India Report: 12 Takes On The Taj Mahal
At 8 p.m. Thursday night, J585 “Reporting on Religion” students landed in Delhi. Friday and Saturday were spent exploring the city—its wide tree-lined boulevards, packed street markets, colorful temples and desolate slums. At 6:30 a.m. on Sunday morning, we boarded a bus for Agra, home of the Taj Mahal. Excited yet wary, we wondered if the fabled monument would live up to our expectations, after all this was a wonder of the world that we knew all too well from postcards, movies and travel books. Here are the recollections of the visit.
Prof. Diane Winston
The Taj Mahal came into view and the cameras began snapping. The press of crowds tightened as scores stopped to line up the white domes shining in the distance. The clicking only increased as we edged closer. “Get the Taj over my right shoulder,” “Be sure you have the pools.” “Wait, I need one for my mom.”
We all want the Taj for our moms, ourselves and our Facebook.
What did tourists do before photos? How did they capture and possess what they could never own? Did Edwin Land’s camera catch on because it made the American dream obtainable for the masses? A photograph became the first step to the elusive get. If the thing itself remained out of reach, the photo made its image, now infused with its own reality, possess-able.
I have a bad reaction. I don’t want a mini-Taj made mine by virtue of my fat, smiling face. I’m not sure which of us would suffer more by the transaction. I focus on the monument, a paradox of ethereality cast in marble, a fitting tribute to a lost love, and wonder if my memory and a host of postcards will be enough to remind me of this moment. Unwilling to take the bet, I strike a pose, too.
Tourism can be a dirty word. And as we drove up to the Taj Mahal in our air-conditioned private bus to be swiftly escorted through the priority entry line, I definitely felt guilty of that offense.
We were, after all, a group of wealthy westerners swooping in for our snapshot of a beautiful place that some might consider a Disney paradise – disconnected from the real experience of the country and the people.
And, ostensibly, there is no better symbol of that disconnect than the Taj Mahal: a fabulous display of concentrated wealth by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan built on the backs of the poor. It took 20,000 workers more than 20 years to construct. It is a monument to gross inequality.
But once inside the site, I was refreshed to find myself in the minority as a westerner. The place was packed with Indian tourists – jostling for prime photo op real estate and moving in a seething mass towards the narrow entrance to the inner mausoleum.
Here, there was no priority entrance line, no real line at all. It was a tide of humanity surging through the door like a super organism through a birth canal.
This mausoleum, built by its creator as a private place of death, had been transformed into a public place of heaving life. As I was swept into the current of the crowd, I felt less like the privileged tourist having a rarefied experience and more like a fellow traveler, sharing in the magnificent patrimony of the Indian people.
In the last decade India has been lauded for its stable democracy, rapid economic expansion and religious and cultural pluralism. With regional neighbors grappling with unsteady regimes and sluggish economic growth, India’s strengths may be somewhat exaggerated thanks in part to America’s need for an ally in the region. What I saw during our visit to the Taj Mahal today captured so much of what our class has read, researched and grown to understand over the course of a semester—that India, for all its spectacular strides forward suffers from shortcomings of equal measure that deserves perhaps more attention than the booming economy or state of governance.
Toward the end of our visit to the Taj Mahal we stopped by Crafts of India, a store where handcrafted marble pieces were on sale for the modest-budgeted customers and the well heeled alike. Outside the air-conditioned store were two men on the ground working on marble pieces that would eventually end up on display in the store. With each group that passed, the owner proudly boasted that the two men slumped over their tools were 17th generation artisans whose ancestors worked on the construction of the Taj Mahal at some point between 1632 and 1653. On the assumption that this was in fact true, I was struck by the relationship these men had to the centuries old crown palace. A number of us snapped photos before heading inside to make our purchases. It wasn’t until our bus ride home that I recognized just how significant the jobs of these men were.
If the classic story of economics is that every generation does better than the one before it, the fact that over the span of 17 generations the men we saw working outside were doing work comparable to that of their distant relatives should have been alarming to us. Perhaps it was a choice to continue doing the artisan work. Perhaps there was honor in continuing the work of relatives who had helped created one of the world’s most breathtaking wonders. But that upon initial introduction none of us including myself were compelled to ask about the nature of their work and why there was an apparent absence of upward mobility is troubling to me as a student of journalism. Looking back, I am reminded of just how important it is to always engage with the meaning of what is taking place. What we observed before stepping foot into the store might very well have captured modern day India in that this country undergoing rapid progress and change still struggles to improve the opportunities and welfare of hundreds of millions. It was a moment lost on all of us that highlights how those who stand out in the field journalism are those who are able to stop and recognize that the seemingly humdrum taking place before them is actually a story hidden in plain view waiting to be told.
First the tour bus, then a smaller bus, a walk, a line that makes you feel like corralled cattle, and still the outer courtyard hides the Taj Mahal from view. But the first glimpse of the tomb is breathtaking. Streams of people around you slow to lift up their cameras and cell phones while passing through the inner gate, even if there will soon be better views. Hindu, Muslim, and secular Indians, dreadlocked tourists and journalism students all clamor for the best view in an attempt to capture that initial feeling of awe. What is it about a building that so inspires countless people of diverse backgrounds?
On our first day in India, Sohail Hashmi, a Muslim thinker, made a side remark that Hindu nationalists distinguish architecture as "Islamic" in their attempt to portray Islam as other. "If the dome was Islamic, what the hell is it doing at St. Peter's Basilica?" he countered.
I remembered this comment as I admired the high dome, cathedral-like windows, and gentle light entering through latticework inside the Muslim tomb. The full moon shining through the crystalline marble makes the place glow, our tour guide said. Certain elements—height, scale, light—imbue architecture with a sense of spirituality. Judging by the Taj Mahal's popularity, this spirituality seems to be universal.
I was horrified the first time I went to see the Mona Lisa. Or rather, I was horrified by the section of the portrait that I could see through the crooks of elbows in the crowd in front of me. At the time, I kept thinking, “This is it?”
Cultural critic Walter Benjamin, and later, art critic John Berger both made the point that modern means of reproduction have destroyed the authority of art. In the case of the Mona Lisa, I found this to be true. I had seen so many reproductions of the painting beforehand - ones that I could actually view without obstruction - that the real deal disappointed.
The Taj Mahal was different. Like the Mona Lisa and other famous landmarks, its image is ubiquitous in our culture. Its appearance has been replicated and reappropriated countless times. Despite that, in person it was surprisingly beautiful.
Our group tried to capture its presence with a continuous stream of photographs, but they’re sure to fall just short of true representation; Which is to say, at the Taj Mahal, I never once had my “This is it?” moment. I would venture to say that anyone who visits in person won’t either.
My first view of the Taj Mahal was across a dusty plane from the Agra Fort. Out of the haze its white mushroom caps emerge like a mirage. I hear the constant drone of honking horns on a roadway circling the fort and watch as buzzards swoop. From a balcony above the fort’s moat, which used to house alligators and other ominous creatures but which is now dry, I can just make out figures moving on the riverbed between the two monuments. Only scrubby bushes and leafless trees dot the landscape and the river seems to be receding.
I thought seeing the Taj would summon images of India’s past and awe at its grandiosity. But after our tour guide announces, “it used to be whiter,” I can only ponder India’s future. In a way, the undeveloped and neglected landscape surrounding the Taj Mahal provides a perfect example of the extremes one encounters in the country – from the slums to the 5-star hotels, from miles of dust and garbage to gleaming marble and semi-precious stones. I see before me what could be a developer’s dream, a riverside retreat steps from the Taj Mahal, but also evidence of another forgotten corner.
Later, after shuffling through snaking lines and crossing through an enormous archway, I finally see the mausoleum as it is meant to be viewed – from within its manicured compound and from the front so that its symmetry and heft have their full effect. I find a moment of peace and let the contrast of the azure sky and the blinding white marble dazzle me. Then I am pushed back into consciousness by the hordes around me and am reminded that India’s population is exploding, and on this warm Sunday there is just enough room for us all at the Taj Mahal.
I’m so glad nobody overhyped the Taj for me. In fact, most people tried to do the opposite. One of my best-traveled friends told me it wasn’t as pretty as Google Images had led her to believe. The sky is never that blue, she said. Several Indians warned me about the yellowing marble. Others mentioned the insane crowds. So I went in with somewhat muted excitement, thinking I’d have to fake a few “wows” and force my awe. That’s generally my reaction to most tourist attractions, now that I think about it.
But I didn’t have to fake anything — the Taj is truly magnificent. When I was in Edinburgh, my favorite place in the world, I remember waking up in the early dewy mornings and watching the sun rise over crumbling hilltop castles. That’s what it was like to walk through the gate and watch the Taj materialize in front of you — that feeling of being transported, if just for a second, to a distant time, when the construction of such a masterpiece was possible. What can you do but gape in wonder? As I tried to hold on to that feeling, to imagine that different world, the crowds disappeared, the sky shone brilliant blue, and the yellowing marble sparkled white as snow.
There it was, rising in the distance, its four famous minarets and iconic white dome sparkling in the sun and appearing larger — and even more magnificent — with each step.
From the inner gate, the Taj Mahal looks like it does in so many recognizable photographs: so symmetrical, so large. The sheer size of the structure and its surrounding grounds inspires awe. An entire small town could be constructed on its campus.
The anticipation to see it up close escalates from the gate, through the garden, down the fountain-lined mall, up the steps. Somewhere along the way, Sikander Kumar of Agra explains the structure holds the tombs of the emperor Shan Jahan and his wife Mumtaz Mahal. The tour guide also tells them it took 22 years to build and was finished in 1653, or 360 years ago next year. Thousands of artisans and builders completed the construction.
Standing inside the main chamber, it’s difficult to imagine the tools, scaffolding and means those craftsmen used and conditions under which they worked. But standing there, looking at the stone — the intricately carved white marble inlaid with onyx, lapis, jasper, jade, carnelian — it’s easy to understand bare hands touched each one.
There were the people who built the Taj Mahal. And there was the emperor who had it built. It’s difficult to imagine the wealth. But it’s easy to see what the Mughal ruler thought of himself and his wife, for whom the Taj Mahal is dedicated. Their final resting place is bigger — so much bigger — than the red sandstone mosque which frames one side of the mausoleum. The place where visitors can pay respects to them is bigger than the building where they can pay their respects to God.
My maiden visit to the Taj Mahal, the white marble mausoleum built by the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan, epitomized the ongoing theme of societal stratification that I’ve witnessed during my first few days in India. The place was absolutely packed – swarming with eager foreign tourists and Indian visitors from around the subcontinent – snapping photographs with cell phones at a feverish pace. It was more of a “let’s remember this day later” rather than a “be in the moment” type of experience.
Right before I entered the Taj Mahal’s East Gate, I witnessed a clear distinction between the haves and have-nots – different queues separated men holding regular and high-price tickets. The economic and social differences between the occupants of each line were glaring. And while the men were categorized by ticket price, women were divided by nationality. Money, it seems, can’t buy you out of your gender.
The stratification was evident yet again upon entering the mausoleum itself. Scores of Indian tourists stood on top of each other’s feet like a wrangled herd of cattle. For the deep-pocket patrons, it was straight to the entrance, bypassing the enormous line.
I understand that money, to put it bluntly, can buy just about anything. But in a country like India, with some of the most extreme examples of wealth disparity in the world, societal stratification truly infiltrates every facet of life. That was something I could not truly understand before my visit.
Laura J. Nelson
We've seen hundreds of photos of the Taj Mahal and heard the story dozens of times: a Mughal emperor built the most beautiful mausoleum in the world to honor his queen, who died in childbirth in 1631.
Standing on the balconies of Fort Agra to catch glimpses of the iconic onion domes was exciting. But no story, no photo, and no video can do justice to the building up close.
First seeing the tomb swim into view above the heads of thousands of tourists is a moment I'll never forget. What struck me as we approached was the astonishing delicacy of a structure made of hundreds of thousands of tons of marble. The domes and spires seemed to float on the afternoon's crisp blue sky.
"Someday, I want someone to love me this much," I said off-handedly to someone as we joined the queue to go inside.
The aggressive crowds waiting to see the tomb of Queen Mumtaz Mahal formed a stark contrast to the serenity of the building. Inside the cool darkness of the interior chamber, I found the wall's gemstone inlays fascinating. A man held a flashlight to the wall, and when he clicked it on, fragments of red, green and blue lit up under his light.
As we walked back toward our bus, I realized I may never come back to the Taj Mahal. I turned and peered over the heads of my classmates for a final glimpse of the white marble shimmering on the horizon.
“Indian women only” read the sign that caught my eye first. This was one of four signs segregating the masses as they prepared to enter the Taj Mahal grounds.
It surprised me that a growing industrial nation would still be separating women from men and locals from foreigners. However, these queues didn’t seem to bother the local Indian population.
After the security checkpoint and before walking into the Taj Mahal campus, there stands a large gateway entrance that is exquisite. On the red sandstone gateway, there are written 14 verses from the Quran referring to various themes of judgment.
Walking up to the Taj Mahal is definitely a surreal experience. From putting on the shoe slipcovers as a way to help protect the white marble flooring to pushing your way through the crowds to see the symbolic tomb—the multiple graves are located on a lower level—it feels as if you are struggling to get a glimpse of a centuries-old love story instead of visiting a mausoleum. The detail of the marble carvings and the designs that the precious stones make within the marble only add to the romance of the place.
Awestruck is an appropriate word to describe how it feels to see a monument widely recognized as "the jewel of Muslim art in India and one of the universally admired masterpieces of the world's heritage."