India 2013 Trip Diary: At the Taj Majal

By Donna Shaver

The astonishing white dome, barely visible in the hazy morning sky, rose above the deep red stone wall.  Just this preliminary glimpse of the iconic Taj Mahal was sufficient to bring a collective gasp of awe from our group.  We had waited in line for an hour and a half and that moment made it all worthwhile.

We piled into the bus at 6:15am for a short ride to the Taj.  Our most excellent guide, Sujata, secured our tickets and we joined the already lengthy line.  We had heard the day before that the sky would be hazy in the morning, but we decided to take our chances,  As we came at last to the red stone gate, the Taj Mahal was framed in the arch like a mirage.  I was surprised to find, in spite of the growing crowd, that each of us could capture that moment on our cameras unobstructed.

Now the Taj could be seen in all its splendor.  In the gauzy light, the Taj seemed constructed from the sky itself, floating above the earth.  We spent quite a bit of time photographing the Taj and each other in front of the Taj, interspersed with long moments contemplating its ethereal beauty. We also had a group picture taken before making our way down the steps onto long path to the world’s most famous tomb.

The Taj is a UNESCO World Heritage site and also widely considered to be the most beautiful and perfect building ever constructed.  It is completely  symmetrical, place squarely in the middle of high plinth with minarets on all four corners.  The minarets are ever so slightly leaning away from the Taj so that, in the event of earthquake, they will fall away from the tomb. The tomb is clad in exquisite white marble that came from Makrana in Rajasthan–a marble which is still used today.  It will not stain.  The outer walls are decorated with inlaid precious stones such as malachite, carnelian, and lapis lazuli in a process called pieta dura.  There are as many as thirty different types of precious and semi-precious stones used in that process.  In addition to the inlay work, there are beautiful marble bas relief flowers and plants.  A wide border around the arched door has Arabic script that become incrementally larger as it is further from the base, giving the visitor the optical illusion that all the script is the same size.

But the Taj Mahal is as famous for its origins as it is for it astonishing beauty.  Shah Jahan ascended to power as Emperor of the Mughal Empire in 1628.  Mumtaz Mahal the second was the wife of the Emperor, and theirs was a marriage of fierce devotion.  She was with him on a military expedition when she died in the process of giving birth to their fourtheenth child.  Shah Jahan spent the 22 years constructing the Taj Mahal as a tomb for his beloved.  It took 22 years and required some 20,000 laborers and 1,000 elephants (to haul the marble).  Mumtaz Mahal’s tomb is place in the very middle of the structure.

His plan had been to build an identical tomb for himself out of black marble on the other side of the river, but that was not to be.  He is buried next to Mumtaz, creating the only asymmetrical element into the Taj Mahal.

We were moved, as most visitors are, by the fierce love that the Taj represents.  We saw the power of the Taj in a very special scene.  A young couple were sitting up on a alcove on the building.  Someone in our group noticed that the young man was proposing!  We kept our distance but couldn’t help but notice their tender exchanges.  Several times, the young man held his iPhone as arm’s length to take pictures of themselves–a 21st century update to documenting their special time.  I couldn’t resist.  Noticing him holding both of her hands in his, their heads nearly touching, lost in each other’s eyes–I took my own photo!

To top it off, our group picture is wonderful.  We all looked great, with the  most beautiful building in the world as our backdrop.  What a glorious morning!