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The Grandest Gesture of Love

Behold the world’s most famous and photographed monument to love. Taj Mahal, built in grief, is a testimony in marble of undying sentiments.

text TAN CHUI HUA ❘ Special thanks to INDIA TOURISM and paradise holidays

History is dotted with flares of grand romantic gestures. Cleopatra induced a cobra to bite her after the loss of Mark Anthony. Nothing short of a USD $60 million wedding affair would do for Vanisha Mittal.  An eternal record of unbridled love was created when Tom Cruise decided to jump on Oprah’s couch.

Melodramatic and histrionic they may be, such are the acts that make the history of romance. When it comes to this, really, there is a particular pristine marble marvel on the banks of Yamuna River in Agra that trumps all grand gestures to be The Grand Gesture of Love of all time.

The oft-heard story goes that Shah Jahan, emperor of the Mughal empire in India during the 17th century, was struck by grief when his beloved wife, Mumtaz Mahal, died during the birth of their 14th child in 1631.

Determined to enshrine her memory and remains, and his love for her, Shah Jahan commissioned a board of architects and thousands of artisans and craftsmen to undertake an ambitious construction in marble. The Taj Mahal finally unveiled in 1653 after a workforce of more than 20,000 workers laboured more than 20 years on
the monument.

What resulted did not let the emperor down. The beauty of the marble mausoleum proved to be so breathtaking that Shah Jahan himself penned, “The sight of this mansion creates sorrowing sighs and the sun and the moon shed tears from their eyes.” Today a UNESCO site, Taj Mahal is more than just an impressive mausoleum. It is a complex that comes complete with accompanying buildings and a pretty garden and pool.

Using elements from Persian and Mughal architecture and decorative arts, the architects had managed to create a stunning visual spectacle. Its most outstanding feature is the white marble. Gleaming pristine and pure, it seems that no other colour is as befitting for a monument to undying love.

Visit at different times of the day and the building changes hues accordingly. Daybreak washes the marble with pinks and violets while mid-day reveals a proud, ferocious white. At sunset, the mausoleum turns golden with the setting rays. If you should be so lucky, try to visit the site on full moon nights, when the buildings turn a fairy-tale silver.

A die-hard romantic would say of course that this reflects the aspects of love and how unchanging true love is, like the mausoleum, despite its changing looks through the day. Or one could ascribe it to a wise choice on the part of Shah Jahan.

The floral and abstract motifs covering the mausoleum are also some of the finest works you can find in India today.  Another thing to note would be the panels of calligraphy made of jasper inlaid in the white marble.

The complex may look delicate, but Taj Mahal is one tough lady. Through the centuries, it has weathered warfare, pollution and even bomb threats. For a period of time, thanks to industrial pollution, the Taj Mahal was fast turning an alarming yellow. After some years of rigorous cleaning-up, the monument has regained its looks once again.

Its beauty is at once a blessing and a curse. Tourists flock to pay homage to this grand work of love while art thieves have pretty much systematically stripped the mausoleum of its decorations of gold and precious gems. A visit to the site however, remains as inspiring and intriguing as ever, with its balanced feats of symmetry, delicate decorations, gleaming dome and of course, its story of an emperor’s love.

WHAT TO NOTE:

Planning to undertake a pilgrimage of love?
The Taj Mahal is located in Agra, India, a city that was once the seat of power for the Mughal rulers. While the mausoleum is the main reason anyone comes to Agra, the city itself has some offerings for the traveller as well.

Getting there

Taj Mahal is usually visited on a day trip from Delhi. You can take public buses or hire a car (approximately Rs 3,500) for the journey to Agra. Set aside four to five hours travelling each way. Alternatively, Kingfisher Airlines provides seasonal flights (1 hour) from Delhi to Agra. Check www.flykingfisher.com for details.

Best time to go

Winter, that is October to February. Unless you are a fan of sweltering summers. Bear in mind that Taj Mahal is closed every Friday.

Things to bring

Sunblock, lipbalm, moisturising lotions for the dry climate and your most romantic clothes to pose in at the monument.

The Red Fort is another distinctive monument in Agra.

What to do

Try to time your visit with full moon nights when the monument is open for night visits five nights a month. Tickets go on sale 24 hours in advance and there are only 400 tourists allowed per night. Note that security checks are stringent and the more things you bring, the longer the check, so travel light.

Besides dropping by the Taj Mahal, visit the Red Fort in Agra as well. Built in the 16th century, the fort has a pleasantly melancholic atmosphere and the red sandstone makes for dramatic photography.

Agra also has a number of pleasant historic gardens and temples that are worth a couple of days. Visit the Ram Bagh, a beautiful historic garden built by the first Mughal emperor Babur.

Another site to see is the heritage city Fatehpur Sikri, located some 40km outside Agra. The city was constructed in the 16th century and has numerous monuments featuring a blend of delicate Hindu and Islamic artistic styles.

Note that on top of entrance fees to attractions, all foreign tourists have to pay a levy of Rs 500 to the Agra Development Committee.

Where to stay

The area around Taj Mahal is awash with budget accommodation while the Oberoi in Agra stands out as the best splurge option. However, if you are visiting Taj Mahal on a day trip from Delhi, accommodation options are aplenty. Moolah not a problem? Then check into Aman Resorts’ latest city-based property, Aman New Delhi.

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