The Taj Mahal is indubitably one of the most famous, if not the most famous building in the entire world, and it is definitely India’s most popular tourist site. International travelers from all over the globe put this man-made wonder on the top of their Indian travel itinerary, and in much greater numbers, native Indians flock to Agra, the Taj Mahal’s home city, by the millions every year to have a look. A UNESCO World Heritage site, and declared one of the Seven Wonders of the World, the Taj Mahal attracts approximately seven to eight million visitors a year into its walls. Unlike most tourists, we cannot say that we were very interested in visiting the Taj Mahal, as we unabashedly have a phobia for tourist traps which are always overpriced and usually underwhelming at best. However, since we were in transition from our multi-week desert adventure in the state of Rajasthan back through Delhi in order to travel onward to our next destination in the state of Himachal Pradesh, we at least decided to consider the idea of making a quick stop in Agra to visit the Taj Mahal because it was quite literally on the way we needed to go. After multiple back and forth discussions about this potential side-excursion were had with each other as well as with various family members strongly in favor of us “not missing this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity”, we reluctantly purchased bus tickets to Agra to go and see what all the hype was about.
With a population of 1.5 million people, the city of Agra sprawls out on the surrounding flat land, and might seemingly be just-your-average Indian city were it not for the existence of the Taj Mahal.
I would be butchering history to try and relay the accurate details regarding the Taj Mahal’s coming into existence, however, the romantic charm of this building is significantly tied to its story, amplified by its striking beauty wherever it can be seen throughout the city. Thus, a gross oversimplification of the story of the Taj Mahal is provided here in order to fully appreciate why this building is so special beyond its appearance.
Basically, sometime in the 1600s, the really rich Mughal Emperor, Shah Jahan, had…a few wives…like most rulers did throughout time, but he was head-over-heels in love with his favorite wife, Mumtaz Mahal, whom he first met at age he 14. They were about to have their 14th child (that’s right), but due to health complications, Mumtaz Mahal died giving birth along with their unborn child. On her deathbed, Shah Jahan promised his wife that he would build her a mausoleum over her grave. After two years of mourning, and the labor of 22,000 workers over a twenty two year period, the magnificent white-marbled monument was completed for Shah Jahan’s wife. Ironically, one of Jahan’s sons eventually overthrew his own father, and Jahan was thrown into prison, where he would spend the rest of his days staring out his cell window at his beloved wife’s monument directly across the Yamuna River right until his own death. When he passed, Shah Jahan’s body was then placed in a tomb right next to his wife’s tomb below the familiar main dome. The Taj Mahal is thus the result of a bittersweet love story, and to many informed visitors, represents an iconic symbol of everlasting love between two souls.
Within the walls that surround the Taj Mahal, or seen from the right angle from countless rooftops throughout the city of Agra, the appearance of this mausoleum is most certainly an accurate representation of an extremely wealthy ruler’s genuine love for his wife. The detailed craftsmanship is something to marvel at, and the carefully carved lattice work, while better viewed up close, can be greatly appreciated even from a distance. What is perhaps most striking about the Taj Mahal is how glaringly large and white the building is compared to any other building in Agra. With four smaller domes and four pillars coupled with the main large dome in the middle, the Taj Mahal stands with an eloquent symmetry that pierces the city sky. Whether it is early morning, midday, or early evening, a glance at the Taj Mahal from anywhere it can be seen seems to slow time to a crawl, transporting the viewer to an era where the pace of life was slower.
Within the confines of the Taj Mahal’s walls, a picture taken from any angle is worthy of a postcard. The mausoleum was recently scrubbed inside and out, and its white marble walls gleam in the morning sun. The grounds of the Taj Mahal are completely spotless, and not so much as a gum wrapper can be found laying around the pavement or the grass. However, just outside the walls, the surrounding filth of the city of Agra is a sobering slap in the face and once again displays the polar contrast of beauty juxtaposed to ugliness that we have seen time and time again throughout India. From the Yamuna River, it is difficult to imagine that people not so long ago drank from these waters. As soon as the gaze moves from the Taj Mahal, piles of trash, mostly plastic, litters the shores of the riverbank and pollutes all the water. It is such a strange and sad site to see this perfect marble masterpiece rising above such sour sloppiness, and is a dirty reminder of the consequences of a rapidly industrializing revolution being thrust upon an already sorely overpopulated nation. Not that we have anything to brag about in the United States, but as the world’s largest consumers of all things consumed, far outstripping India which has more than quadruple our own population, we at least live under the spell of illusion, because we have dug holes and designated places to put the garbage into. Unlike our country, India does not have systems in place to manage their waste, so all of their trash ends up sprawled out over their land, floating in their waterways, or burned on their streets (including endless amounts of plastic!).
Agra is a perfect microcosm of the duality of the universe that we inhabit. Sometimes I wonder if technology is actually making the world a better place or simply making a much larger mess in a very short run. Either way, technology is a significant part of our story and will continue to march to the beat of the human spirit. Technology has allowed us to create architectural wonders such as the Taj Mahal, but it also comes with dire consequences which are are threatening to destroy our planet. I’ve seen articles published recently about a teenager who recently invented a simple but brilliant technology for picking up the millions of pounds of man-made waste that are now floating around in our oceans, and that technology is just now being put to the test. Upcycling is an innovative concept gaining traction which makes trash a building block for something else after its lifecycle is complete rather than ending up as pollution in our ecosystems. In the near term, recycling systems are becoming more efficient every year, and these systems are now being introduced in India. With growing awareness, effective education, and persistent action within their country, there is hope that one day India may be as clean outside of its national monuments as it is within.
We can only play our part to stop the destruction of consumerism by supporting policies and technologies to combat pollution and climate change, and perhaps inspire those closest to us to do the same. In the meantime, we continue to hope and intend that humans can learn to use technology in a manner that is symbiotic with our fragile environment which allows for precious life to thrive on our planet.