Few sights exhaust superlatives quite as quickly as Taj Mahal. I finally made it to Agra
this year and my first glimpses of the world's most famous building lived up to the hype.
Your first view of the Taj Mahal will be a tease. As you walk towards the main gate, the Taj's enormous dome peers over the wall like a watchful ghost. Although it wasn't yet fully in sight, this perfectly symmetrical building looked so unreal I shivered seeing it for the first time.
Unless you turn up at dawn, you can expect a crowd of travellers fumbling for their cameras to be your next view. Tourists clog the entryway, eager for that first snapshot of the Taj, and who can blame them? It's not only the Taj's beauty that draws visitors, but the story of its inspiration
- Mughal emperor Shah Jahan's boundless love for his favourite wife Mumtaz.
Expect to be jostled through the entryway by sharp elbows and camera lenses longer than your forearm, but once past the threshold you're in the dramatically wide open space of the Taj Mahal grounds. The white marble dome looks like a mirage on the horizon, mesmerising enough to allow you to ignore the sea of tourists.
Now you're free to wander the charbagh (traditional Persian-style gardens) and contemplate the splendid symmetry of the world's most famous mausoleum. The finely manicured grounds are divided up by sunken baths and fountains, to evoke the lush Paradise of the Quran.
Lift your jaw from the floor for long enough to ponder on what you're seeing. The Taj is an intriguing blend of different architectural styles: the chief mosaic maker was from Delhi, the dome is a Turkish design, the Taj's calligraphy was perfected in the Syrian style and gems were inlaid by South Indian artists.
Quranic verses wind their way above the gateway and in a stroke of design virtuosity, the size of the inlaid characters increases the further up the wall you go, so they can be read from a distance.
Each of the four towers on each corner of the Taj is 40m tall. These gigantic constructions are working minarets, from which a muezzin can chant the Islamic call to prayer.
It took 20,000 pairs of hands to design and create the Taj Mahal, with no detail left unpolished. Gemstones are set so smoothly into the white marble that surfaces feel perfectly smooth.
Expert artists, marble workers and designers were summoned not only from across India, but from Persia, Syria and Uzbekistan to complete this master work. It took 21 years to complete, by which time a different political landscape was evolving. Shah Jahan, who built the Taj in memory of Mumtaz, would find his regent defeated in battle by his own son, Aurangzeb, who declared his father unfit to rule. Shah Jahan was imprisoned in Agra Fort, where he was able to live out his days gazing out at his beloved Taj.
And it's a sight that leaves visitors spellbound to this day. I was overwhelmed imagining the number of stoneworkers, artists and logicians who lent their craft to the creation of this world wonder. If you are lucky enough to visit, do their toil justice by taking your time to explore the grounds and drink in the Taj's beauty and complexity at your own pace.
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