The domed mausoleum appears as wondrous as a fairy tale palace. The only visual backdrop is the sky. “The Taj Mahal has a quality of floating, an ethereal, dream-like quality,” says Preston. The bustling crowds and clicking cameras can detract from the serenity, but they also fill the complex with vitality and color. Walking around the back of the mausoleum, I stooped to take a photo of some rhesus monkeys. One jumped on my back before quickly bounding off.
The Taj Mahal is flanked on the west by a mosque, and on the east by the Mihman Khana, which was originally used as a guesthouse, and later, in the 18th and 19th centuries, as a banquet hall for British and Indian dignitaries. I found it a lovely place to escape the sun. A small boy in a black leather jacket claiming to be the son of a watchman at the Taj offered to take my picture standing under a large arched doorway, with the marble mausoleum in the background. I gave him my camera and he told me where to stand, changing the settings on my Canon and firing off photos like a pro. After that, he led me down some steps to a corner of the gardens shaded by trees to take what he called the “jungle shot,” with branches in the foreground and the white marble of the mausoleum behind. We found a chunk of carved stone, perhaps a discarded piece used in restoration work or a stone detached from the monument itself. (Three years ago, a seven-foot slab of red sandstone fell off the East gate.) Two soldiers approached, scolded the boy and shooed him away.
The first day I toured the complex, several hundred people were waiting in line to enter the mausoleum; I returned later in the week when the line was much shorter. Inside the main room, the richly engraved cenotaphs (empty memorial sarcophagi) of Mumtaz Mahal and Shah Jahan are located behind an elaborate jali, or marble screen. A second set of cenotaphs is located in a lower chamber, inaccessible to ordinary visitors. It is believed the emperor and his beloved wife are buried even more deeply in the earth. The cenotaphs, the marble screen and marble walls are decorated with exquisite floral patterns of colored stone and inlaid inscriptions from the Koran.
While the Taj is a testament to love, it also embodied the power of Shah Jahan himself. As the emperor’s historian wrote: “They laid the plan for a magnificent building and a dome of high foundation which for its loftiness will until the Day of Resurrection remain a memorial to the sky-reaching ambition of His Majesty...and its strength will represent the firmness of the intentions of its builder.”
Presumably, the end of time is still a long way off, but the Taj is slowly deteriorating now. Seen up close, the marble has yellow-orange stains in many places; some slabs have small holes where the stone has been eaten away; in a few places, chunks have fallen from the facade; my guide Brij and I even found a bit of recent graffiti on the white marble platform, where two visitors, Ramesh and Bittoo, had signed their names in red ink.
The sandstone of the terraces and walkways is particularly weathered. Where restoration work has been done, it sometimes appears sloppy. Workers have filled holes with a cement-like substance of a mismatched color. In at least one instance, it appears that someone stepped in the wet glop before it dried, leaving an indent the size and shape of a small shoe. The grouting in some of the gaps between marble slabs of the walls looks like the amateur work I’ve done in my bathroom.
For decades activists and lawyers have been waging a legal battle to save the Taj Mahal from what they believe is environmental degradation. M.C. Mehta, currently one of India’s best-known lawyers, has been at the forefront of that fight. I met him twice in New Delhi in a half-finished office with holes in the walls and wires dangling out.
“The monument gives glory to the city, and the city gives glory to the monument,” he tells me, exasperated that more has not been done to clean up Agra and the Yamuna River. “This has taken more than 25 years of my life. I say: ‘Don’t be so slow! If somebody is dying, you don’t wait.’”