Saturday, February 6, 2016

Agra and the Taj Mahal

Shah Jahan ruled during the early 1600s.  He had several wives, but was deeply in love with his third wife, Mumtaz Mahal.  He even accepted her counsel on affairs of state, something almost unheard of during this time of women forced into hiding from the world.  She died at age 40, after giving birth to her 14th child, and Jahan plunged into grief.  As she lay dying, she apparently asked that he never forget her and never stop loving her, and he decided to create the perfect mausoleum to show the world how deeply he had loved her.
  It took 20,000 men twenty-two years to build it.  He found the top craftsmen in their fields, including architects, stone masons, workers in precious gems.  By the end of the construction, only 7,000 remained, and they were not allowed to leave Agra, because the Shah didn't want them to work on something that might compete in quality to his palace.
   After it was completed, Jahan decided to build what he called a shadow palace - a similar building built out of black stone to contrast with the white of his wife's tomb.  At this point, his third son, presumable one by a different wife, imprisoned the Shah, in large part to prevent him from spending what remained of the family fortune, and he lived the remaining nine years of his life nearby,  in Agra's Red Fort, reportedly able to see the Taj Mahal from his rooms.  The third son wanted to rule and he killed his older brothers, but apparently he wasn't a good ruler, and the kingdom entered a decline.
  I wasn't sure what to expect, but the first view of the palace, seen through an archway, was stunning.
The building is known to be perfect in terms of its design and construction.  It has been well maintained, and so appears much as it did when it was first built.  You can see scaffolding on two of the towers.  Pollution is very bad in the area, thus the haze in the pictures, but the entire structure is cleaned once a year.  The four towers lean out slightly and this was done on purpose because the area is prone to earthquakes and this way if they fell, they would not land on the tomb.
   Jahan is buried here too, so this entire complex, 42 acres, I think, is a cemetery for two.  The actual tombs are below ground, but there are replicas at floor level in the center.  I couldn't take pictures inside, but the Shah's tomb is higher than his wife's.
   The work on the building is incredible.  I was most struck by the inlay work, precious stones set into marble.  The marble used came from 400 kilometers away, and is a special form of this stone that is non-porous, which is in large part why the palace is still in such perfect condition.

The inlay work is perfect, with no rough edges at all.  Gold and mirrors were used on the outside of the dome, and the best time to see the palace is at sundown, when the light is caught and reflected.
It is always crowded here, sometimes so much so that it's difficult to move about.  Above you see the line up to get inside.  We avoided the line, which made me uncomfortable, but we paid 750 rupees for our tickets, about $15, which the locals pay only 20 rupees.
  Everyone had to cover their shoes with paper booties, although many people preferred to enter barefoot.
At all of the historical monuments we visited, most of the people there were from this country.  Their history is important to them.  We had planned to see the house where Mohandas Gandhi lived and where he was assassinated, but our day here was on the anniversary of his death, and all the monuments relating to him were closed to the public.  Locals and dignitaries, though, were present to attend the special events organized to honour him.
   Here's another visitor.
  The parklands that make  up much of the surroundings are home to many animals and birds.  The chipmunks are especially cute.  They're a little larger than our chipmunks, and their tails are bushier.  And they're very quick, so I haven't been able to take a picture.
  This animal was not on the property, but was outside of one of the gates. 

A note on the pictures I am posting - we were strongly urged to never post photographs of women's faces on social media such as Facebook, because doing so can drastically change their lives, and not for the better.  If the men who know them see the pictures, they are angry at the women, wondering if they somehow invited this publicity and what it might suggest about their morality.  To westerners, this seems incredibly unfair, as it should be obvious to the men that the women had no say in whether their images were  taken or used in this way.  This is still a male-dominated culture, though, and disregarding this can only make things worse for women.  You'll see, as I continue my journey and write about it here, that in some areas we wear clothing that covers more of our bodies than we might wish in a hot climate, and in some areas, especially small villages, women use their shawls to cover their faces if men are present.  I believe in respecting the cultures of the places I visit, and so while I have taken many beautiful portraits of women here, I won't put them on the blog, unless I am given permission by the women..
  I have, however, wanted to show some of the beautiful clothing they wear, and so I will post some pictures of women's backs.

The image below is apparently one that everyone has taken, and so here is my version.

Our guide asked us for one word that told him our strongest impression of our visit here.  Many people used the word "love."  The entire complex is certainly an impression expression of one man's enduring love for a woman, and many people are swept up in its romance.  While I was impressed by the building's incredible beauty, and the artistry of its creators, my cynical side couldn't help wondering what could have been accomplished if the money and energy represented here had instead been used to improve life for the Shah's subjects.

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