Sunday, January 29, 2006

Taj Mahal: a Muslim tomb and Mughal monument

Taj Mahal
Originally uploaded by babasteve.
The Taj Mahal Is a Glorious Survivor

THE most famous narrative of the Taj Mahal, India's transcendent tourist attraction, is the love story that prompted its construction: the death of queen Mumtaz during the birth of her 14th child; the grief of her emperor-husband, Shah Jahan; and his vow to build the world's greatest monument to love.

But after more than 350 years, there are other narratives worth exploring as well, including India's own complicated relationship with the monument, and with the Islamic emperors who built it and many of this country's architectural treasures.

There is the survivor's narrative of a monument that has been plundered, nearly dismantled, and eroded by pollution. Read enough of the history, and it seems a wonder it is standing at all.

Then there is the narrative of visiting it. The Taj has been so hyped through time that seeing it seems destined to be an anticlimax. But it isn't. The tomb's whiteness, its symmetry, its curves, majestic scale and exquisite detail are unreal.

Unfortunately, visiting it is a little too real. The Taj is set in Agra, an overcrowded city whose population has far surpassed its support system. After three trips to the Taj with different guests, I have come to dread the heat, the hawkers, the haphazardness of its surroundings - always vowing that this visit will be the last. Then I see the ethereal dome framed in the gateway that ensures a dramatic entrance and cannot wait to return.

The Taj is one of those rare creations that work from a distance and up close, as a whole and in parts, and in totally different ways. It has had its critics ("Marble, I perceive, covers a multitude of sins," Aldous Huxley wrote), but they are few.

The tomb is set against river and sky, the hue of its marble changing in the day's light. The perfect shape of the dome is reflected in the long rectangular pool in front. The almost womanly nature of the building's curves offsets the more severe formality of its planes. The white marble contrasts beautifully with the red sandstone of the mosque and its matching jawab, or answer - the two buildings that flank the tomb - and the greenery of the gardens.

The interior bears a totally different kind of scrutiny, to perceive the intricacy and color of the flowers that decorate the marble surface and delicacy of the almost lacy marble screen that surrounds the queen's tomb. Outside, the gardens - the Moguls' signature - today are significantly altered from the Mogul era, but they are respectably maintained. You can, and should, walk the periphery of the tomb, both to appreciate the building and its relationship to the river and also the Indian families, lovers and tourists who come en masse to see their country's great treasure.

The Taj Mahal has become the most identifiable symbol of India, drawing 2.2 million tourists a year. People visit for the romance, although it is not a particularly romantic experience. But in an age obsessed with Islamic extremism, it is also worth viewing as a manifestation of another side of Islamic civilization.

Those who talk about the lost glory of Islam and how the loss has helped feed Muslim anger can find that glory in the Taj and its marriage of architecture, design and engineering. It is one of the world's most spectacular examples of Islamic art, albeit melded with Persian, Indian and Central Asian influences. It represents the culmination of an empire that, if not always benevolent, did provide India with much of its modern-day structure and administrative foundation.

Shah Jahan - "Emperor of the World" - was one of a series of Mogul, or Muslim, emperors who ruled India from the 16th to 18th centuries. Theirs was a civilization that contained both cruelty and justice, excess and refinement. The emperors were great patrons of the arts and artisans, students of science and architecture and gardens.

The Taj is a wonder in the best sense, in that much of what makes it work is invisible. The double layer dome. The calligraphers' artfulness in gradually increasing the height of letters in the Koranic scriptures on the exterior so that they look uniform. The ingenious underground pipes that supplied water to the channels in the charbagh, or foursquare garden.

But India is a majority Hindu nation, until last week's election controlled by Hindu nationalists whose b? noire is the Muslim invaders who built the Taj. The Moguls were marauding conquerors who brutalized the bodies, psyches, and monuments of Hindu India. But they au.also gave the country many of its most beautiful buildings and gardens, which lie almost casually studded throughout Delhi and Agra and nearby Fatepur Sikri, the fabulous abandoned city built by Akbar.

Some ardent Hindu nationalists ignore this; others deny it altogether. In our office library I recently unearthed a small volume called the "The Taj Mahal Is a Temple Palace," by one P. N. Oak in 1974, and billed as "An Epoch-Making Discovery Which Has Proved All Histories and Historians Wrong." He argues that the Taj was "built by a powerful Rajput king in pre-Muslim times," constructed "of the Hindus, for the Hindus and by the Hindus."

Most historians, of course, disagree; it is clearly established that the Taj was built by Shah Jahan, the son of Jahangir, the Mogul emperor. Shah Jahan reputedly chose Arjumand Banu, renamed Mumtaz Mahal - "chosen one of the palace" - as a wife at a noble ladies' bazaar. Inflated through the ages into an almost impossibly beautiful, virtuous and brave woman, despite a fairly scanty historical record, Mumtaz Mahal accompanied him to war, and bore him 14 children, the last birth killing her at the age of 39. In death she became her bereft husband's muse.

Like most great monuments, the Taj is a testament to the excesses of its time. The Moguls were given to outrageous collections and displays of wealth. So it was that 20,000 laborers (Kipling wrote of the "sorrow of the workmen who died in the building - used up like cattle") spent 22 years to fulfill Shah Jahan's fancy, with jewels, materials and craftsmen imported from China, Baghdad, Afghanistan and elsewhere.

But its story is also about a struggle between tolerance and extremism within Islam that continues to this day. Shah Jahan was imprisoned by his son Aurangzeb, who succeeded him and reportedly disapproved of his father's profligacy. Discarding the relative tolerance of his forebears, Aurangzeb brought a Taliban-style rule, trying to impose a literal Islam and persecuting and penalizing Hindus and others.

Shah Jahan had sought perfect symmetry in the Taj, and placed the tomb of Mumtaz (actually a marble cenotaph; her body is buried below) squarely at the center, forming a perfect sightline out the entrance. Aurangzeb spoiled that symmetry by placing his father's tomb inside as well.

Some say that was because he felt guilty over how he had treated his father and wanted to make amends. On my last trip, my guide said it was because Aurangzeb deliberately sought to ruin the symmetry because under Islam, symmetry should be reserved for God. "He was a fanatic Muslim," the guide, a Hindu Brahmin, said. Whether that particular detail is true or not, Aurangzeb's fanaticism ultimately led to the decline of the Mogul empire, prompting revolts among different subject groups.

Aurangzeb did preserve the tomb at the Taj as a sacred space, and for years, the Koran was continually read here by mullahs. That custom ended as the Mogul empire declined, and the British empire began to coalesce.

The British, along with the Jats, a caste of northern India, looted the Taj of the lavish carpets, jewels, silver doors and tapestries that once bedecked it. Lord William Bentinck, the first governor-general of India, even planned to dismantle the Taj and sell off the marble. And by the mid-19th century, according to D. N. Dube and Shalini Saran in "Taj Mahal," a small, readable guide published by Roli Books International in 1985, the Taj had become a colonial "pleasure resort," with Englishmen and women dancing on the terrace, and the mosque and its jawab rented out to honeymooners.

Lord Curzon, who did more than any Englishman to preserve the Taj and other monuments, noted that picnickers often came armed with hammer and chisel, the better to extract fragments of agate and carnelian from the flowers. He repaired the buildings, restored the gardens, although with a British touch, and got the canals working again.

It is easy to revile the British treatment of the Taj, but the Indians haven't always done much better. As Agra grew, little effort was made to spare the Taj the ravages of pollution, which began to discolor the white marble. In the late 1990's, as the monument's future began to seem deeply imperiled, the Supreme Court ordered the shifting of some industries farther away.

Today, only electric-powered vehicles (or bicycle rickshaws) are allowed near the Taj, and under a public-private partnership between the government and the Taj Group of hotels, a major conservation effort is under way. Moving slowly, thanks to unwieldy bureaucracy, but steadily, a group of global experts has spent more than two years researching and documenting the monument. Soon the real work on the ground will begin. First the visitor facilities - toilets, drinking water and the like - will be improved, and security made less obtrusive. Then will come questions like how to improve the visitor flow through the site and whether to restore the gardens to their original state or preserve the lawns that were installed by Lord Curzon.

A persistent conservation effort seems essential, given the continuing threats to the monument. A scandal erupted after the government of Uttar Pradesh, the state where the Taj sits, allowed construction to start on a Taj Heritage Corridor, which included a shopping mall between the Taj and Agra Fort, without securing the permission of the central government. The project was scrapped amid fears that it could damage the Taj, not to mention its ambience, and the state's former chief minister, Mayawati, is being investigated for corruption in connection with the project.

For now, the Taj endures, its elegance in contrast to the slums that house nearly half of Agra's 1.5 million people.

In the words of the Indian publication Outlook Traveller, "Whatever mileage the city gets out of the country's most celebrated building, it loses in the fact that you step out of it into filth."

You can avoid some of the unpleasantness by taking an air-conditioned bus tour, as my friend Christine and I did recently. Most tours also stop at Akbar's tomb and Agra Fort, both definitely worth seeing. A tour will spare you much harassment, but is expensive, and subject to the whim of a guide; the one we had rushed us through the riveting 16th-century Agra Fort, then forced us to linger endlessly at a souvenir shop.

For more control of your time, you can take the train to Agra or drive the 125 miles from Delhi. Either way, you will leave your car or a taxi at the required distance, and hire a bicycle rickshaw or motorized vehicle (or walk) to reach the monument. Most transport will drop you at the eastern or western gate, where you will buy tickets, but if you can, make your way to the southern gate - it allows for the most dramatic entrance, in which you move from a medieval city quarter into a garden of paradise.

As a foreigner, you will pay $16 and be required to buy a "day pass" to visit all the monuments - Agra Fort, and others - even if you do not plan to visit them. Day pass is a misnomer: even if you buy it, you must pay additional fees at the other monuments.

Getting into the Taj can leave you fairly ragged, between multiple pat-downs by security guards, innumerable government-approved guides wanting to sell their services, and having to check your electronic devices, often with extortionists who demand to be paid. On your way out, the hawkers will pounce.

The Taj, the Agra Fort and Fatepur Sikri are all in Uttar Pradesh, one of India's poorest, most populous states. Unemployment is extremely high, and you cannot blame residents for viewing the monuments and the foreign tourists they draw as an economic lifeline. Desperation sometimes manifests as aggression.

There may be no more brutal, surreal metaphor for that than what one sees on the road between the Taj and Fatepur Sikri; it is lined with men with dancing bears. As cars approach, the small bears are yanked up on their hind legs in the hope of extracting a few rupees from passing motorists.

But perhaps a certain arduousness in visiting the Taj only adds to its effect. Somehow, after navigating the chaos, its beauty is even more remarkable, perhaps more unexpected, when it first floats into view, an image serene and perfect enough to tattoo inside an eyelid.

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