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A lot has changed since last I visited the Taj Mahal in 1990. Air pollution has decreased significantly since factories were relocated out of Agra, India. There’s also a new ticket building – with bathrooms – and a shuttle system. What has not changed is the age-old human story and the timeless architectural beauty of symmetry and optical illusions.
Taj Mahal – An Old Story
In 1633, Emperor Shah Jahan’s third wife dies in childbirth with their fourteenth child, setting in motion plans for a mausoleum that the grieving husband said would make “the sun and the moon shed tears from their eyes.”
By 1653, the Taj Majal is completed – and this is where the story gets murky. Our guide, a dapper young man with a well-practiced monologue, tells us that the Shah planned to build another tomb for himself that would be perfectly symmetrical to the Taj Mahal. Only this one would be made of black marble and onyx – at an exponentially higher cost than the first.
We were directed to look across the Yamuna River to see the foundations of this monument, which we were told was the final straw for the Shah’s son, Aurangzeb, who feared a bankrupt inheritance. In 1658, Emperor Shah Jahan is overthrown and imprisoned in a room at Agra Fort with a view of the Taj Mahal. At his death, he is placed next to his wife, in the basement of the Taj Mahal.
Now while the human story of love and power is fully documented, the Black Taj Mahal may be more myth than reality.
According to Lonely Planet’s India guide, “extensive excavations at Mehtab Bagh have found no trace of any such construction.”
Did the Shah’s son act before the Black Taj Mahal was begun? That’s the mystery.
Taj Mahal – Symmetry and Optical Illusions
Architectural wonders are less open to question – maybe. Well, apparently some experts have suggested that the Taj Mahal is sinking or that it has a Hindi (not Mughal) origin.
What is certain is that the Taj Mahal is built on a marble base, high enough that only sky serves as its backdrop. Four ornamental minarets at its perimeter have shifted over time, but they were always set to lean a little outwards so that, in case of earthquake, they would fall away from the mausoleum.
Before entering the Taj Mahal, we were instructed to wait in line for the VIP bench – a favorite with visiting dignitaries as it places the entire Taj Mahal within the photographic frame.
Not that that was the only popular photo spot. Our guide showed Kayla exactly where to stand so as to appear to be holding the Taj Mahal’s famous onion-shaped central dome in her pinched fingers…
…where to take a photo through marble lattice so as to capture one of the outlying buildings…
…and just how to catch a series of doorways at the craftsmen’s housing.
At the Taj Mahal itself, our guide pointed out the Pieta Dura, marble inlaid with up to 35 kinds of precious stones.
As lovely as the floral art is, we were even more intrigued by one more optical illusion – exterior columns which at first sight appear to be 6-sided…
…but on closer inspection turn out to be only 3-sided.
Every element of the Taj Mahal – domes, towers, columns, carved flowers –was exquisitely thought out. No detail too small, none too grand. As for the human story, who knows what is illusion and what is real. Does it matter?