(This is the second in a series of columns on Brandon Taylor's recent trip to India.)
By BRANDON TAYLOR
Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan must have really loved his third wife. If it's not obvious from the jewels dangling from the woman's body in almost every portrait of her, then maybe it's the fact that he built the world's finest and best known mausoleum for her: the Taj Mahal.
The wife, Mumtaz Mahal, died giving birth to their 14th child. So maybe in addition to being a symbol of Shah Jahan's love for and grief at the loss of his wife, it was a way of saying "good job" for all the hard work.
Assumptions aside, the Taj Mahal is a gem in the world of architecture. Constructed of pure white marble and straddling the banks of the Yamuna River, it graces the otherwise underdeveloped, over-touristed landscape of the surrounding city, Agra. Against cloudless blue skies, one's imagination could easily picture the main onion-shaped dome and building, its lofty white façade and intricate inlaid carvings, floating off into the sky. It's really no wonder that it's considered one of the Wonders of the World.
I'm sure when Shah Jahan set out to build this memorial for his beloved, he didn't have global notoriety at least not in terms of the tourist hordes it would attract in mind, but I was glad he and his army of artisans did such a fine job. Otherwise standing in line at 5:30 in the morning to be the first ones into the mausoleum complex would have been a tiring, lackluster experience. The final product four minarets framing the immaculately white tomb and its surrounding gardens didn't fail to impress.
For visitors entering the grounds from the east, the Taj Mahal is hidden behind large walls and a grand entrance gate. Walking up to the gate, the great white wonder came into view, a bit blurry due to the misty morning air that gradually cleared as I walked through. As one of the first batch of tourists, my first few photos were void of other camera totting, silly hat wearing visitors.
The main stretch leading up to the Taj Mahal is lined with an array of neatly trimmed shrubs and beautiful fountains that magnify the structure's splendor. Each step brought the marble complex closer until I was finally directly in front of it. To enter the main tomb, I had to take off my shoes or wear odd booty coverings over my sneakers. I opted for the former. The marble floors felt cool and smooth on my feet, almost slippery as a thin layer of quickly evaporating morning dew gleamed on the white surface.
I walked around the tomb to get away from the sun, rising quickly and heating up the ground, and to admire the elaborate carvings and calligraphy. Small flowers adorned the stone, each carefully painted as columns of calligraphy rose to dome's peak. Standing in the great mausoleum's shadow, I felt tiny, yet inspired. One guy had this whole thing built for one woman. Wow.
Shah Jahan also rests in the tomb. He was eventually overthrown by his son, who may have wanted to stop his father's spending on grandiose tombs, and locked up in Agra's Red Fort, just north of the Taj Mahal on the same river. From his cell, Shah Jahan could still have had a view of his precious monument and, in a way, maintained a connection to his wife.
The Taj Mahal is the second Wonder of the World I've seen. In 2009, I stood in similar awe in the shadow of the Great Wall of China. The Great Wall's "wonder" status comes from its impressive location (on the top of high ridges and not-so-gently rolling hills) and length (almost 4,000 miles across China's northern half).
True, the Taj Mahal lacks the wall's scale, but it is no less impressive. The Great Wall was built as a defensive structure that ultimately failed its purpose: keeping the Mongols out. The Taj Mahal was built out of a sense of loss, in memoriam, for love and every smooth marble brick and detailed calligraphy carving remains a testament to that purpose.
Brandon Taylor is a language consultant/foreign expert for the Beijing Review, an English language weekly newsmagazine in Beijing, China. He is a former correspondent for the TIMES NEWS. Read Brandon's blog at www.btay200.wordpress.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.