Friday, October 3, 2014

India Buying Trip September 2014. The Taj Mahal! By Bruce McLaren

India is a kaleidoscsopic treasure-trove of images and wonders. To think that our rug buying expeditions were all business and no play would be a little bit of a stretch. Take Agra, for example, a typical jumble of a place, a mere town by Indian standards, being home to a meagre million souls. just a few hundred miles south of Delhi. We go to Agra for work, some of the manufacturers we work with are there. But there is something else in Agra - the Taj Mahal.

The Taj Mahal is an instantly recognizable structure, and is probably the image that first springs to mind when anyone thinks of India. Many of those images will include the melancholic picture of a heart-crossed Princess Diana, sitting in reflective solitude, observing the Taj from a distance.

But beyond that, what do we know of the Taj Mahal?

First of all, there are different ways to see the Taj. This is how you think the Taj will look before you go to India. This is also how the Taj looks when you're off-chops on bhang or have a really expensive filter for your really expensive camera:


Second of all, there is the real Taj Mahal that you will actually see, crawling with thousands of tourists against a background of metallic silvery sky. To claim that India is all one great picture-postcard is dishonest. Air pollution around the big centers is a reality and it is no joke, believe you me. When you walk one block and your eyes start watering and your throat stings then you know something ain't right! Still, even in gray, there is no denying the allure of this architectural jewel:



Thirdly, you may just happen to be fortunate enough to arrive on one of the few clear mornings of the year when the sky is actually blue. Thus was the case for Cynthia when she visited last month. Nice photo Miss Cynthia!


Many marvel in a dazzled trance as they behold this product of the genius of man. But what exactly is the Taj Mahal? In this brief discoursus I shall explain...

In the world of architecture the Taj Mahal is considered the pinnacle of Mogul, or "Mughal" building, much as the Parthenon is considered the acme of Greek Temple building.

So, who were the Moguls, right? The Moguls derived their name from the term “Mongol” from where they inherit their ancestry. They claimed descent from both Chinngis Khan and Tamerlane, having been pushed south across the mountains from Central Asia, before heading east to India. As anyone who has been to Samarkand can attest, Central Asia had been decidedly Persianized, so when the Moguls came south they brought the same sensibilities with regards to the arts and architecture, and from this basis they developed their own refined style, perhaps best exhibited in the building of the Taj Mahal.

In the year 1526 AD the first Mogul Emperor, Babur, was victorious over the Hindus. From that year, until the British wrested control from them in 1857 AD these Muslim Turks ruled over the famous Mogul empire, spreading clean across the Indian sub-continent. Along with the contemporaneous Safavid Empire in Persia, and the Ottoman Empire in Turkey, the Mogul Empire comprised one of the “big three” Asiatic Empires of that age.

The Taj Mahal was not built for one of the Moguls, but, rather for a favorite Mogul wife. Yes, it was built for Mumtaz Mahal (“the most excellent in the palace”) as a mausoleum by the Mogul Emperor Shah Jahan during the 1600s. In an intriguing twist Shah Jahan was placed under house arrest by his own son, Aurengzeb, and spent his days watching the completion of the Taj from the confines of the Red Fort, located just a mile upstream. On his death he was buried inside the Taj next to Mumtaz.

View of the Taj Mahal from Agra Red Fort as Shah Jehan would have seen it
To sit in the Red Fort prison in Agra, really a palace, with a clear view down the river and to imagine the Shah doing the same thing really is one of those more profound experiences and it does fire the imagination. Poignant to say the least. To top it all off there is the story that Shah Jehan had also planned a matching in black marble for himself. It would have been built across the river and linked to the White Taj Mahal by a bridge in white and black marble. Imagine if that had happened!

The relationship between the Taj Mahal, the Red Fort and the Yamuna River, is is all best appreciated from the air.

The Taj with the Red Fort and Agra city upstream of the Yamuna River
Now one thing that is immediately apparent from the above aerial photo is that the gleaming white Taj Mahal does not in fact stand all alone. It is most immediately flanked by two mosques, each made out of a combination of marble and the red stone cut out of the river bank. And these three structures themselves are the focal point of a much larger compound of gardens and other buildings. Most people don't know this and think that the Taj stands alone. Not so. Here is a plan of the entire compound:

Complete Taj Compound

So let's start at the beginning....

Shah Jehan was a remarkable and passionate man who felt things deeply. The intense love he must have had for Mumtaz is clearly evident in his lifelong quest to build her a fitting memorial. And within the memorial itself is evidence of absolute obsession with symmetry.

The compound is a walled area, the only open flank being the side facing the river. Along the crennelated walls are small watch-houses known as chattris. The main building in the wall circuit is the ornamental gate, seen pictured here below, a splendid building with rows of onion-domes lining the roof.


Cynthia and Doug (Doug in Indian tourist disguise)



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Here at the gate we encounter many of the architectural motifs commonly seen inside the compound. First of all, the shapes of the arches mirror those of the Taj itself, once more, the question of symmetry becomes apparent. Here too, as we can see in this closeup, there is an extravagant use of marble. The gate is mostly marble, but a multifarious amount of precious and semi-precious stones were also used in construction. In the spandrels above the arch is inlaid Jali mosaic depicting curvilinear vines, flowers and fruit, with carnelian, different colored agates, lapis, bloodstone and chalcedony. This signature design is seen throughout Mogul architecture and has a clean, open feel to it. 

Framing the arch are lines of calligraphy, all from the Quran. Finally, within the arch is a splendid play of geometric angles and recesses. How it was all put together is way beyond me!

Jali is also a term used to describe the finely carved geometric marble screens - another hallmark of Mogul architecture.

Example of both Jali inlay and Jali carving
To get to the gate one must pass an oval garden and some outlying buildings. But once you get there and look through the entrance then this is the first thing you see! The Taj Mahal franed by the gate. When you see this in real life, you will carry that profound impression with you for all your days.


Once you get through the gate and are faced directly by the actual Taj Mahal, then you can get an idea of the emphasis placed on symmetry by Shah Jehan. First there is a reflective pool running in a dead-straight line from the gate to the Taj, emphatically drawing your attention to the wonder ahead.

But if you pause a moment and try not to act like the sheep that flock straight to the Taj as if in a race of life and death, and look around, you will notice many things. Let's take another look at the plan, this time from directly overhead.


From overhead it is clear that every attempt at balance has been made in the planning of the compound. Take the gardens, which are 300 meters on each side, divided into quarters, each with a series of four sunken gardens. The plan is entirely consistent and is known as charbagh, a concept of garden design that first developed in Persia but was taken to an apex by the Moguls. It is an interesting concept with religious overtones. One only need look in the Quran to read the descriptions of paradise as being akin to a garden with flowing sluices of water and honey. The four flowing rivers of paradise are represented here, and it is of no small interest either that the term "paradise" comes from the Persian "paridaeza" for "walled garden". And in another intriguing twist this is a favored motif in Persian Baktiari rugs...

Here is such an example. I'll sell it to you, yes?
If you venture into the gardens, away from the tourist thoroughfare, you can find yourself quite alone...a remarkable feat in itself in India.

View of the Taj from within the gardens

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Back to the overall plan. The waterways are flanked by flowerbeds and tree-lined arcades. Half-way down are matching pavillions. And at the far end are two major structures flanking the Taj itself. These are often referred to as the mosques but in truth only one of them is a mosque. The giveaway is the mihrab in the southern building which was used for prayers to Mecca, along with black marble prayer positions inlaid into the floor. This mosque itself is very similar in design and concept to the grand Juma Mosque in Delhi, also built by Shah Jehan. The corresponding building on the north side of the Taj was purely meant for the purpose of balance, but was probably used as some sort of meeting house.

Make no mistake, these buildings are but a touch on the Taj itself, but perhaps that contrast was always in the mind of Shah Jehan? They are still masterpieces which, without the Taj, would provide a destination for anyone with an interest in Mogul architecture. Why, just take a look at the effort made in the stone-carving and painting. The use of arches can make the light dance.





The Taj from inside the northern flanking building
Onwards and upwards to sunlit uplands! We now approach that holy of holies, the Taj Mahal. There has been so much written and said on this building that I won't go on and on about it, apart from providing concise comments on details and letting the videos give you a sense of actually walking around.

Miss Cynthia on the Taj platform
The following video illustrates this stage of arriving at the Taj:

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The white marble Taj on the red stone plinth

Looking back to the gatehouse from the Taj platform
The Taj exterior is a work of beauty that commands attention. Transcending all, seeming to float, airily, eggshell-thin, is the onion dome with lotus design on the very top.


Below, in the spandrels above the arch, and on all sides, is every manner of Jali inlay and inlaid calligraphy. Four minarets sit on each corner point of the Taj platform.



No expense had been spared. Reputedly 100 elephants were used to carry the precious stones used in the inlay. The project almost bankrupted the empire. Observe some off these random details on inlay and stone-cutting.







One ascends white marble steps to the white marble platform on which the white marble Taj was built. As you can tell there is a lot fo white marble. Brung sunglasses! The only reason it looks so uncrowded and kindly lit is I was there early in the morning before the rush and the heat. This is what it looks like once you are up on the platform.


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Once you walk to the fathest edge of the platform you find youself overlooking the banks of the River. Upstream is the Red Fort of Agra where poor old Shah Jehan looked at the completion of his lover's tomb under house arrest by his own son. But this is no place to linger. There are monkeys about and monkeys in India are no joke. They are big and if you show them your teeth they come at you hard and fast and try to bite you and then God only knows what you'll die of...



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So retreat to the center piece of the whole - the mausoleum - simplicity and beauty and symmetry all taken to a new height. The cenotaphs of Shah Jehan and "most excellent" Mahal....

Lovers Rest
Floor plan of the mausoleum