a love story that transcends time

As most of you know, memory alone is unreliable as a window to the past. It’s a good thing I jotted very brief notes to serve as a tool to bring old events into better focus. All these years I’d thought it was a Tuesday that we visited the Taj Mahal only to find the reflecting pool drained dry for routine cleaning. My notes tell me instead that it was Wednesday, the 26th of March in 1980.

Mark Twain is said to have remarked that the world is divided between two types of people: those who have seen the Taj Mahal and those who have not. I don’t know about that, but from the time I first heard the story of Shah Jahan and his favorite wife, Mumtaj, I hoped to someday see the famous monument. Said to have been built as a monument to his great love for her after she died, from my point of view–admittedly skewed by a modern feminist mindset–he must have felt a great deal of guilt for her early death.

Consider. The two met in the market when they were 14 or15 years old, were soon betrothed in the manner of the day,  and married when they were around 20. They were married a total of 19 years and had 14 children, six of which died. Still, 14 children in 19 years is a lot of years of being pregnant. In fact, my math tells me she was NOT pregnant for only 8½ years of that time, assuming all pregnancies endured for all 9 months. During that whole time, according to scholars of the Mughal Dynasty, the Shah dragged her along with him throughout his earlier military campaigns and subsequent rebellion of his father regardless of health, so when she died at age 39, from complications after the birth of child number 14, well, no wonder!

For his part, it was said the Shah died in spirit the day she did, and he apparently closed himself up in a room after her death and mourned her intensely for a year. When he finally came out, according to the rumors, his hair had turned white. So he commenced to build the Taj Mahal, with surrounding gardens  laid out as the paradise described in the Quran and when it was completed he had plans to start an identical all black version of the same building across from the river flowing behind it. For whatever reason, it never came to fruition. Perhaps he was able to distract himself after all, with his several other wives (Mumtaj was only his 3rd) and the several more he married after the death of Mumtaj. To be fair, he did survive for another thirty-some years afterward.

Notice the calligraphic inscribed panels surrounding the arched doorway of the Grand Entrance Gate below and I apologize you can’t better see the script because of the photo quallity. The panels are written in slightly larger script as they go higher to reduce the skewing effect when viewed from below. This intrigued me then, and still does. Imagine, if you will, after walking through this none-too-shabby grand entry gate below . . .
and on the other side, a breath taking omygorgeous moment with this as your focus (below). The city this famous Mosque lies in, Agra, is quite polluted and dirty and many wonder how many years more the monument can stand up to the rigors of both time and pollution. The picture of the gate above, taken 30 years previous and perhaps in a less polluted time, the sun manages to find its way through. Just a thought.

I was slightly disappointed–beyond the fact that it was dry that day in 1980 when I was there–that the reflecting pool, seen here (above) in a photograph taken in May this year by my daughter’s S.O., Benjamin Jacob’s Flickr page. (Thanks, Ben, for letting me use it and the beautiful gem detail one below!) All the pictures I’d ever seen showed the pool to be as wide as the whole monument. In an ah ha moment, I finally realized those pictures were taken with a wide-angle lens.

The detail below shows the variety of  inlays of precious gems such as amethyst, lapis lazuli, and sapphire in the sumptuous marble structures throughout the  monument .

While we wandered about the marbled floors, there were voices echoing about the halls chanting allahu akbar, which means something like God is great. As a tourist, it’s easy enough to forget that the Taj Mahal is a Mausoleum. On our train from Delhi, the Taj Express, we were sitting in the same car as several Muslim mullahs. They were very friendly with us and Hubby chatted with them in Hindi and they remarked how fluently he spoke in Urdu. Later on I was very surprised to see those same men playing music inside the Taj. That night on our way back to Delhi on the same train, there they were again.

The best love stories are those that mix up great romantic drama with even greater tragedy. To finish up the story of Shah Jahan and his beautiful Mumtaj, unrest and upheavals often proceed through generations, rich and poor alike. As he began to fall ill as an old man, his four sons struggled through a bloody power struggle to determine who would take over the throne. Three died, leaving number four, Ourangzeb, the victor. I have no idea why he was such a bad boy, but he imprisoned his father in a fort in Agra for the next eight years, where he lived out the remainder of his life a broken old man. Luckily for Jahan, however, he was able to look out his window at the beautiful monument that he built for his wife. Perhaps Ourangzeb did have a heart after all. When his father died in 1666 at age 74, his body was placed in a boat and rowed down the river Yamuna (the one that flows by the Taj Mahal), where he was buried next to his beloved wife.

The main chamber houses the false tombs of Mumtaj Mahal and Shah Jahan; the actual graves are at a lower level. When we were there in 1980, if you were of stout heart and fine foot, you could take a small candle and climb down to see the real things with your own two eyes by the light from the candles of you and your fellow trekkers. The stairs were narrow and worn unevenly–I tried but gave up quickly–and it got darker the further downward you went, and I decided it wasn’t worth my children growing up without their mother. Hubby did manage to get there though, while I waited upstairs with our two daughters. From what my family tells me about their recent visit there (in May), going down to the bottom is no longer an option.

It’s probably true that the Taj Mahal or its like, will never be duplicated. Who would have the money nowadays? Who would have the ability to plan such? And consider this particularly colorful rumor about how Shah Jahan summoned the architect of the Taj Mahal, ostensibly to reward him for a job well done. He then proceeded to have the architect’s hands cut off so that he would never be able to build a more beautiful building. That Shah Johan! Complex guy, wasn’t he?

My Next India 1980 retrospect post will conclude the Taj tour with stories and pictures from the not quite so famous but no less interesting Agra Fort and the city that Shah Jahan’s father Akbar built, Fatehpur Sikri. Meantime, cross your fingers that I find the photographs to go with it.

15 thoughts on “a love story that transcends time

  1. Thank you!!!! The Taj Mahal and its story captured my imagination when I was a 3rd grader and saw a picture of it in my social studies book! I await the next installment with bated breath!!!!

    • I hope so. As G will tell you, there are many things left out of this retrospection–the sad things tourists can do little about. It’ll be interesting to see how, or if, things have changed in that respect.

  2. Isn’t there a long tradition of sons imprisoning their royal fathers? Think Shakespeare and, of course, Oedipus. Thanks for the lovely story and pictures. I wish I could go with you.

  3. Hi there,
    Wow, I never knew those details of the story. Thanks for starting my day out with a fascinating tale.


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