India: In the name of love

By Catherine Masters

No one can resist the spell of the magnificent Taj Mahal, writes Catherine Masters.

The real Taj Mahal in Agra, India. Photo / Greg Bowker
The real Taj Mahal in Agra, India. Photo / Greg Bowker

Before we were awed by the real thing, we were astonished by the world's biggest replica of the real thing, which is in the same city.

The hefty 3m white marble structure rose on a hydraulic lift through the stage floor at the Kalakriti cultural and convention centre in Agra, India.

This Taj Mahal was showered in a light display at the end of a rather dramatic song and dance re-enactment of the affair of the heart which had led to one of the world's most famous buildings being built in the first place.

Dancing girls spun around the stage in an impressive outlay of exuberance and costume changes but the great Mughal emperor Shah Jehan came over as a bit mad. His heart was rent asunder when his wife, the exquisite Mumtaz Mahal, died while giving birth to their 14th child.

The replica Taj took 10 years to make, is studded with semi-precious stones, and is perfectly scaled.

We saw the real thing, which took 22 years to build, early the next morning - at sunrise, which is when you get to see the Taj Mahal looking spectacular bathed in the early morning rays, although this building is incredible whatever the time of day.

First we stood around for quite a while in the queue labelled "high value ticket holders ladies" - note the 750 rupee ($17) high-value ticket price as opposed to the 20 rupees (50c) for locals - with the men in a similar, but separate, queue.

There was a ripple of excitement among the high-value ticket holders when a cheeky monkey climbed overhead in the trees.

"Don't look up or his morning evacuation might hit you in the eye," said Madan, our guide, from the other queue.

From Madan's serious face I concluded being shat in the eye by a monkey of a morning outside the Taj does happen.

When we were finally allowed inside as the dawn broke, silence reigned. It's one thing to see a photo of this glorious building, or even the replica, but there is nothing like the real thing.

There she looms, pure marble glowing in the gentle morning light and reflected in the waters of the pool where the famous image of Lady Di sitting forlornly was taken and where tourists queue to be photographed in the same spot.

The Taj Mahal is a mausoleum built to house Mumtaz Mahal's remains. Madan tells us the work, which began in 1631 and finished in 1653, was a turning point not only in the life of Shah Jehan but in the history of India, because at that time the Mughal empire started to decline.

Shah Jehan went mad with grief and to understand the beauty of the building you have to understand the beauty of its inspiration.

Mumtaz means "very delicate" and apparently she really was a stunning beauty, the third wife of this emperor who had eyes only for her.

They were always together. When he went off to suppress rebellion she went with him, although she was recognised by the people as being very kind and benevolent and would help them out without letting her husband know.

When she died she was with him on a military campaign and heavily pregnant.

She was not in good shape, however, and when she gave birth everyone else recognised she was doomed. But Shah Jehan refused to believe it.

Finally, he had no choice and the story goes that he held her hand and asked her what he could do for her and she asked for a beautiful monument by which to remember her.

So Shah Jehan opened up the royal treasury and devoted everything into building her the most beautiful monument ever seen, hiring thousands of artisans from throughout the world.

Aside from the of gold and precious stones, the design was amazing, too.

Because the building is by the River Yamuna, holes were made in the ground and teak inserted to strengthen the land.

The four minarets surrounding the building slant outward in case of earthquake, so they will fall away from the main building without damaging it.

The wealth used up by the build concerned Shah Jehan's son, Aurangzeb, so much that he decided his father was nuts and locked him up in the nearby Agra Fort, also well worth a visit. From his prison, Shah Jehan could look across at the Taj Mahal and when his eyesight faded he would look at its reflection in a concave mirror.

After he died, said Madan, his descendants were not successful rulers and within a few generations the British would rule India.

The Mughal empire was over but the Taj Mahal lives on.

Catherine Masters travelled the Golden Triangle with Insight Vacations and assistance from Singapore Airlines.

- NZ Herald

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