Sunday, September 30, 2007

The World's Jewel Box. The Taj Mahal


Surely, there can never be a more memorable experience than waking up and seeing the Taj Mahal before breakfast!

Today started at 3:30am when I was awoken by the call to prayer. Ordinarily, the first call to prayer takes place around 5am but because this is the month of Ramadan, there's an extra early morning call. Just my luck to be in a country where only 14% of the population is Muslim and my hotel is stone's throw away from the town mosque!

I had another two hours before I had to meet up with my guide so I rolled over and tried to catch some more sleep but I was way too excited to sleep so I tossed and turned for two hours.

I was in the lobby at 5:30am and there waiting for me was my guide, Hamid. My driver was not slated to arrive until 5:45a so Hamid and I spent the time going over the itinerary for the day. As usual, I had another packed day of sightseeing!

Birj, the driver, arrived on the dot at 5:45am and Hamid and I got in for the short 5 minute drive to the Taj Mahal complex. It was barely early morning so Birj had to drive with the headlights on. We got out of the car and took a short stroll through the Shah Jahan garden to reach the entry gate.

While Hamid went and purchased the tickets, I stood in line. In India, there are usually two lines at all the tourist spots - one for the "ladies" and the other for "gents". The reason is that you are wanded and frisked before you are allowed in so in the "ladies" line, there is a female police officer doing the task. As you see from the photo below, there is no one ahead of me in line. I was at the head of the queue!!

Hamid handed me my ticket and instructed me to enter without him as the men's line was much longer. The gate opened at 6am and as soon as the police woman waved her hand to signal I could enter, I scurried through the metal detector and lifted my arms to be frisked. Two seconds later and I was in. The next woman in line was yards behind me. You'll understand my need to rush on as you read on.

As I passed the entry gate, I caught sight of the dome of the Taj Mahal.

Even without Hamid to tell me where to go, I knew exactly where to head. As I neared the archway of the entrace gate, I could catch a glimpse of the Taj.

As I passed through the second archway, the Taj was in full view - a vision of beauty, bathed in light that signals the start of the day.


Since there was absolutely no one in front of me, I quickly snapped a few photos of me without throngs of people to obstruct the view - a rare opportunity to do so, to say the least.

The Taj Mahal as viewed through the archways of the two covered walkways that flank the entrance gate.
Yours truly, sitting on a bench in front of one of the landscaped grass areas that flank the main reflecting pool.

By now, a crowd was forming and so Hamid and I rushed towards the white marble platform that is situated halfway between the entrance gate and the Taj Mahal. There I took this iconic photo of the Taj Mahal. With the faint glow of pink from the early dawn and the calm waters of the reflecting pool in the foreground, the Taj Mahal is not only a vision of great beauty but also serenity.

With the crowds just steps behind us, Hamid and I hurried on. We continued our walk towards the Taj along the path in the east garden.

There is a huge portico that surrounds the entire Taj. Flanking the east and west sides are two guesthouses that, like the entrance gate, are constructed of red sandstone inlaid with white marble. As we stepped onto east portico, I caught glimpse of the sun beginning to rise over the horizon.


Looking west, I could still see the moon hanging in the sky.

With the sun rising, the white marble facade of the Taj was taking on a faint, pinkish hue.
Hamid and I headed for the entrance.

View of the front entrance gate from the portico.

At this point, we would ordinarily have to remove our shoes as is customary when entering all buildings of Muslim heritage but here they dispense paper shoe covers so I donned on mine and followed Hamid up the stairs leading to the entrance. Even the path walkway is inlaid with white marble!

As I reached the top of the stairs, I finally got to see a close up of the facade of the Taj Mahal. I could not believe my eyes. Stark white marble walls - sections of which were either carved or inlaid with semi-precious stones that include lapis lazuli, agate, onyx and malachite. Even what looks like metal lattice work is carved marble. Walls, ceilings, windows are all ornately decorated.

Looking at what remains today, it is hard to believe that originally the facade of the building was also decorated with precious stones including sapphires, emeralds, rubies and amethysts - which were all removed by looters long ago.

Me, sitting on the marble stoop in front of the entrance to the Taj Mahal.

Close up view of a wall panel - carved section on the bottom, inlaid section on the top.

Close up view of inlaid stone work.

View of panel, inscribed with passages from the Koran and carved lattice work. View of latticed window.
View of arched doorway.
I found myself looking up a lot as there was as much to be admired overhead as there was at eye level.

Hamid and I entered the Taj and interior was even more wonderous than the exterior. Unfortunately, photography was not permitted so there are no photos to post up but what I saw was incredible. The walls were also intricately carved with designs of flowers. The inlay work was far more intricate - with designs of the lotus flower a common theme. The room was dark and we needed a flashlight to view the walls and columns that surrounded the original marble cenotaph that housed the remains of Mumtaz Muhal, the Mughal Queen for whom the Taj Mahal was built.

As Hamid pressed the light of the flashlight up against the marble, I could see that it was translucent and the color of some of the inlaid stones glowed in the light - it was beauty beyond words. As Hamid talked about the artisans who worked on the Taj, all I could think of was just how wonderous this all was.

After a few minutes, we exited the room and Hamid left me to wander the grounds. I walked around the entire building, admiring the facade all along the way. At one point, I looked up and realized that even the white marble dome of the Taj Mahal is inlaid with semi precious stones!

Behind the Taj Mahal runs the Yamuna River. Across its banks from the Taj are the remains of the foundation of what would have been the "black Taj Mahal". Shah Jahan had plans to construct a similar monument for himself except that it would have been built entirely of black onyx instead of white marble.
I made my way to the East Guesthouse which, during Shah Jahan's time, served as accomodations for family and dignitaries visiting the site.

Both of the guesthouses are identical - both built of red sandstone, every inch of surface either intricately carved or inlaid with white marble.
View of the front entrance to the guesthouse.

View of the side entrance.
View of the adjoining tower as seen from inside the guesthouse.


View of arched doorway.
By now, my time was up - Hamid was waiting for me back at the entrance gate. I headed down the path in the East Garden.
As I neared where the raised marble platform is, I cut across and took a photo of one of the two red sandstonepavilions that are situated at the edge of the garden. I soon arrived back at the Entrance Gate where I took the photos that I did not have the chance to take when we were entering earlier on. The Entrance Gate is as spectacular as all the other structures on in the complex. Atop the front and back of the gate are twenty two cupoloas (eleven on each side) representing the twenty two years that it took to construct the Taj Mahal complex.The Entrance Gate is constructed of red sandstone and like the guesthouse, its facade is either carved or inlaid with white marble.
View of inset window, surrounded by carved and inlaid decoration.
Close up view of a wall of the Entrance Gate with inlaid marble and carved lattice window.

Close up view of carving.
It was only 7:30am but the main crush of visitors was heading in. I snapped this one last photo as I passed through the Entrance Gate on my way out.
Then, Hamid took one last photo of me in front of the Entrance Gate and then we retraced our steps back to the car. We headed back to the hotel where I grabbed breakfast and prepared for the rest of the day.When I started to post this entry, I had a hard time coming up with a single adjective to describe the Taj Mahal. Breathtaking, magnificent, majestic, spectacular, beautiful all sounded good but none seemed to really capture what I saw.....and then it hit me, Jewel Box. That's what the Taj Mahal is to me.....a jewel box and a treasure to be cherished by the world. I am so lucky to have been able to see it and I will never forget this day!!