive" experience of the culture. All of these attitudes are of course perverse: While the Agra experience is one replete with annoyances, they are merely annoying in the vast majority of cases, yet the city's architectural wonders are not only some of the grandest buildings ever constructed, but are some of the greatest artistic achievements of the human species. In terms of being an almost impossibly grand concept perfectly executed, you can't do much better than the Taj, even if its image has become rather a cliche among cliches. 

While some supremely annoying individuals might snort at architecture as an art form because it does not "say" anything (though architecture that does "say" something is usually not my cup of tea), the truth is that architecture is the only human endeavor which can bring out the same sense of amazement that one feels when confronted with some vast natural wonder. A writer can describe a landscape, a painter can paint it, and a photographer can take a picture, but its only through architecture than human beings can actually create landscapes of their own. In that respect, architecture is undeniably the most visually staggering art form, and being in the actual physical presence of an object so simultaneous vast and beautiful as the Taj Mahal is among the most overwhelming experiences of a work of art that a person can have.

I think it can be safely assumed that virtually every inch of the exterior of the Taj, with the exception of parts of the roof, have been photographed millions, if not billions, of times. I myself took in the vicinity of 200 pictures during my dawn visit to the great monument, and I was not alone: Immediately upon opening, well over a thousand tourists poured into the compound. Though I think the picture above gives an impression of serenity, in fact the photo was hard won, the viewing platform I took it from being crowded with 40 or 50 travelers from every corner of the globe jostling one another to get a perfect shot of the Taj and it's reflection. As I recall, getting this picture involved lifting my camera above the heads of a family of super-rich Brits and hoping it turned out right. I was in no certain terms denounced as an asshole by a group of middle aged American women (who were obviously not morning people) dressed in their conception of local Indian garb. Yes, the Taj is not a place to seek solitude, even at 6 A.M., nor is it a place where one can have any reasonable expectation of taking a truly original photo, unless there's some very peculiar lighting or weather condition.  The view in the picture above is so iconic that I can think of two different movies which portray the Taj being attacked by aliens (Mars Attacks and Men in Black 3). 

An upside down photo of the reflection of the Taj. Despite the fact that even at dawn the complex is crawling with people, early morning is by far the best time to visit. 

The Taj was built between 1632 and 1643 by the fifth great Mughal emperor Shah Jahan, in order to serve as a mausoleum for his beloved wife Mumtaz Mahal, who died in 1631 giving birth to pair's fourteenth child. Shah Jahan's intention was that the mausoleum should be the most impressive ever commissioned, and a permanent monument of his love for Mumtaz. The tomb's original name was Rauza-i-Munavvara, or the "Illuminated Tomb", the current moniker "Taj Mahal" being a corruption of Mumtaz Mahal. The land it was built on was purchased from the Kacchwaha's of Amber (and later of Jaipur), the marble also coming from quarries in Rajasthan. 

While it is true that Shah Jahan had several other wives beside Mumtaz, and that after her death he developed into quite the voracious womanizer (it is even rumored that he died from an overdose of aphrodisiacs), all of the evidence points to his having been genuinely in love with Mumtaz during her lifetime. Certainly, of Shah Jahan's eight children who survived into adulthood, seven, including the next Mughal emperor Aurangzeb, were by Mumtaz. While she was alive, she seems to have been the closest person to the emperor, and his grief at her death appears genuine. Hence the tomb's overplayed reputation as a "monument to love" is not inaccurate.

 It was during Shah Jahan's reign than Mughal architecture can be said to have reached it's zenith. A large number of India's greatest buildings other than the Taj Mahal were commissioned during his reign. Old Delhi, once known as Shahjahanabad, was largely his conception, and the two primary monuments in the city, Red Fort and the Jama Masjid, are both testaments to Mughal architectural sensibilities at their height. 

That being said, Shah Jahan was far from a spotless ruler. Before he gained the Mughal throne, he attempted a large though unsuccessful rebellion against his father Jehangir. Though he failed in this, a few years later, upon Jehangir's death, he was able to seize the empire, though only after exterminating all of his potential rivals, including his own brother. This was a precedent that would be followed by most of the Mughal rulers who came after him. 

That raises the question of whether Shah Jahan's moral turpitude should effect ones judgement of the artistic merits of the Taj Mahal. I have known people who dislike monuments generally for the simple reason that they tend to have been made by evil people. For my part, I think we're just sort of stuck with the fact that being a good artist doesn't make you a good person, and that if you only allow yourself to enjoy art that comes from perfectly enlightened people living in perfectly enlightened societies, then you wont have much to enjoy.

A random fellow in the reflecting pool. Or, more correctly, a random fellow's reflection in the reflecting pool. Note the finial on top of the dome. This is made of brass and was placed there in the 19th century, replacing an earlier, gold finial. Though it looks rather like a trident, traditionally the symbol of Shiva, it is meant to represent the Islamic crescent moon.  However, some view the finial's resemblance to Shiva's trident as further evidence that the Taj was once in fact a Hindu temple, which Shah Jahan merely converted into a tomb, after engaging in a massive conspiracy to leave a huge, false, paper trail and fool posterity into thinking the building was constructed by the Mughals. The theory was popularized by P.N. Oak, who also claimed that the Vatican and Stone Hedge were ancient temples to Shiva, and that both Christianity and Islam developed out of Vedic traditions. His ideas seem a tad far fetched to me, though he apparently managed to gain a certain amount of traction with them. I've had a number of discussions with people who refused to believe that the Taj could have been a product of Islamic rather than Vedic civilization.

Whatever people may say against Shah Jahan, the rumors of his cruelty towards either the workers on the Taj, or to the architect (depending on which guide you're talking to), are not true. He apparently never had anyone's hands cut off or eyes gouged out in connection with the building of the Taj. There are a variety of other myths about the complex which still have some currency even though there's no solid proof for them. Perhaps the most common is that another mausoleum, exactly the same as the Taj except that it would be made of black stone instead of white marble, was planned directly on the opposite side of the river, but was either ruined, or never completed (depending on which guide you're talking to). Sadly, this does not seem to have been the case. 

The eastern side of the main tomb, with the shadow of one of the secondary buildings in the complex crawling across it. 

Looking up at the dome. 

The mausoleum and the marble platform, with some people for scale, about ninety minutes after the first picture in this post was taken. The most distinctive aspect of the architecture of Shah Jahan's reign is the conspicuous use of white marble. Most of the great buildings of the earlier Mughal emperors, such as the tombs of Humayun and Akbar, and the buildings in Akbar's short lived capital Fatehpur Sikri, were made of red sandstone, a material that was far more abundant in North India. The great thing about the marble of the Taj is the way it catches the light: At every time of day there's a different view. At dawn and sundown the marble goes just as red as the sun happens to be, but in the middle of the day the building is almost glaringly's rather like looking at the world's most most colossal and perfectly proportioned igloo in the bright sunlight.  

Looking towards the pishtak of the Taj. In Islamic architecture the rather undignified term pishtaq refers to an arched opening, which in this case leads into a  rectangular gathering space inside the mausoleum called an Iwan

Koranic inscriptions on panels next to the pishtaq, in a style of calligraphy known as Thuluth. 

A view of one of the minarets that are positioned on the four corners of the tomb platform. Apparently over the years several of the pillars have developed a slight outward tilt, though the Archaeological Survey of India doesn't expect any of the minarets to topple over anytime soon. The black strips of stone in between the marble slabs on the side of the pillar are actually inlaid. The minarets are largely made of either rubble or bricks, with an outside layering of marble.

Stone inlay work on the side of the pishtaq. The Taj is famous for it's pietra dura, or hard stone inlay work, which had been imported from Italy during this period. However, it's often claimed that all of the inlay work on the mausoleum is pietra dura, when the decorations on the exterior of the tomb employ methods which had been known to local craftsmen for quite some time, as evidenced by the other tombs in the area, such as Akbar's and the tomb of Itimad-ud-Daulah, which prominently employ inlaid stone decorations. Still, the complexity of the stone work on the Taj Mahal was unprecedented in India at the time.

Unfortunately, one is not allowed to take photos on the inside of the mausoleum (though that doesn't stop some). The interior contains the most ornate inlaid stonework, along with the cenotaphs of Mumtaz Mahal and Shah Jahan. It's worth taking a small flashlight into the tomb and holding it directly against the inlaid stone flowers on the side of the screen that surrounds the cenotaphs. This causes the individual transparent stones which make up the flowers to light up. 

It's funny that over time the Taj has become the symbol of India, given how many elements of it are essentially foreign. The Mughals themselves were of course not originally Indians but central Asians, the dynasty being the decedents of both Tamerlane and, further back, Genghis Khan. The language of the Mughal court (adopted during the reign of Humayun), was Persian, and Shah Jahan's taste in architecture was far more Persian and Central Asian than it was Indian. While with the structures of the very early Delhi Sultinate, and also with many of the buildings in Akbar's reign, there is a very distinct, visible, cultural and architectural fusion, with the Taj Mahal the indigenous characteristics of the building are much less pronounced. 

The view south, from the platform at the northern end of the complex towards the main gate, across the garden. Other than serving the purely compositional purpose of providing a means by which one can see the refection of the Taj, the river at the center of the garden is symbolic of the rivers that are said to flow in heaven in the Koran. Throughout much if its existence the garden has been much less orderly than it is now, with many more large trees. 

There are two large red sandstone buildings to the east and west of the Taj. The one to the west, facing mecca, is a functional mosque, while the other, pictured above, was built primarily to produce a more satisfying composition. From the outside it looks almost exactly the same as the mosque, though it does not have a prayer niche. It's usually referred to as the Mehmankhana, or guesthouse, and it was used as such, though it's main purpose was simply to be a pleasing visual counterpart of the mosque on the opposite side of the mausoleum. Note the tourists at the lower right and lower left hand of the building for scale. While only a subsidiary structure in the tomb complex, the mehmankhana is perhaps as telling of the Mughal's absurd wealth as the Taj Mahal itself. Were the building standing on its own and not overshadowed by the most famous man-made structure in the world, it would still be well worth visiting. 

Decorations on the side of the pishtaq of the mehmankhana. 

The main arch at the eastern wall of the mehmankhana, which corresponds to the west, or Mecca facing, main prayer niche of the mosque.

View towards the Iwan and Mihrab of the mosque, looking west. The mosque is still in use. Every Friday, the whole complex is closed so that prayers can be held here. The pool in the foreground is for ritual ablutions for those who are about to pray at the mosque.

Inside the mosque. A man pray's at the mihrab while a Japanese tourist takes a photo.

One of the four spectacular chatris that are positioned at each corner of the larger, red sandstone platform that the mausolem, the mosque, and the mehmankhana are on top of. 

A view from below the sandstone platform, near the Yamuna riverbank, looking up at one of the chatris. The view from outside the tomb complex gives one a more interesting look at the chatris, as you can see the lowest level, where they merge into the platform, and also the floral decorations around the outside. Towards the left you can also see the rear of the mehmankhana.

The main gate into the enclosure that contains the Taj. As an example of the expert symmetry with which the complex is laid out, note the view of the pishtaq of the mausoleum proper through the arch of the gateway.

A view southeast from Agra fort towards the Taj. Shah Jahan ended his life imprisoned in Agra Fort by his son Aurangzeb, who had, like his father, rebelled and then killed all rival claimants to the throne, including one of his siblings. This was roughly the view Shah Jahan had every morning during his imprisonment. After he died, his body was interred in the mausoleum next to his wife. The overthrow of Shah Jahan brought about the immediate decline of Mughal architecture. Aurangzeb, for reasons that are far from totally unjustified, did not encourage sort of monumentalism that had been a characteristic of most of the earlier Mughal emperors.  He commissioned very few extravagant buildings, and his burial place, rather than being a grand mausoleum, is little more than an open grave. The Taj is therefore one of the last, and certainly one of the greatest, Mughal architectural achievements. After Shah Jahan, the political fortunes of the dynasty also went into a long slow decline, until by the mid 19th century it was little more than a pitiful remnant of its former self locked up in the Delhi Red Fort, and nothing the Mughals built over the course of those two hundred years came even remotely close to the grandeur of the Taj. 

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