The Taj Mahal

When I went to India the name Taj Mahal didn’t mean much to me, in fact, had anyone asked me what it was my answer would have been to the effect that it’s a famous building erected by a man in memory of his wife. I’m not even sure if I knew it was in India, but after I arrived in that country and looked around Bombay and Calcutta, there remained little doubt in my mind that it’s definitely Indian and that the Indians are very proud of it, for they make sure that it’s displayed in front of the visitors in all sorts of forms, worked in coloured beads on table cloths, inlaid in marble trinket boxes, painted on ornaments, in fact after walking around and bazaar or city one sees it in practically all forms imaginable.

Naturally it was not long before I felt I would like to see this building and after hearing glowing reports of it from some of my pals who had seen it, I decided to spend a leave in New Delhi, from where I could get to the Taj Mahal fairly easily. Going to Delhi involved a train journey of about 900 miles and that would be rather trying on British railways which are really de-luxe when compared with the dirty, uncomfortable trains which operate in India, but I decided it would be well worth it as there are plenty of temples, mosques, tombs and many other buildings of interest in Delhi, being the capital of the country.

I stayed in the same hostel there as two fellows from the same camp as me so we spent quite a lot of time together. We decided that we would attempt to get to the Taj Mahal and back in the same day contrary to many people’s belief that it was impossible as it is situated in Agra about 90 miles from the capital. We set off early one morning in a train which was running an hour late and arrived at Agra station about mid-day. Here a taxi driver approached us and, taking it for granted that we were going to the Taj, told us how much he would take us for, and that he would wait an hour then bring us back to the station. This seemed to suit us, although his price was a bit exorbitant, but as time was not on our side we hired him. Of course he guessed our circumstances and knew we didn’t have much option as we had to catch a train back at 4 o’clock and in any case the distance to the Taj from the station is about 2 miles and to walk that under the Indian sun would have just about spoilt our day out.

After quite a pleasant drive through countryside similar in many respects to that of this country, we arrived in a little village, the most important part of which was quite an elaborate building of red stone, inlaid with marble. This building is a masterpiece in itself, but is only the gateway to the Taj Mahal. There is a minaret on each of the 4 corners and in the centre is an arch through which the gateway passes.

I think at this point should tell you why the Taj Mahal was built. In 1629, the Emperor Shah Jehan was going to the Deccan to fight and, as was usual, his wife, Mumtaz Mahal, for whom he held the greatest affection, was travelling with him. In the camp one night she was taken ill and as she felt she was dying, made 2 requests of her husband. One was that he should not marry again and the other that her tomb should be built of such a style and pattern that its equal could not be found in the world. The Taj Mahal takes its name from this queen, as it means, Tomb of Mumtaz Mahal. The building was commenced in 1648 and reports say that 20,000 men worked on it for a period of 18 years. This is fairly feasible, as of course, there was no mechanical help and the huge pieces of marble had to be manhandled in to position. It is said that a road was built to the top of the building in order to get the material up there. A good many of there men were undoubtedly employed in transporting the material as bullock-cart, the only means available beside river transport, is painfully slow and many of the precious stones which go to form the inlaid mosaic work which must have taken most of the time, were brought from all parts of the world.

We mounted some stones steps and passed through the gateway which I described just now and in front of us was one of the most magnificent sights I have ever seen. Stretching away for 2 or 3 hundred yards was a garden through the centre of which ran a series of pools of water, and rising at the end, glistening white in the sunshine as though made of icing sugar, rose the Taj Mahal. As we approached it through the garden it seemed to change form its icing sugar state into a solid mass of marble. It is built on a terrace and after mounting the steps on to this, the first thing we were required to do was remove our shoes and leave them with an attendant. The outside of the building was very richly inlaid with gold and all sorts of precious stones, though unfortunately from time to time it has been looted and much of the inlaid work is now artificial. Around the huge entrance arch writing from the Koran (Mohammedan Bible) is inlaid with black stone, and as an example of the details into which the fine work goes, the writing gets slightly larger towards the top of the arch so that from the ground it all appears to be the same size.

As we entered the building a guide attached himself to us and he explained in parrot-like fashion some of the stones inlaid into the marble wall in the form of flowers. In the centre of the building stands an imitation tomb of the Emperess, and by the side that of the Emperor. There again the workmanship is unique. Surrounding these imitation tombs is built a marble screen each panel being one piece of marble about 5 ft square and delicately cut like lace. The original screen was gold but was removed for safe custody. The actual tombs themselves are immediately below the imitations in a kind of cellar where the only lighting is a hurricane lamp, These being the originals are profusely decorated with stones and jewels inlaid in such a manner as to make the most beautiful designs in flowers. I don’t think anyone could describe this building properly and I don’t think anyone knows how much it cost, but of this we can be certain – Emperor Shah Jehan spared nothing in order to fulfil his wife’s dying wish and don’t think even she could have visualised anything as exquisite as this.

When we returned on to the terrace, we climbed one of the 4 minarets which stand one at each corner. This was similar to climbing a lighthouse and from the top got a grand view of the surrounding country. At one side of the Taj Mahal, on the edge of the terrace, Shah Jehan built a large Mosque, but as this would have looked a bit odd, he put another building exactly the same at the other side of the Taj just in order that it should look symmetrical. Obviously there was no shortage of money, material or labour where Shah Jehan was concerned. Well, we collected our shoes and returned through the gardens to our taxi. The little village by the entrance derives its living from the Taj Mahal by selling souvenirs, photographs etc to the endless stream of visitors. We returned to Delhi that evening very satisfied, having seen one of the wonder of the world and certainly the most elaborate monument to affection.