Wednesday, November 26, 2008

The Taj Mahal – A Testament to Love

By Mark Danielson

It’s rare when I have a long enough layover to sightsee, but this trip gave me four days in Delhi, India. The cooler temperatures and dry weather made perfect conditions for visiting the Taj Mahal, and I booked a tour through the hotel.

I had been to India many times, but never before experienced it like this. What feels chaotic and mystifying to a Westerner, is harmonious to Indians. If there is one word that best describes this country, it is coexistence, for here, everything seems to blend despite all the complexities. People are free to worship any god, and there is a blending of cultural and religious traditions, that can be seen in all aspects of life. Horses, cattle, water buffalo, peacocks, parrots, dogs, monkeys, donkeys, and camels, all wander freely along the four lane road that’s packed with animal-drawn carts, motorcycles, cars, trucks, busses, motorized rickshaws, bicycles, and pedestrians. Painted lines mean nothing and accidents are commonplace. We passed two within three minutes of each other.

Our van comfortably held the seven of us – one German, two Czechs, one from France, a Brit, a Columbian, and myself, and all of us spoke English. Stops at Emperor Akbar’s mausoleum and Agra Fort preceded the highlight of our tour, the Taj Mahal. Space considerations force me to omit them from this article, but those stops were well worth it. Traveling with such a wonderful group made this trip memorable.

What is immediately apparent is that the concept of space varies between cultures. Westerners are used to having a huge amount of personal space, but in India, there is nothing like this. Pushing and shoving is the norm, and I literally received a back massage while standing in line at the Taj Mahal’s east entrance. Security is handled by Army personnel, most carrying big sticks as opposed to firearms. Army issue rifles are usually bolt action carbines, although I saw a few ancient semi-automatics, too. Since cattle are free to roam wherever they choose, they don’t require tickets.

Emperor Shah Jahan built the Taj Mahal for his wife, Mumtaz Mahal, who died while giving birth to their thirteenth child. It is thought that completion of the monument took twenty two years, with the main mausoleum completed in 1648. Constructed solely of white marble, it is considered the finest example of Mughal architecture, combining elements of Persian, Turkish, Indian and Islamic architectural elements. Shah Jahan, himself, dictated the use of white marble, with the incredibly delicate inlay of semi-precious stones. Workers used pencil-sized hand tools to etch the inlays, and those traditions and techniques have been passed from father to son for centuries.

With a similar crowd waiting to enter the Taj and a schedule to keep with the tour, I wasn’t able to enter the building, but that didn’t dampen my enthusiasm. I moved to inspect the exterior, which is perfect from every angle. The exterior decorations are considered to be among the finest in Mughal architecture. Under certain conditions, the tomb appears to be floating, an intentional illusion created by the monument’s primary architect, Ustad Ahmad Lahauri. The four minarets that frame the Taj were designed as working minarets, a traditional element of mosques. More than forty meters tall, the symmetrical minarets carry a two degree outward slope. Should they fall, they will fall away from the main tomb.

People-watching was fascinating. Many women were swirled in beautiful, embellished silks that contrasted brilliantly against the white marble. Here, families gathered to enjoy the day and captured family portraits against one of the world’s greatest monuments. Large school groups were well-mannered and happy. This truly is a place of joy and harmony.

Besides the crowded conditions, the only drawback is the air quality. People burn whatever they can find, so while their vehicles say they run on “clean burning fuel”, it hardly matters. Near Delhi, the smoky air was suffocating, even inside the van. Travelers with asthma should be warned to travel with their inhalers. From my vantage as a pilot, this pollution makes it very difficult to see the runway, especially during daylight. With the population reaching over a billion, and the lax environmental regulations, it is likely their air will get worse.

I was extremely fortunate to have such beautiful conditions for my trip. The Taj Mahal is not only an enduring monument to the beauty and intricacy of Mughal architecture, but it is a testament to love.


Beth Terrell said...

Amazing, Mark. What an incredible trip this must have been.

Mark W. Danielson said...

Sadly, a terrorist act recently occurred in Mumbai, but this should not be a reflection upon India's general polulation. Nearly all of the Indians whom I've come in contact with are genuine and friendly. Acts of terrorism should never dictate how we live our lives.

Mark W. Danielson said...

I wanted to add that I couldn't post from Shanghai due to Internet incompatibilities, so Lyne did the post for me. She was able to provide some additional details that I couldn't and I'm grateful. She is quite the world traveler herself, having lived in the mideast and visited India. She was a great co-author for this article, and deserves the credit.

Jean Henry Mead said...

An excellent article, Mark and Lynn, and beautiful photography.

Chester Campbell said...

Great article, Mark. I'd like to see the Taj Mahal but I think I'll have to pass on traveling to India. I was in Mexico City years ago and the polluted air was bad enough. I don't think I could take Delhi. I enjoy reading about your travels, though.

Anonymous said...

Loved the article and photos. I take it you left India before the terrorist attacks in Bombay? I've been glued to the news. I have such great memories of Bombay.

Mark W. Danielson said...

Pat, I left Delhi the day prior to the problems in Mumbai. Perhaps they changed its name because they didn't like the "bomb" in Bombay. (It's a joke. Admittedly not a good one, but a joke nonetheless.)

Thankfully, I'll miss India on next month's round the world journey.