To view the Taj Mahal far from the hawkers and crowds, I had hoped to approach it in a small boat on the Yamuna River, which flows in a wide arc along the rear of the majestic 17th-century tomb.
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My guide, a journalist and environmental activist named Brij Khandelwal, was skeptical. The river was low, he said; there may not be enough water to float a boat. But he was game. So one morning, we met in downtown Agra, a city of more than 1.4 million people, near a decaying sandstone arch called the Delhi Gate, and headed for the river, dodging vegetable carts and motorized rickshaws, kids and stray dogs. Sometimes drivers obeyed the traffic signals; other times they zoomed through red lights. We crossed the Jawahar Bridge, which spans the Yamuna, and made our way into a greener area, then took a turn where men and women were selling repaired saris on the side of the road. Eventually we arrived at a spot opposite the Taj. There we hoped to find a fisherman to take us across.
Next to a shrine to Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, a hero of India’s lower castes, the road dips down toward the Yamuna. But only a dry, dusty riverbed was to be seen, cordoned off by a fence and metal gate. We knew the river did flow, however weakly, perhaps 50 yards away. But soldiers manning a nearby post told us it was forbidden to pass any farther. Indian authorities were concerned about Muslim terrorists opposed to the Indian government who had threatened to blow up the Taj—ironic, given that it’s one of the world’s finest examples of Islamic-inspired architecture. We stood before a rusty coil of barbed wire, listening to chanting from the nearby shrine, trying to make out the glory of the Taj Mahal through the haze.
The Indian press has been filled with reports that the latest government efforts to control pollution around the Taj are failing and that the gorgeous white marble is deteriorating—a possible casualty of India’s booming population, rapid economic expansion and lax environmental regulations. Some local preservationists, echoing the concerns of R. Nath, an Indian historian who has written extensively about the Taj, warn that the edifice is in danger of sinking or even collapsing toward the river. They also complain that the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) has done slipshod repair work and call for fresh assessments of the structure’s foundations.
The criticisms are a measure of how important the complex is to India and the world, as a symbol of historical and cultural glory, and as an architectural marvel. It was constructed of brick covered with marble and sandstone, with elaborate inlays of precious and semiprecious stones. The designers and builders, in their unerring sense of form and symmetry, infused the entire 42-acre complex of buildings, gates, walls and gardens with unearthly grace. “It combines the great rationality of its design with an appeal to the senses,” says Ebba Koch, author of The Complete Taj Mahal, a careful study of the monument published in 2006. “It was created by fusing so many architectural traditions—Central Asian, Indian, Hindu and Islamic, Persian and European—it has universal appeal and can speak to the whole world.”
Part of the Taj Mahal’s beauty derives from the story the stones embody. Though a tomb for the dead, it is also a monument to love, built by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan, fifth in a line of rulers who had originally come as conquerors from the Central Asian steppes. The Mughals were the dominant power on the Indian subcontinent for much of the 16th to 18th centuries, and the empire reached its cultural zenith under Shah Jahan. He constructed the Taj (which means “crown,” and is also a form of the Persian word “chosen”) as a final resting place for his favorite wife, Arjumand Banu, better known as Mumtaz Mahal (Chosen One of the Palace). A court poet recorded the emperor’s despair at her death in 1631, at the age of 38, after giving birth to the couple’s 14th child: “The color of youth flew away from his cheeks; The flower of his countenance ceased blooming.” He wept so often “his tearful eyes sought help from spectacles.” To honor his wife, Shah Jahan decided to build a tomb so magnificent that it would be remembered throughout the ages.
For more than 15 years, he directed the construction of a complex of buildings and gardens that was meant to mirror the Islamic vision of Paradise. First he selected the perfect spot: it had to be tranquil, away from the bustle of Agra, even then a thriving commercial center. “You had many flimsy detached little houses where the locals lived and where, occasionally, sparks would fly out of cooking fires and catch the thatch in the roofs and set whole neighborhoods aflame,” says Diana Preston, author, with her husband, Michael, of Taj Mahal: Passion and Genius at the Heart of the Mughal Empire.
Near the river, where wealthy Mughals were building grand mansions, Shah Jahan acquired land from one of his vassals, the Raja of Amber. He could have simply seized it. But according to Islamic tradition, a woman who dies in childbirth is a martyr; her burial place is holy and must be acquired justly. Shah Jahan provided four properties in exchange.