Saturday, April 5, 2008

Not forgetting Mumtaz - Golden Triangle 4

His other wives must have been furious,” Diana says. They’ve got thirty-two million reasons to be, because that’s how many rupees his last gift to her cost, nearly four centuries ago. We’re trailing our slack jaws round the Taj Mahal, the most famous symbol of love in the world.
It’s still dark, when we haul ourselves out of bed. The muezzin’s calling, as well as the alarm-clock. Pulling on yesterday’s clothes, for speed, is not an option, given the unmissable photo opportunities of the day ahead. In the hotel foyer, we meet Vijay, our guide, who visits the palace at dawn and dusk, each day. He knows and loves its every last cornelian petal and malachite leaf.

Factories are banned in Agra, he tells us, because of the risk of pollution. All manufacturing industry was shipped out, fifteen years ago. People now commute to work elsewhere, or stay home to till the soil, and guide the tourists. He looks complacent. Cars aren’t allowed within half a kilometre of the palace. We abandon ours, leaving Sanjay to snooze in the car-park, at a safe distance, while we make the final leg of our pilgrimage in an electric tuk-tuk. At the entrance, Vijay procures us tickets, bottles of water and attractive little white bootees, seemingly out of the dawn air, thereby earning his keep in the first two minutes. Foreign visitors, 750 rupees, Indian residents, 520 rupees. It’s the closest to parity we’ve yet seen.
Security’s fierce, but, by now, the day would be incomplete, without being frisked and having our bags rifled. The Taj is a Muslim monument, and, in a post-9/11 world, they’re not taking any chances. Vijay says that after nine o’clock in the morning, no bags at all are allowed in, because of the weight of traffic. With twenty to thirty thousand visitors to process each day, and double at the weekends, you can quite see their point. You’d get repetitive strain injury, unzipping zips.
He sits us in a row, on a marble step, like schoolchildren, to listen to his Taj lore. Stray tourists linger in the vicinity, to hear his words of wisdom, as well they might. Mumtaz Mahal was the Jewel of the Palace. At the age of fourteen, she was betrothed to Emperor Shah Jahan, and married him five years later. He had nine other wives, as Mughal emperors were wont to do, but Mumtaz was favourite, his constant companion, which can’t have made the entente very cordiale in the ladies’ quarters. Mumtaz bore him fourteen children (I think a little something in marble isn’t overdoing it, then) - but died giving birth to the last. Shah Jahan was disconsolate, and went into enclosed mourning for a year. He emerged, hair white, back bent, with the design for the marble mausoleum for Mumtaz, to fulfil his promise, never to forget her. It was to take twenty-two years. Enough to make your lip wobble.

The craftsmen inlayers went blind, Vijay says, creating the intricate decoration of the walls. Each flowerhead’s made up of hundreds of tiny pieces, no bigger than your thumbnail. Not only was the work very fine, but, in an age pre-dating safety goggles, flying chippings and debris took their toll on workers’ eyes, too. Women weren’t allowed to be apprenticed - not because of some warped seventeenth-century take on equal opps, it made sense: if a woman trained to become an inlayer, and then married, she would take the knowledge and expertise out of the family, and into someone else’s. Sic transit....
Taj Mahal means Crown Palace, initially projected to be forty-five years in construction. But then, the planners counted the hours in a day, and decided they were wasting time, sleeping. The builders worked in shifts, cutting stone in the night, piecing it together during the day, thereby halving the estimate. And Shah Jahan was canny – instead of having slave-labourers, he paid his workmen, to ensure their commitment - paid them so well, in fact, they didn’t have to work again. If a workman was injured during building, the Emperor gave the family enough money to be financially secure for generations to come. We hang on Vijay’s every word. He has lovely hands.
It’s completely light, when we come through the portal between the outer courtyard and the gardens. The Taj Mahal’s translucent and warm in the early sun. The white marble’s blinding at midday, but right now, it’s soft as pearl, in the light of breaking day. We stop speaking to one another, eventually, and walk round with our mouths open, close to tears.

Vijay points to a ruin, across the river. After the completion of the white Taj Mahal, he says, Shah Jahan began work on a black one, on the opposite bank, a reflection of the original. Aurangzeb, his third son, had other ideas, however. He’d already murdered his two older brothers, to ensure accession, and now he put his own father under house arrest, so the project collapsed. We sigh. The black Taj was to have been inlaid with diamonds (because lapis lazuli doesn’t show up on black), with a bridge of silver, spanning the river to its white partner. It’d have required some serious coffer-rattling, so you can almost begin to understand Aurangzeb’s parsimony. For the last years of his life, Shah Jahan could only see his beloved Taj, reflected in the mirror over his bed. Diana and I exchange a look, blinking hard.
Vijay encourages us – orders us – to touch the walls. We comply, gingerly, not having been brought up to fondle monuments. The marble absorbs nothing but the glue used for the inlay, and that’s a secret recipe. Grubby tourist fingerprints are washed off by the monsoon, or wiped away in the annual cleaning. Inside the crown itself, it’s quite dark. Vijay puts his torch-face flat against the wall, switches it on. A red flower springs to life. If we gasp any more, we’ll pass out. He recites the litany of semi-precious stones used for the inlay, lapidary poetry: cornelian, agate, malachite, onyx, lapis lazuli. The precious stones - emeralds, sapphires, diamonds - are long since looted, but the crown’s still bright.
Inside the onion-dome, Mumtaz has her cenotaph, in the centre. Shah Jahan’s is offset, but bigger. I’m glad to see this, perfect symmetry makes me twitchy. The actual graves are under our feet, in a locked vault, opened once a year to visitors, who happen to arrive on the right day. I applaud the randomness of access.

Outside again, the sun’s revving up and the coaches are beginning to arrive. We take off our j-cloth overshoes. A team of bullocks, yoked to a mower, quarters the lawns, flanking the watercourses.
Until today, the Taj Mahal seems to me anodyne perfection, a piece of wedding-cake architecture. Right now, up close and intimate, I change my mind, and give my heart away. You need to go and see for yourself.