Madness Beyond Marble
Agra for me, is a place of madness. First it’s maddening just getting there. Then, vendors and touts accost you at every step – driving you quite crazy. But mainly, Agra is a place of madness because of its history and legends.
The Taj Mahal forces you to understand “madness” and “reason” and how they may function in absolute tandem. On one hand, the Taj is a magnificent feat of human architectural achievement – perfect in geometry and symmetry. On the other, to have come up with a proposition like the Taj, is the epitome of rash, impulsive aspirations and the excesses of life.
Shah Jahan built the Taj at a point in time when the Mughal Empire couldn’t really afford such grand spending. It took twenty-two years and the combined labour of over twenty thousand master craftsmen to erect this tomb. He had it built as an immortal testament of his love, for he truly loved his Begum. He called her Mumtaz Mahal (the Distinguished of the Palace). Anjuman Banu (her real name) bore him fourteen children in eighteen years and died at just 39, during childbirth. Thus goes the legendary story of love.
Rabindranath Tagore has exalted the Taj calling it a “teardrop to glisten spotlessly on the cheek of time.” Others are often disappointed with Agra and the Taj. Aldous Huxley, found it gaudy and wondered, “I am always uncomfortable when I find myself unable to admire something which all the rest of the world admires. Is it the world’s taste that is bad, or is it mine?” Considering where Huxley was coming from, his judgement wasn’t unexpected – British pragmatism and logical positivism did not see beauty different from utility.
The first time I visited the Taj, like other tourists, I missed the point and returned within a day with a miniature marble Taj purchased from haggling touts. Then, pouring through history books, I discovered that Agra wasn’t just about the Taj or Shah Jahan, it’s also about Babur. And about Akbar’s new found capital at Fatehpur Sikri, and the Agra Fort. I went to Agra again, for more than the Taj. For the history and glory that pervades every monument and space. I went to figure out what happened before and after that famous love story.
The Agra Fort I realised, should be a must-see on any traveller’s list, since most of the events which led to the construction of the Taj took place there. Also not to be missed are the Diwan-I-Am and Diwan-I-Khas.
Agra is also about the Mussaman Burj (the Octagonal Tower) where Shah Jahan died after seven years of imprisonment. Another great legend is built around this spot. Of Shah Jahan spending his last years gazing at the reflection of his wife’s tomb in a mirror. Contrary to this legend, some history books record that he hardly missed his wife at all. One travel guide goes so far to say “he was a lascivious old bastard and plenty of women were supplied to satisfy his desires.”
Exploring Jehangir’s palace is another Agra must-see. Akbar is said to have built this palace for his son. True to Akbar’s eclectic philosophy, the palace is an enticing blend of Hindu and Central Asian architectural styles. I particularly enjoyed the gentle serenity of the Itimad-ud-Daulah (pillar of government) on the opposite bank of the Yamuna. It’s sometimes called the “baby Taj” because of its size and is mostly ignored by tourists. Before and after Shah Jahan, there were other passionate rulers. The story of the Mughals begins with Zahir-ud-din Muhammed, who we know as Babur, the tiger. Babur’s contribution to Agra is the Ram Bagh, the earliest Mughal garden. It is argued that Babur was first buried here before being permanently interred in Kabul, Afghanistan.
In today’s Agra, I see one more issue of madness. Pollution and rising sulphur dioxide levels – over five times beyond the monument’s tolerable limits – slowly take their toll on this icon of India. It is madness to allow this to happen. While I appreciate the fact that it’s still there for me to get a glimpse of, it is maddening to think that time may be running out for this most wonderfully mad expression of love.