I have been to the Taj Mahal many times. I usually never miss a chance to visit this tomb. Along with Sikandra and Fatehpur Sikri, the Taj Mahal never ceases to wonder me. I have seen the mausoleum in the slanting orange rays of the setting Autumn sun, I have seen it in the misty and dewy mornings of North Indian winter. I have seen rains lashing against its minarets from a grey sky above, I have seen dark clouds conjoin into a speeding sand storm around its pillars, and I have seen it in the soft sunshine under a clear blue sky in spring. But never before yesterday did I see the Taj Mahal in the sharp simmering noon of peak summer. The guide told us right at the time when we were mounting the tonga that he would charge us double the usual price. We protested vehemently because we were expecting an off season discount. But the guide reasoned out and said after looking at the sky, “have you seen the scenery above”, where beams of the unrelenting sun was raining merciless solar heat on our skulls. We quickly agreed to him on the condition that he would explain things selectively and conclude our tour in half an hour flat. We had among us persons for whom this was the first sight of the Taj and the guide had to really do a job compressing the tour of the tomb so that the bare essentials could be chafed out from those details that suit a more congenial weather.
The Taj never fails to rejuvenate me through its suddenness of appearance. The monument is invisible from the outer gates but as one moves in through the gates into the inner spaces, one can slowly see the Taj bit by bit until it suddenly shocks you by opening up in its full splendour. The guide tells us that the pillars of the Taj tilt slightly outwards and this is because its architect felt that should there be an earthquake the pillars must not fall on the structure but could crash out on the other side thus saving the main edifice. The pillars are regular cylinders but appear conical to the naked eye because of their height. The letters of the Koran appear all around the arch progressively increase in size so that when seen from the ground they appear all of the same size. The quadrilaterals appear hexagonal because of the geometric patterns, and in some places pillars seem to be moving away from one another once again because of the geometrical patterns. Seen from inside the archways of the mosque or the hostel on either side of the Taj, the entire Taj Mahal seems to be floating away. Indeed when one sits on the side of the river, especially if the dry bed is inundated after a heavy monsoon, then one gets the feeling of being on the deck of a ship and the Taj seems to be afloat. There is a distinct sense of floatation in the Taj, which could be due to the several optical illusions around the monument. In a summer afternoon as the one I visited it, the Taj shimmers against the light sky and its reflection quivers in the waters of its canals to give the distinct feeling of the Taj mingling into the cosmos and its elements.
The guide had meanwhile prepared a list of characteristics that are essential to the understanding of the monument. The white marble from Makrana, the inlay work, the stone embossing and the filigree seemed to be common place and mundane. I realized that these were only incidental to the monument and not intrinsic to its mysteries. The crux of the Taj is its dimension. The utter symmetry of the architecture, the sameness of effect everywhere, and the acutely measured proportions makes the Taj suddenly disappear from sight if one looks very intently. This is why the Taj cannot be replicated; its dimensions are its wonderment; the feeling of floating away and its sense of becoming invisible. The Taj is unique not because of its visuality but because of its invisibility. I asked the guide whether he has ever seen the Taj on a full moon night, he did not. But he imagined that the Taj would be turned into a glowing monument and he would be able to see all the stones glowing at once especially because now he had to use the slight light of the mobile phones to show the tourists how the stones in the inlay work glowed at night. This could have been the case, if the Taj received light from a lower height. But the moon is overhead and because of its symmetry the entire structure disappears in its own shadow leaving only the white dome and the top portions of the pillars look as if they had been suspended from Heaven !!!
On either side of the Taj are symmetrical buildings, a mosque and the hostel. These images so mirror each other that from any direction the Taj looks the same. These monuments are essential to the symmetry of the Taj. The Taj was built in 22 years and everywhere the number finds its presence. There are 22 steps into the mausoleum; there are 22 resting points for the visitors and so on. Inside the mausoleum, due to the symmetry there is cross ventilation in which breeze flows in from all eight directions !!
The guide racked his brain and sped towards an enclosure in which lay drawing of the spire on the floor of the platform. He pointed out at the trident on the spire holding the thin slice of the new moon, symbols of Shaivite Hinduism and Islam held together. This is interesting because Akbar actively promoted the Vaishnavite Hinduism by officially celebrating Holi and Janmasthami but Shah Jahan seemed to have some inclination towards Shaivism, a branch of Hinduism that was clearly on the backfoot under the wide sweep of the Bhakti movement in northern India. The Deccan however was seeing a revival of sorts in Shaivism and this indicates the influence of the Deccan was no less on Shah Jahan than on Aurangzeb. Also hidden in its arches are lotuses that also give an illusion of being a trident, perhaps an attempt at favouring Shaivism over Vaishnavism, something that could well have been also a covert Deccan versus Gangetic Plain tussle.
I have never vibrated with the fact that the Taj is a story of love. Love cannot be so calculated and so rational, it cannot be so planned, so acutely designed, so conscious and so ostentatious. Love, to my mind is the stairway from Jodha Bai palace in Fatehpur Sikri that goes down into the temple so that the queen riding on the elephant need not have “touched” anything to spoil her purity as she went in and out of the temple; love is the 150 samples of earrings that adorn the border of her kitchen because for a long time Akbar only saw her covered head with only her dangling earrings being all that was visible to the Emperor. Akbar never took a navy out in the high seas because they were plied by the Portuguese and his Goan wife could have well been a Portuguese, yet another matrimonial alliance that we hardly notice. These were instances of great love. The Taj is too imposing, too awe inspiring, too mysterious, too intriguing to be love. The Taj is defiance, man’s defiance of Death, man’s refusal to accept the inevitable, King’s arrogance towards God so that death is forgotten, but the dead emerge into this massive monument to become the greatest wonder of the world. Taj rises to become the Divine, for only in its Divinity, Death can be forgotten and hence perhaps also conquered.
The Mongols, the forefathers of the Mughals have a penchant for loving their women and going far to fulfill that love for her. I saw the film called Mongol, a biography of Chengiz Khan in his youth and it appeared that the entire being of Chengiz Khan was founded upon the love for his principle queen. That same blood seem to flow into Akbar’s love for Jodha, Jahangir’s love for Noorjehan and finally Shah Jahan’s love for Mumtaz Mahal. This is not macho and many cultures are embarrassed by it. Jesus was supposed to have never married and Muhammad, a much married man is usually imagined as single. Rama is only slightly criticized for abandoning Sita while she was expecting his children and Buddha is a hero because he left behind his young wife and infant child in pursuit of a higher purpose. Hence, the Taj is an embarrassment for its celebration of uncompromising love of an otherwise uncompromising Emperor. The Mughals did not seem to talk much about it; the locals seemed to be eager to forget it and indeed a large section of the Indians today appear not to notice it. Nowhere is the desire to brush the Taj under the carpet so clear as in the city of Agra, where it is almost impossible to locate the Taj. The locals do not seem to know about it, the sign boards seem only to misguide the tourist. The Taj is promoted largely by Western tourists, inspired by the thesis of Victorian love and the romance of monogamy.
But the defiance of the Taj against the Divine, its assumption of Divinity, its desire to become so perfect so as to mingle indistinguishably into the ether, its weightlessness despite its girth, its floatation despite being grounded makes one wonder that the Taj is man’s ultimate desire to become God. This is also why; the Taj Mahal is such an embarrassment for the clerics and religious fundamentalists. But in such defiance of man and also his desire to become Divine lies the roots of the grand school of German Idealism, a system of philosophy that none other than Dara Shuko, Shah Jahan’s son is reputed to have inspired. Today German Idealism is much maligned but in the times of modernity, German Idealism’s discovery of the individual agent as the locus of history and the source of its laws was an assertion of human powers of inventions, discovery, secularism, equality and liberty. The Taj is perhaps the first assertion of that sentiment.
It is said that Agra was lost in obscurity before the Mughals came in here. Perhaps yes but possibly not. Agra was crowded, vibrant and had a life of its own, perhaps not under the Empire but definitely with a powerful civil society of merchants, guild owners, freight forwarders and money lenders. It was the seat of outsourcing for shoes and gears for the military would be manufactured from here. The location of the Taj and the Agra fort, and also of Sikandra and Fatehpur Sikri are in the outskirts of the city and not in the city proper. In fact, looked at closely, the city and the Mughal areas are distinct and clearly separated. Agra is merely associated with the Mughals because of the proximity; it is more of the Mughals trying to appropriate the glory of Agra than the other way round. No wonder then Agra by not putting up sign boards to indicate the historical monuments is also in defiance of the Taj, or the fort or even of Sikandra, where the great Akbar lay in a tomb resembling the mother’s womb in which his grave is planted like a foetus waiting to be reborn and reclaim over and over again. On the archway of Sikandra, written in Persian are the words from the Gita, that the soul leaves the body just as we leave our old clothes behind. Dara Shukoh eventually translated the full text of the Gita, on which Hegel wrote his commentary that constituted his philosophy of art and the prolegomena of Phenomenology
What the dead speak, what Death speaks
It is always a pleasure to visit the Taj Mahal, its grandeur that lies in the sheer scale of the building, the largeness that exhausts the span of the eye so that when you see the Taj you see nothing else in the field of vision. Made over a period of 22 years in the middle of the 17th century, the project was a famine relief work, a la the MNREGA. Created in the memory of his beloved wife, Shah Jahan raised the scale of architectural creativity to perhaps any possible peak of human imagination. The invisibility and not the visibility of the monument seems to be its unique selling point; the details are designed to simply vanish into a transcendental whole. This is a Kantian concept of perfect aesthetics as the unity of faculty to the point of non-feeling. The Taj becomes this point of the nirvana; it seems to be always present. Imaged after his imagination of Heaven, the Taj is high frequency.
There is excitement about the Taj, tourists visiting galore this monument that recreates the image of Heaven most believably upon earth. Compare that to Sikandra, grand and silent, awaiting your worship, just like its occupant, Emperor Akbar in his eternal sleep. This is the tomb of the king, a tome to his memory for having been a great king. This is also the only mausoleum in which you can descend to the actual grave and not the dummy grave that we usually find in other tombs. Just about any and everyone can walk into the grave. This is a mausoleum which does not have an elaborate rampart. One enters through a doorway and then through a narrow passage sloping down into the tomb. The grave area is totally bare without a single etch of either the Quran or any decoration. It is designed like a mother’s womb, the passage being the vagina for here the dead Emperor is laid to rest again as an embryo waiting to be reborn. Akbar was a firm believer of rebirth, and in death he promises to be born again. This is a peopled grave; this is also a people’s grave. A khadim stands lighting incense sticks, some visitors go and bend over the grave touching their foreheads to the stone just as they would do for any Hindu deity. Akbar stood for the Hindus, giving the natives dignity of being the real owners of the land and that changed the morale of India, not a King over subjects, but a guardian for children rightfully born into entitlement of the land. That explains Sikandra, its sprawl into that of all-encompassing outstretched hands, gardens those house deer and peacocks, monkeys and parrots. Atop the mausoleum is a five storeyed construction of hanging balconies with canopies, these being insignia of the raj chhatri, literally the umbrella of the king. Akbar is an Emperor, born as one, dead as one, forever one. Sikandra is that song in stone that immortalizes a king who thought of protecting a land, preserving its past and promising its future. It is the grave of an Emperor who impersonated the country and its people, its history and destiny, its dharma in all possible dimensions of economy, polity, society, culture and religion.
My personal favourite is the Humayun’s tomb; simple and solid, grand because it is so simple. Yet it is not the tomb of a king; it is a tomb of a king who wanted to be a good man, it is the mausoleum of a sage like human, saintly and scholarly. This is the most unguarded tomb of all, one can just keep on one’s shoes and trample about the graves. This mausoleum has the greatest number of graves; in fact it is stuffed with graves. There are graves within the central hall, in the corner rooms, under the main portico and in the open on the plinth and on the base platform. The mausoleum is populated with the dead and yet it is very dead itself. It looks like a room left behind in death by a great scholar, the trees drooping heavy with its dark and shiny green canopy of branches and leaves look as if they are pouring over books in deep concentration. Unlike the Taj which is live, unlike the Sikandra which wants to be alive again, the Humayun tomb is life as it once used to be, as it was once lived, with its garden and the trees looking like impressions on cushions and back rests of chairs upon which the scholar used to once be; he no longer is but the impression of once where he sat is clearly marked out.