The road to Agra
We travel by bus from Jaipur to Agra. All the guide books and travel advice blogs I have read recommend train travel well above buses, but I cannot understand why. Trains have to be booked in advance, and even then it is quite common for there not to be any tickets available. There are some tickets reserved on a tourist quota for last minute bookings, but since only one or two seats per train are available on this quota, the three of us couldn’t use this. Unlike the train, a bus however is very simple to book (once you’ve found the right bus stand), and can be booked up until the time of departure.
The Rough Guide to India, perennially full of unnecessary warnings, speaks of ‘hair-raising’ bus journeys along poor roads on antiquated buses. However the reality is quite different. Taking an AC Volvo bus makes for a very pleasant, comfortable, relaxed, and relatively quick method of travel, and it is also cheaper than the equivalent journey by train.
Our bus departs Jaipur’s central bus stand only a little after schedule, and we have a few hours of driving through scenic roads in comfort, on a bus that is only half-full. It is true that the bus is full of mosquitoes, and the sound of hands suddenly clapping together to kill a mosquito keep rousing passengers from their slumber. The mosquitoes do not seem to be biting though, only trying to escape, and they keep drifting towards the sunlight behind the blue-curtained windows.
It is an enjoyable journey; we travel past endless rolling fields, and I realise it is harvest time in rural India. Living in Mumbai I am removed from the seasonal rhythms of the countryside that have surrounded me all my life. The fields are full of sheafs of straw, stacked together.
Cows roam the golden stubble fields with their herders, and farm labourers are at work, gathering wheat sheafs and armfuls of corn. The cattle and men wander beneath the sunshine across dry, but fertile, fields dotted with acacia trees under a brilliant, blistering sun. Orange-pink hills are visible in the distance as we pass through a sequence of small towns and vast tracts of countryside, interspersed with goats and goatherds, and camels. On the approach to Agra there are many brick factories, with large smoking chimneys surrounded by acres of stacked earthen bricks. On the outskirts of the city a beautiful new temple is being constructed out of pink stone.
Agra: Taj Mahal
We arrive in Agra and are lucky enough to have come on World Heritage Day, when all the sights in India are free to enter.
The Taj Mahal complex has three gates, to the South, East and West, and beyond the complex is a scramble of dilapidated little alleyways forming the area called Taj Ganj. Within the Taj Mahal complex is an outer garden, and a gateway, through which visitors pass into the main complex. As you go through this gateway, the Taj Mahal looms immediately in front of you, a brilliant white, its shallow blue canal of water and symmetrical lines of trees channelling one’s gaze towards the mausoleum.
I have been looking forward to seeing the Taj Mahal, yet I have no real expectations, because it is such a very famous monument. I already know what it looks like, and feel like I know it. But seeing it is something else. It doesn’t really live until you are standing in front of it.
The Taj Mahal is that rare thing, where all the hype is justified. It really is exquisite, and breathtaking. Many famous sights strike you through vision or through the mind… the Taj Mahal strikes you in the heart. Its sudden appearance through the archway, its perfect symmetry, the fall of the reflection on the water… the wide, shallow sweep of the Yamuna river behind… the brilliant white marble almost glittering under the blue sky… all of it renders the Taj Mahal extremely beautiful, and without comparison.
The Taj Mahal was built by emperor Shah Jahan, grandson of Akbar, the great Mughal emperor. He built it as a mausoleum for his most beloved wife, Mumtaz, who died in childbirth after her fourteenth child.
Shah Jahan intended to complete his plan for the Taj Mahal complex, including a mirror-image mausoleum in black, for his own tomb. But destiny intervened and prevented him, as he spent the last years of his life imprisoned by his son, Aurangzeb, in Agra Fort. Aurangzeb had seized power and taken his father’s kingdom, and for the rest of his life, Shah Jahan was left to gaze across the Yamuna river at the Taj Mahal, the last evocative reminder of Mumtaz.
The Taj Mahal is designed according to Islamic concepts of perfection, aiming to envision paradise on earth, without direct representation of the divine. This perfection is expressed in the symmetry of its design, including reflections in water, the beauty of the gardens surrounding the Taj and the backdrop of the wide, glistening sweep of the Yamuna river.
The mausoleum itself is flanked by identical red buildings with domes. One of these (on the west side, facing towards Mecca) is the mosque, and the other a guesthouse.
Such was Shah Jahan’s obsession with symmetry and the appearance of perfection, that he deliberately designed the four outer minaret towers to lean slightly inwards towards the mausoleum, so that from afar they would appear to look straight.
Construction of the Taj Mahal took about twenty years to complete, from 1632 to 1653. It is made of white marble, underlaid with brick, and Shah Jahan employed architectural designers and experts from all over the world in its construction.
Even the gardens around the Taj Mahal are beautiful.
Though the Taj Mahal is Shah Jahan’s most famous monument, he had many others built while he was emperor, and his reign signalled a golden age for Mughal architecture.
When he died, Shah Jahan’s body was placed in a sandalwood coffin and taken by river to the Taj Mahal, where he was interred next to Mumtaz.