It is a time of crisis in the camp tonight. At dusk, the call from the royal tent had gone out for the surgeon and the royal bodyguards camped next to the imperial compound are part of the calls for hot water and more light. A camel arrives, led by a wrinkled man in a loincloth, full of brush and firewood, and soon sparks rise in the inky night and dark shadows are cast on the canvas of the compound. Somewhere in the darkness of the desert a wolf howls, unmoved by the army camped nearby and the drama unfolding at its center. The dying screams of a woman cut through the constant murmur of an army of voices, the crackle of fires, and the occasional neigh of a restless cavalry horse. As the hours go by, the screams come more frequently and the entire camp is a slave to the events that unfold in the emperor’s tent. Gleaming Orion rolls impassively across the sky, descending now toward the western horizon, its inexorable descent marking the passing of the hours. The first lustful wails of a newborn are heard, which causes the sentries to move and minutes later the surgeon appears, silhouetted against the reddish light of the bonfires of the imperial compound, his bloody tunic and sunken tiredness in his sunken eyes. . A quick conversation with the sentry and the news spreads like wildfire through the encamped army: the Queen is dead. Mumtaz Mahal, the jewel of the palace and the most beloved of the Mughal emperor: confidant, wife, mother and companion, has crossed into eternity. She bore the fourteenth son of Emperor Shah Jahan and has been his constant companion, even on the scene of war, but this campaign against the Lodi princes of the Deccan to secure the southwestern reaches of the empire will be his last. Mughal power in India is at its peak, the first conquests begun by Emperor Babur in 1535 and now consolidated by his great-great-grandson. In the cool gray light of dawn, a grieving emperor gives the order to break camp and begin the long march northeast toward Agra and the heart of Moghul, thoughts of war forgotten. Legend has it that, on her deathbed, Mumtaz’s last request of her husband was to promise him a monument to their love; Little did she realize to what ends her husband would go to fulfill that promise.

 

The Taj Mahal is the fulfillment of that promise and is the world’s greatest monument to love, erected in all its splendor on the banks of the Yamuna River. “A tear on the face of eternity” is how Rabindrath Tagore, the Nobel laureate from India, described it. A tiny sarcophagus sits in the center of the building, all there is to remind us that this is, first and foremost, the final resting place of a queen. Standing in the cold gloom of the interior of the mausoleum, one is easily distracted by the grandeur of the surrounding building. For three and a half centuries, the exquisite marble latticework, which forms the airy walls of the tomb, has allowed the dust-laden bursts of summer heat and the perfumed breath of the monsoon to caress the cold stone of the tomb there. . My footsteps echo on the cold marble floor and whisper hauntingly around the lofty dome above, and as I do so I feel a tear in the fabric of time, as ghostly echoes insistently whisper from the dark void above, whispered from those too. who stepped on this same floor three and a half centuries ago.

 

This was my second trip to Agra to see the splendor of the Taj. In general, things have gotten a bit prosperous and organized in India since my first visit in the early 1990s; helped, of course, by a bit more wealth and a bigger budget on my part as well. Avoiding the joys of a slow and dirty Indian commuter train, with India bobbing up and down in glorious chaos, we took the fast, air-conditioned, clean and comfortable journey from Delhi to Agra, which dropped us off in two hours at the Cantonment. . station. However, it was not half as much fun as the 5 hour chat with the locals that I enjoyed the first time. Of course, Agra is the most touristic city in India and street vendors and con artists swarm around any newcomer like flies around the proverbial, but don’t let that put you off – firm driving and tough negotiation will lead to a cab. city ​​and a clean room. We threw down our backpacks and lay down on our beds as the outside temperature rose to 45 degrees and planned our itinerary for the next 3 days. Traveling through India between April and August is not for the faint-hearted – daytime temperatures are killer and so are mosquitoes. No matter what season you visit, do yourself a favor and knock on those massive wooden doors to the Taj’s entrance pavilion at sunrise and demand entry. The coolness of the early morning is a blessing before the sun rains down with its powerful hammer blows to the back of your head, and the early arrival allows you to sit in the front row for the spectacle of the morning rays that convert the dome in an ethereal glow that is almost impossible to describe. . And the added bonus is that you will be well ahead of the crowds, allowing you to stand alone in the center of the mausoleum and hear the whispers of eternity echo from the dome above.

 

From 1631 to 1648 architects, engineers, bricklayers, artists, and an army of workers worked to build the Taj. Sixty-one meters high and 25 meters wide, the dome towers over the vast plain that are the Indian plains. Each section of the central building is clad in gleaming white marble carved from the quarries at Nagaur, 550 km away. The mausoleum itself sits within a formally designed walled garden accessed through a pavilion at the southern end. From this pavilion one looks north towards the dome, which is our familiar view of the Taj and perhaps the most photographed view in the world. Fact and fiction are intertwined; as only they can do it in this land of myths and mysteries, and legend has it that the hands of the artisans were cut off once the work was finished so that another Taj Mahal could never be built. Another is that Shah Jahan planned a black Taj Mahal on the opposite bank of the river as his own mausoleum, a mirror image of the monument to his wife. Where the legend ends and the truth begins is open to debate, but what is known is that Shah Jahan was deposed by his son Aurangzeb, who imprisoned him at Agra Fort approximately 5 km upstream, where only the view of the Taj and his memories accompanied him. upon his death. There is a lot of sadness around the Taj, not all of which is associated with Mumtaz and Shah Jahan. Many tears must have been shed by the mothers and widows of those who died building the monument. And they certainly died, because hauling the massive blocks of marble and red sandstone 550 kilometers from the Makrana quarries, and then dragging them up ramps and scaffolding would have caused its fair share of casualties, not to mention those who succumbed to heat and illness during the construction period of 21 years. Then there were the taxes that were collected to pay for construction works, which would have placed an additional burden on the peasantry. Therefore, the Taj can be interpreted not only as a monument to the queen of an empire, but also to those who worked hard to make it come true. India’s most recent Nobel laureate, VS Naipaul, described the Taj as “so wasteful, so decadent and ultimately so cruel that it is painful to be there for too long. This is an extravagance that speaks of people’s blood.” Controversial but undoubtedly beautiful, it has remained impassive for more than three and a half centuries against the backdrop of fading empires, wars, famines, floods, and disease. The Taj is the mark of high tide in an often indescribable sea of ​​human effort and perhaps that was the genius of Shah Jahan; concentrate the efforts of ordinary men and women in building a monument not only to Mumtaz, but to themselves, and in doing so achieve a minimum of immortality.

 

So do yourself a favor and buy yourself an air ticket to Delhi, take a slow train to Agra, and then take an even slower ride through the sacred stillness of the tomb, and marvel at the wonder of it all. However, I must add a caveat: India will seduce you to the extent that your ruin is complete, it will become a love story for life, leading to distraction as only an adventure of the heart can.

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