Another beautiful day in India. This morning we woke up super early since the drive to the Taj Mahal from Delhi is roughly four hours each way. We had our breakfast downstairs in the hotel. The food was excellent, with a good selection of Indian food, like aloo tikki (fried potato and onion patties with spices), paratha (Indian flatbread), and puri bhaji (deep-fried puffs served with spiced potatoes). The hotel also had pancakes, French toast, assorted cheeses, baked veggies, and all kinds of fruits and fresh squeezed fruit juices. Once our tummies were filled, we met up with our driver outside of the hotel and we were on our way!
The ride to Agra was relatively uneventful. We passed dozens of fields where workers were making bricks, stacking them up neatly as far as the eye could see. There were several times where we saw small children working alongside their parents, which was especially heartbreaking since the sun was brutal and the temperature hovered around 80 degrees. I can’t even imagine what it would be like for them on hotter days.
Once we arrived in Agra, the peaceful, quiet car trip came to an end. Getting around in Agra proved to be the most insane driving experience so far. Drivers in Delhi are no comparison. Plus, there are plenty of monkeys, camels, cows, and donkeys freely roaming the streets. The following video is a bit lengthy (roughly 14 minutes) but provides a front-seat view of the chaos. (If you don’t want to watch the whole video, you can fast-forward to 6:40 to see the monkeys – the best part of the drive!)
We stopped a few minutes before arriving at the Taj Mahal and picked up our tour guide. He was a fantastic guide, and I tried to take videos of his thorough explanations and descriptions of the Taj Mahal, but it was so windy outside that most of my videos are rather useless. Fortunately, I took tons of pictures!
We started at the Great Gate (Darwaza-i Rauza), the entrance to the funerary gardens. The gate is made of red sandstone and marble, with elaborate floral decorations and inscriptions from the Quran, namely al-Fajr (daybreak) inviting believers into the Paradise. The calligraphy on the Great Gate reads “O Soul, thou art at rest. Return to the Lord at peace with Him, and He at peace with you.”
The arches of the gate are meant to match the shape of the Taj’s dome. Rupak took a fantastic picture that really exemplifies this concept:
Our tour guide mentioned that the four minarets (towers) on each corner of the Taj Mahal are actually tilted slightly outwards, so that in the event of an earthquake, the pillars will fall away from the building and not on it. They thought of everything!
I snapped a quick picture of Rupak’s parents before we began our walk to the Taj. Aren’t they adorable?! Believe it or not, Ana had never been to the Taj Mahal before, so it was an experience for the whole family!
We walked out of the gateway and headed down one of the walkways toward the Taj. The central pools are flanked on either side by wide sidewalks. Our tour guide mentioned that the fountains in the center are only turned on at certain times of the day, so we were lucky to be there at the right time. He offered to take a picture of us standing in front of the last waterway before the Taj. (Not only was he a wonderful tour guide, he takes a great picture as well!)
Once we arrived at the base of the Taj, we had to put on shoe covers to protect the marble floors of the monument. It also seemed to help polish the marble – the floors were so shiny and glossy (and slick)!
Before we entered the building, our tour guide brought us up to speed on the beautiful and touching story behind the mausoleum. The Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan commissioned the Taj Mahal in 1632 following the death of his wife Mumtaz Mahal (the name he gave to her, meaning “Jewel of the Palace”), who died giving birth to her 14th child in 1631.
By all accounts, the emperor’s grief was monumental. He was not seen for a week at court and considered abdicating and living his life as a religious recluse. The court historian Muhammad Amin Qazwini wrote that before his wife’s death the emperor’s beard which had “not more than ten or twelve grey hairs, which he used to pluck out, turned grey and eventually white” and that he soon needed spectacles because his eyes deteriorated from constant weeping. Since Mumtaz had died on Wednesday, all entertainments were banned on that day. Jahan gave up listening to music, wearing jewelry, sumptuous clothes or perfumes for two years. So concerned were the imperial family that an honorary uncle wrote to say that “if he continued to abandon himself to his mourning, Mumtaz might think of giving up the joys of Paradise to come back to earth, this place of misery — and he should also consider the children she had left to his care.” (from Wikipedia)
The Shah described the Taj in his own words:
Should guilty seek asylum here,
Like one pardoned, he becomes free from sin.
Should a sinner make his way to this mansion,
All his past sins are to be washed away.
The sight of this mansion creates sorrowing sighs;
And the sun and the moon shed tears from their eyes.
In this world this edifice has been made;
To display thereby the creator’s glory.
We learned that the architects of the complex placed a great deal of emphasis on symmetry and balance. The Taj is the same when viewed from any of the sides. There is a large red sandstone mosque to the left of the Taj, and an identical building to the right called the jawab (meaning “answer”), whose sole purpose is to maintain balance and symmetry – which is amazing considering the height of the original mosque is over 60 feet and could be considered a work of architectural art itself.
The importance of each building in the Taj complex is indicated by the amount of white marble used. Unbelievably, the ornate decorations that cover the Taj (as well as the Great Gate) are actually inlaid precious stones rather than paint. It took over 20,000 workers to complete the enormous structure, using materials from all over India and Asia. Reportedly, over a thousand elephants were used to transport the building materials. The translucent white marble was brought from Rajasthan, jasper from Punjab, jade and crystal from China, turquoise from Tibet, lapis lazuli from Afghanistan, sapphire from Sri Lanka and carnelian from Arabia. Our tour guide brought a small flashlight with him to demonstrate the translucency of the marble – holding the flashlight against the marble near an inlaid precious stone causes the gem to glow as if it was a tiny lamp powered by electricity.
We were instructed to put our cameras away as we approached the tombs inside the Taj. The tombs are surrounded by intricate marble latticework and more inlaid precious stones. Muslim tradition forbids elaborate decoration of graves; therefore, the bodies of Mumtaz and Shah Jahan are actually in a relatively plain crypt beneath the main floor with their faces turned towards Mecca. Mumtaz’s casket is placed at the precise center of the inner chamber on a rectangular marble base, and Shah Jahan’s casket is beside hers on the western side. It is the only visible asymmetric element in the entire complex.
There was a thick crowd inside the mausoleum and guards moved us along quickly. We exited the Taj on the opposite side along the Yamuna river. I noticed a group of boys talking and pointing at me for some reason. One walked over and said “Camera?” Our tour guide came over immediately and spoke to them harshly in Hindi, later explaining that they wanted their picture with me. Oddly enough, just a few minutes later, a little girl tugged on my shirt and said, “Snap? Snap please?” and pointed to her camera. I thought she wanted me to take a picture of her and her family, so I said “Sure!” Then she gave her camera to her family and posed next to me while they snapped away! Maybe they thought I was someone famous (I mean, I *did* appear in the season finale of Survivor’s Remorse, haha). I have no idea what they were thinking but I wish I knew!
After we ditched my paparazzi, we walked back along the eastern side of the complex. I got one more photo of the Great Gate as we were leaving.
We piled back into our van and headed back into Agra, where our tour guide took us to one last stop. It was a little workshop named where we met the descendants of the family who did the gemstone inlays for the Taj Mahal. The family has continued their craft for centuries, passing down the secrets of their work for generations.
We learned they are paid by the government to maintain the intricate marble and gemstone structures throughout the complex, and now also offer gorgeous pieces of the same kind of translucent marble with the gemstone inlays for sale. (We are also pretty sure that our tour guide gets a nice little commission for bringing giddy tourists like us into the shop!) After a lengthy negotiation process (Indians love to negotiate!) we bought a small black marble tabletop with mother-of-pearl inlays and two translucent marble Ganesh statues.
I will have to upload a picture of the table later, as they had already packed it up for shipping to the US before I had a chance to take a picture.
After the workshop, we were starving, so we headed to an Indian restaurant recommended to us by our guide. Outside the front door, a man and his child were playing music and we danced around a bit before heading inside.
The food was amazing – Rupak had mutton (sheep) and I had a vegetable and rice dish along with the BEST garlic naan I’ve ever had. Finally, we piled back into the van once more and began the long journey back to our hotel.
Tomorrow begins the first day of wedding preparations with the application of mehndi (or henna). So excited!
Until then, namaste!