This morning, at 6 am, without so much as a cup of coffee, we get on buses for the short ride from the hotel to the Taj Mahal. There are already a great many tourists rushing to the gate, but no waiting in queue. It is quite chilly and misty as we walk through the red sandstone fort walls and up the long approach to the Taj Mahal. It loooms pure white marble, serene and remote, through the dense mist, on an elevation at the end of a long alley of reflecting pools and green lawns. The impression is oddly light, despite its massive size, as if it had been laid lightly on its base. It is familiar, of course, from photos, but in reality you take it all in at once and realize that getting closer, penetrating inside, is not really necessary. It retains its mystery, its serenity, its inviolable purity, in spite of the tourists crawling over its base like ants over an elephant's legs.
Our tour guide explains that one of the two domed structures to each side of the Taj Majal is a mosque, and the other simply there for symmetry, a guiding principle of Mughal achitecture.Inside the monumnet and up close, the delicate, intricate inlay of tulips and poppies in semi-precious stones- cornelian, lapis lazuli, malachite- inlaid in the white marble looks like fine embroidery on white linen. The precision of the perfectly reproduced panels, the sheer work involved, is beyond imagination. "This strikes me as a very feminine building, " Bob, the tall retired psychiatrist in our group comments. We all know, of course, that the Taj Mahal was built by Shah Jihan as a memorial for his beloved wife Mumtaz when she died in her 14th childbirth.
Her body lies in a crypt under a marble mausoleum inside the building, where photography is not permitted. There are many violators, however, among tourists and Indians alike. Outside, everyone takes advantage of the photo op around "Diana's bench", including one woman who backs up too far and falls into the reflecting pool.
The Taj is a holy shrine to all Indian sects, our guide explains and is a romantic mecca for tourists, of course. But I did not experience it as either holy or romantic: rather a deep sense of peace, of eternity, of light; sad, in the way of all perfect beauty.