In the next six months, the citizens of Agra, India, will celebrate the 350th birthday of the Taj Mahal. City officials expect millions of tourists to visit the site during the celebration. People will come to Agra, walk through the vaulted chambers of the mausoleum and depart unexpectedly changed — people like me.
In 1999, my wife, Allison, and I were traveling throughout India on a four-month backpacking trip in Asia. We spent several days in northern India at the Taj Mahal. Our time there left an indelible mark on me and spurred me to dedicate the next five years to writing "Beneath a Marble Sky," a novel based on the story behind the creation of the Taj Mahal.
By luck rather than design, we arrived at the mausoleum early and were the first visitors on the grounds. Stepping through the vast sandstone gate was like immersing myself in a photo. The Taj Mahal glistened in the light of dawn, glowing like a sculpted ember. The day was still; the only movement came from the birds wheeling about the tear-shaped dome.
At first glance, the Taj looked seamless to me, as though it had been hewn from a single piece of ivory. It was smooth and soaring, and I found it impossible to believe that human hands crafted it so long ago. In my many travels, I'd seen nothing like it. It wasn't boastful, like so many celebrated monuments. It didn't seek to intimidate, to define my thoughts. Instead, it seemed to invite creative interpretation. I thought it looked like the woman it was built to celebrate, abounding with smooth curves and grace.
I was only vaguely aware then of the remarkable story behind the mausoleum — that the emperor of India built it for his beloved wife, whom he called Taj Mahal. She died in childbirth, and as she departed, she asked him to build her something beautiful and to visit the site each year on their anniversary and light a candle.
Possession of only this tidbit of information was enough to make me walk faster, to move toward the spot where they lay beside each other. To know that a man created this treasure for his wife was inspiring. I had never experienced the depths of what his sorrow must have been as she died in his arms, but his passion for her was palpable and somehow infectious. I felt extremely alive.
As we drew closer to their tomb, ascending the vast white marble platform on which the main structure rested, I became aware of the millions of precious and semiprecious stones that adorned the walls. One doesn't see these works of art in the standard photos of the Taj. Lapis, jade, quartz, amber, emeralds and onyx, among others, are set into the white marble. Marvelously detailed arrangements of these polished and shaped stones form garlands of flowers, timeless and exquisite.
Standing at the base of the Taj Mahal, I was pulled back into time, away from stocks and skyscrapers and cyberspace. It was easy to imagine gnarled fingers lifting blocks of white marble, shaping and polishing the blocks until they were as smooth as an infant's belly. Patience must have existed then, for the flowers I studied, the minarets that rose like ivory sequoias above me, were masterpieces.
The Taj Mahal was designed to reflect the different moods of the day, and as the sun rose, the mausoleum whitened, almost as though the light were bleaching it. Though we were tempted to stand motionless, we moved toward the centerpiece of the structure, the tomb room. We were the first visitors inside the octagonally shaped room, accessed by eight arched doorways. The domed ceiling towered far above us. The room should have been dark, but the marble surrounding us seemed to glow, as if illuminated from within. The two vaults in the center of the room were inset with the most beautiful gatherings of jeweled flowers that I had seen — scarlet tulips and indigo fuchsias.
The tomb room was a place of echoes. Echoes of the past, certainly, but also of the present moment. The sound of footfalls lingered. The coos of unseen pigeons reverberated. I thought of the two lovers buried here, and questions arose within me. How had they lived and died? Why were their lives so celebrated in the East? When he sought to build her the most wondrous memorial the world had ever seen, did he have any inkling that people would visit his creation centuries after its completion? Did he know the Taj Mahal would come to symbolize the enormity of love?
A shared experience
As the day lengthened, travelers from many corners of the world began to appear. Few spoke. Most acted, as we did, so in awe of the surroundings that conversation seemed trivial, almost sacrilegious.
Strangers exchanged knowing smiles, as if we all shared a bond that rendered politics and differences temporarily obsolete.
And how could we not? I don't think anyone could have left that site unmoved or unchanged. One doesn't visit the Taj Mahal and walk away without feeling that the world is a better place than one thought.