And so, at last, we reach India’s most famous monument, star of cheesy tourist adverts and symbol of romantic love (with a side-order of polygamy).
I was both looking forward to visiting and dreadfully worried that I would be disappointed, unable to enjoy the place’s undoubted beauty amidst the massed ranks of milling tourists and tightly timetabled coach parties. At least the crowds are wonderfully colourful, as they usually are in India.
The Taj Mahal is was built by Emperor Shah Jahan in the mid-seventeenth century as a mausoleum to his much-loved third and principal wife, Mumtaz Mahal, who died giving birth to their fourteenth child.
It sits on the river, fronted by a large walled garden that is quartered by paths and water courses in the standard Mughal style, based on Persian gardens intended to invoke a vision of Paradise. But here the layout is unusual and differs from Humayun’s Tomb, for instance, by siting the mausoleum to one side rather than in the centre of the garden.
India is not taking any chances with its iconic monument and entry to the site involves serious security checks including bag searches (food, drink and a wide range of electronic devices are prohibited). The entrance is approached by four different queue lines: for Indians and foreigners, men and women separately.
Having declined to get up in time to see the place at dawn I nevertheless got there before the queues were very long, indeed foreign women seemed to be in the minority so I got in quick. My guide-book recommended staying all day to see the building under varying light effects, but the half litre bottle of water that is included with the foreigners’ ticket won’t really keep you going that long, so I stayed around four hours.
I am delighted to report that despite the high visitor numbers, the gardens are so large (and the regimented groups march up and down the centre paths only) that you can find a bench to yourself and sit and enjoy the experience, gazing upon the white marble edifice and reminding yourself that you in fact really at the Taj Mahal. It is very lovely too.
Close up, there is some fabulous inlay work and carving although the best work is inside where photography is prohibited. Artisans were brought from all over the empire, which reached as far as Iran, to work on its construction. The semi-precious stones for the inlay work came from even further afield.
In addition to the tomb itself, there are a number of subsidiary buildings, including a number of other tombs and two mirror image buildings that flank the Taj Mahal itself, by the river. One is mosque and the other is thought to have been a guesthouse. The latter could not also be a used as mosque as it faces the wrong way, but was necessary for architectural balance.
Lego themselves sell a fabulously large and expensive kit to build the Taj Mahal and it has been tackled by many other builders before me. My interpretation is necessarily a modest affair, but I think it works reasonably well.