Dawn on a Saturday morning; the sun rises lazily from the east and timidly scatter flashes of light over the world, while the moon, which has not yet set entirely, stands out pale, almost invisible, against the background of a light blue sky.
We walk along an avenue, surrounded by monkeys that jump here and there; indolent yet sacred cows lazily graze undisturbed and unaware of their surroundings, feeding on grass or rubbish without distinction. Above all, we are surrounded by people, whose number will grow as the hours go by. People who, like us, make their way as if on a pilgrimage to the best-known temple of love which has ever been created by man on earth. One of the seven wonders of the modern world, the jewel of Muslim art in India, recognised by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site: the Taj Mahal.
We venture through queues and formalities, and pay an all too modest fee if compared to the show that awaits us. At first, the plastic shoe covers we must wear to access the inside of the mausoleum which, let’s not forget, is a Muslim building; then, a queue of people waiting, which we avoid thanks to the special ticket we purchased; and, finally, the usual crowd of those who define themselves as low-cost guides. They all promise unique explanations about the history and curiosities of this monument, and try to convince us by explaining the advantages we would get by making use of their services; and they would not let go as long as they think they have a thread of hope of capturing us. Boring, you may say; sure, but they’re doing a job, their job, and ultimately they are trying to make a living. India is also this.
We decline their offers as we are too keen on staying on our own like a rebellious drop in that sea of people. We follow the flow, channeling ourselves between a wall and a building made of red bricks, until we finally reach the west door from where, framed by the door itself, a white building can be glimpsed in the background, white and faded like the moon which has by now almost disappeared from the sky.
At a first glance, the Taj Mahal appears to me like an overexposed photo in which the lines, contours and details do not appear well defined. In fact, they say there is a deliberate optical illusion behind it, but I will not accept this explanation as it excludes the poetry factor. And the Taj Mahal is pure poetry.
It appears pale.
Pale like the face of that woman who slowly faded away in the pains of childbirth, and who wanted help from he who cannot give it to her, despite being an emperor. Because by then her fate was sealed.
Pale like the pain on the face of a husband in love and powerless, despite being an emperor, about the fate of this woman whose future would fade away with the first cry of her last child.
Pale like the marble color of death that would take possession of that creature’s lifeless body, to which only the devotion of a man, her man, would remain intact. He will immortalise its pallor in the white marbles of the Taj Mahal which at every dawn, like an overexposed photo, reminds the world of the pallor of a love that was extinguished forever.
He who visits Taj Mahal knows it. He knows of pain and devotion, and he lets himself go for a few seconds of recollection, abandoning himself, between a photo and a selfie, to a thought, to a memory and, why not, to a pinch of jealousy towards she who was able to enjoy even in her deathbed, in pain and suffering, the story of a love with no equals. And he knows of he, who lived this love crashed between the discouragement of an incipient loss and the problems of government and conspiracy by which he was pressed.
I get closer, and the outlines of this masterpiece become clearer. The pallor fades, the Taj Mahal appears in all its splendour, and I realise that no photo does it justice enough, because the Taj Mahal goes beyond any image and any imagination.
The engravings and the writings in Arabic, quotations from the holy Koran, admirably decorate the façade, adding further personality to it; the shape, which from a distance seems squared, is rediscovered, up close, to be octagonal; and the basin with the fountains (which at the time of our visit were turned off) is bordered by sidewalks, paths and trees which, like the guidelines of a photographic composition, draw attention to the monument.
Mumtaz Mahal, third and favorite wife of the Moghul, died in June 1631 and the construction work on the Taj Mahal began the following year and ended only in 1654. During these over twenty years, 20,000 workers and many craftsmen were employed, some of which coming from Europe and even one from Italy, a certain Geronimo Veroneo. Various materials from all over India and Asia were used, including 12,000 tons of white marble from Makrana, near Jodhpur, and 28 different types of precious and semi-precious stones set in the marble as a decorative motif of the entire structure, that was not even defined as a tomb since its name means ‘Crown of the Palace’.
When the Taj Mahal was completed, the life and reign of the then elderly Shah Jahan drew to a close, and in September 1657, when he fell ill, a succession struggle broke out between his four sons. The winner amongst them, Aurangzeb, declared himself emperor in 1658 and locked up his father in the Agra fort, from which he would continue to admire his masterpiece of love until his death in 1666.
During its 370 years of existence, the Taj Mahal has had to face risks of all kinds; nevertheless, it still presents itself to the world in a dazzling form thanks to the care of the Indian government and to the support of UNESCO. However, a sneaky new enemy has begun to undermine its integrity: pollution. Because of this, the white marble with which it is covered is turning yellow. Alongside the normal and periodic cleaning operations, the government has programmed a special treatment on the marble which however requires a great deal of economic resources. The authorities have approved preventive measures in order to curb costs, such as a law that prohibits the construction of polluting industries within a vast area around the Taj Mahal.
Nobody knows if the Taj Mahal will ever be able to overcome this challenge, showing that love can also win against pollution… because, as we know, good usually overcomes evil.
The Taj Mahal is located on the right bank of the Yamuna river, from which you can also enjoy a suggestive view of the mausoleum at sunset. It is in the Agra district in the state of Uttar Pradesh, about 220 kilometers from New Delhi. Agra can be reached with a 4-5 hours car journey, and it is also connected to the capital by a railway line.
Photos by Guglielmo Zanchi (Pluto)