Romance and its price at the Taj Mahal

After a day exploring New Delhi, we dedicated today to a day trip to Agra to visit the much-anticipated Taj Mahal, the “baby” Taj that the Taj Mahal was modeled after, and the Agra Fort. Since the “high speed” Gatimaan Express train that takes only about an hour and half had now been in operation for a few years, we decided to use that to get to Agra to then meet our driver and guide at the Agra train station.

Our guide, Tushaar, recounted the famous story (and potential myth since it has various iterations) of the Taj Mahal. An emperor of the Mughal Empire in the mid-1600s, Shah Jahan, had three wives, two of whom he wed for political reasons, and one of whom he wed out of love, which was very revolutionary at the time. This favorite wife, Mumtaz Mahal, was a Persian princess who was extremely intelligent and beautiful, and oftentimes consulted him in major decisions he made. She even accompanied him in battles that he fought. She bore him over a dozen children, and unfortunately, died during giving birth to their fourteenth child. They often times talked about what he would do if she were to die, and he eventually told her while she was alive that he would have a great palace built to bury her, where he’d eventually join her. This eventually became a reality. The emperor was devastated that the love of his life had died so tragically and abruptly, so he followed through on his promise and commissioned to have built what would eventually be known as the Taj Mahal, or in Arabic, “the crown palace,” to be the mausoleum to house the remains of his favorite beloved wife.

Rumor has it that it took over 22 years and the labor of over 20,000 men to build this lavish palace, designed in shades of white, beige, grey, and purple marble, and inlaid with jewels on the interior and the exterior, both local (such as the shiny brown Star of India), and foreign (cousins of emeralds and rubies). The technique used to inlay the semi-precious gemstones is unique to the city of Agra, requiring hand-chiseling of the marble to them insert the unique shape of each unique, custom shaped gemstone. And because the emperor did not want the technique to be copied, since he wanted just one unique palace to be the memory of his beloved wife, he chopped the thumbs off of each of the 20,000 workers to ensure they’d never flee and build something similar elsewhere (other iterations of this story claim that he blinded each of them and performed other variations of torture, but this is what our guide told us). The estimated cost, in today’s dollars, for what it took to build this embodiment of undying love and marital devotion, is about $830 million USD. I wonder if that amount discounts the cheap or even free slave labor that Shah Jahan probably used to get this masterpiece done.

Like many works of art and architectural masterpieces, the Taj Mahal is so much more in person than it is in photographs or textbooks. In photos, it looks very bright white, but in person, if you look closely at the minarets, the domes, and the walls, the marble ranges in color from white to beige to grey to even subtle shades of purple. And if our guide never pointed out the gem inlays and the method used to create this type of art, I probably would never have thought much of it and would think it was mass created. The technique employed to inlay the gems is so painstaking and takes years of studying and practice to get correct. After we walked through the grounds of the Taj, our guide took us to one of the family-owned businesses that still uses this same technique to make crafts such as framed marble inlays, tables, jewelry boxes, and table tops. I tried to chip away at the marble myself for a few minutes, but the workers got worried that I was ruining their work, so they immediately took the pointed instrument away from me. The method is called parchin kari (literally meaning “inlay” or “driven-in work”), a decorative art that uses cut and fitted, highly polished colored stones to create images. The stones are glued one by one, and stability is achieved by grooving the undersides of the stones so that they interlocked like a jigsaw puzzle. It’s hard to imagine anyone back in the U.S. being this devoted to a craft to learn a technique as intense and difficult as this one. You truly have to love this to do this.

The Taj is so grand and awe-inspiring, and it’s a romantic, sweet thought to think that a man was inspired to have this built in honor of his wife. Although, I do think at the same time it may have been even more romantic if he chose to have it built as a place to live with his wife while she were still alive, especially given that she bore him so many children. The other thought I have is that although he may have done this out of “love,” a lot of sweat, toil, and literal blood went into this, given that 20,000 men worked day in and out to have this built (and even got blinded or had their fingers chopped off after – what a reward!), and if we factored in real wage living costs into this, $830 million USD may actually be just a fraction of what this palace is truly worth. That is a chilling thought. People’s livelihoods changed all because of a crazy emperor’s obsession over the death of his wife, so everyone else has to “pay” for her death.

I don’t usually say I have favorites, but since I’ve been wanting to see this building since high school when I studied art history (and of course, because the U.S. is racist, and Advanced Placement Art History completely skips over all of Asia in favor of Western European and American art, I had to read about the Taj Mahal and Persian art in general on my own), I can honestly say that this really blew me away and is one of my all-time favorite buildings I’ve ever seen, next to Falling Water, the Frank Lloyd Wright home in Pennsylvania, and the Hearst Castle in San Simeon, California. It inspires me to want to see even more Persian art… how can I get there?

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