The next stop in my journey was Agra, home of what’s likely the first image in your mind when you hear the name of ‘India’.
Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore called the Taj Majal “a teardrop on the cheek of eternity”, and in this romantic light it’s hard not to be swept up in the feelings of Shah Jahan for his favorite wife Mumtaz Mahal, rendered eternal in spotless white marble.
A more cynical viewing of the monument may find it still beautiful, but perhaps underwhelming from its familiarity. Unlike other Muslim architecture, the inside of the monument is rather austere, but that just adds to the timeless quality of the place. Perhaps I would choose Jaigarh or Amritsar’s Golden Temple as my most impressive Indian sights, but there’s no denying the iconic visage of India’s most famous edifice.
Shah Jahan is buried next to Mumtaz under that towering dome, but if he had had his way in life he would have lain across the Yamuna river in a identical tomb, but made entirely of black marble and connected to the Taj Mahal by a golden bridge. Across the river there is the garden where it would have stood, but bankruptcy and crown intrigue put rest to those plans. Too bad.
After the Taj Mahal, I took a mototaxi 45 minutes out to another World Heritage Site, Fatepurh Sikri. This is a large royal city whose heyday was 500 years ago. Now it’s a collection of beautiful Mughal and Arabic-inspired architecture, my favorite of which was the Panch Mahal, a five-story pillared structure with each successive story smaller than the last, culminating in a single room the emperor would sit in and survey his city form
The Diwan-I-Khas was also interesting, a small two-story building with an ornate central pillar supporting catwalks which radiated out from its top like spokes of a wheel.
Next to Fatepurh Sikri was the massive Jama Masjid, whose splendid Buland Darwaza (Victory Gate) it rises a staggering 550 meters from ground level. The mosque inside had multiple mihrabs, or smaller domes, combining Christian, Hindu, and Muslim architectural styles, apparently to appease the emperor’s many-faithed wives.
My last stop, right at twilight’s magic hour, was the Red Fort, at one point the most important in all of India, where Shah Jahan lived. It was very ornate, in the Muslim style of the area, and the contrast between its red sandstone and the white domes and green grass it housed was striking, as were the views of the Yamuna and Taj Mahal in the distance. I can only imagine the Red, White, and Black behemoths of Agra that would have existed if the Shah’s vision had become reality. If those plans weren’t symbol enough of his wealth and ambition, historical sources confirm that at one time he had a solid gold “justice cord” that reached from the top of the Red Fort to the river bank below, which common people could pull and seek audience with him to redress a wrong. What a guy.