When I was a student at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland, we would make plans to travel during the summer vacation. Some ideas were pie in the sky, like crossing the Andes on horseback, but it was easy enough to pick up a month of paid work and save money for a foreign adventure. As far as I was concerned, India was the place to go: I spent one summer in Kashmir and Rajasthan, and another in the hills of Himachal.
One thing I never did, though, was to visit Agra. “Oh, but you must go to the Taj Mahal!” my friends would say. “It is so beautiful.” But out of some foolish obstinacy, I never did, ever—until last month. My sister was visiting Delhi, and she was aghast when I told her that I had never been there. “I have looked at photos,” I said.
This was deemed to be a feeble excuse, and so early one morning we set off along the clear, efficient expanse of the Yamuna Expressway, and before long we were on the outskirts of the city. My first impressions were not favourable: a squall of traffic and animals, billboards making unfeasible promises, and even a dreary block overselling itself as a ‘9 star hotel and restaurant’. Approaching the Taj, we had to run the gamut of bored police who were enforcing a surfeit of obscure rules. No guns, knives or explosives: fair enough. No ‘vegetable items’: I had not brought any vegetables. No books: but what if I wanted to sit in the charbagh and read Madame Bovary? No!
Then there was our tour guide. He was everything that you hope a guide will not be. We had booked him through one of Delhi’s best hotels, but he was an advertisement only for lewdness, insinuation and the tourist shops of Agra, where he said he would get us a very good price. I even had to stop him from draping an arm over my sister’s shoulders as we walked through the entrance to India’s most famous mausoleum. Yet despite all of this, the trip to the Taj Mahal was magical, and worth every minute we spent there: it truly is one of the most beautiful buildings in the world.
What lifts some architecture out of the ordinary, and into the dimensions of the sublime? There is no single answer. It is the way that the minarets, tipping outwards, make the Taj lift up towards the sky, as if this mass of white marble is floating. It is how the mausoleum appears, when you first approach it, to recede and then to shimmer towards you. It is the way the inlaid precious stones that form flowers and fruits are of slightly differing colours, giving the impression that you are looking at something in three dimension. It is the way that the flowing Arabic of the opening verses of the Quran is larger at the top of an arch, high above the ground, giving you the optical illusion that all the script is of the same size. It is how the carved marble jalis are so delicate that you feel you could push them aside with your hand.
To create something so remarkable requires immense knowledge of perspective, of design, of carving, of building, honed over time in lesser acts of construction. The Taj Mahal is a work of collective genius—think how many people must have toiled, and in what harsh conditions, almost five centuries ago, to make this building. My sister and I managed to give our lecherous guide the slip and drive back to Delhi, awed by a sense of wonder. It took me a long time to get to Agra, but I will certainly be returning for another visit.