EVERY GRAVE has a story. Not all have a history that’s grave, like Mumtaz Mahal’s.
Last month, I visited Taj Mahal for the second time in 12 years. And like the last time, I returned wondering why it carried the wonder-of-the-world tag.
In 1998, I had accompanied UP Tourism chief Ravindra Singh ahead of the Taj Mahotsav. This time, I took my mother, wife and sons along to see India’s tourism mascot.
The white-domed marble mausoleum where lies the body of Mughal emperor Shah Jahan’s most preferred begum stood there as ashen as ever. The brackish, smelly River Yamuna flowing past behind it appeared livelier.
Shah Jahan probably knew Yamuna – one of the Hindu Holy Trinity of rivers – would be among the dirtiest in the subcontinent. Dirty enough for his Taj Mahal to stand out in contrast and mesmerize the world!
I have always found the red sandstone Darwaza-e-Rauza, the gateway to the Taj Mahal complex, to possess more character and style than the centerpiece mausoleum. Ditto with the mosque and its jawab (the mirror-image ‘answer’ for architectural balance) flanking it.
You could perhaps give Taj Mahal the thumbs up for geometric design. But then, the Humayun’s Tomb complex in Delhi has more geometry, minus the landscaping of the former.
Taj Mahal is one of two Seven Wonders I have been to. The other is the Great Wall (on a conducted trip to China ahead of the 2008 Beijing Olympics).
The Great Wall, built between 220-206 BC by Qin Shi Huangdi (founder of the Chinese empire) and fortified later on by the Ming Dynasty, indeed is a wonder. The 5,500-mile defensive barrier – the stone and earthen fortifications measure 3890 km with trenches, hills and rivers in between – stands as a testimony to the determination, endurance and industriousness of the Chinese.
I am not a great fan of the country that makes cheap, fragile clones of almost everything on earth. I cannot be, unless Beijing gives up its juvenile claim on half the Northeast Indian region I call home.
But you don’t have to fly to China to find out Taj Mahal is less wondrous than the Great Wall. There are more intriguing man-made marvels in India to make the mausoleum paler.
Take the Brihadeshwara Temple at Thanjavur for instance. The world’s first complete granite temple built during the Chola reign, it has a 12 ft Kumbam whose shadow never falls anywhere other than its base.
If that’s not architecture worthy of being a wonder, what about the Musical Pillars of Meenakshi Amman Temple in Madurai? Modern science is yet to match those medieval, intricately carved pillars, each of which produces a different musical note when struck.
At Sivasagar in eastern Assam is the Talatal Ghar that Ahom king Rajeswar Singha had built. This seven-storey palace made of indigenous bricks and cement derives its name from three underground floors. The underground stories – sealed following a few mishaps – had two secret tunnels for use as escape routes in case of enemy attack.
Then there’s the Bara Imambara in Lucknow. Nawab Asaf-ud-Daula had it built in 1784 after choosing the design of architect Kifayatullah in a contest. The huge central chamber containing the tomb of Asaf-ud-Daula has no beams supporting the ceiling, and is arguably the world’s largest pillar-less arched construction.
Equally mind-boggling is the Bhulbhulaiya – a labyrinth of claustrophobic passageways interconnecting eight surrounding chambers through 489 identical doorways. This maze is impossible to get out of unless you have an experienced guide.
What makes the Bara Imambara more dignified than Taj Mahal is the humanitarian reason behind it. Asaf-ud-Daula had this Shia Muslim shrine built to ensure employment for his famine-struck subjects. He ordered the elites to demolish by night whatever the workers erected during the day to ensure they had a job and steady income for close to a decade!
The polygamist Shah Jahan, on the other hand, displayed his partiality to Mumtaz. He had his other wives buried under ordinary mausoleums outside the walls of the Taj complex. Even Mumtaz’s favourite maidservant earned a bigger, more ornate mausoleum (we can guess why).
Unlike Kifayatullah – he was buried within the Bara Imambara as a mark of honour – many of Taj Mahal’s architects and craftsmen were either reportedly killed or amputated lest they erected a similar or better structure elsewhere. Its chief architect, a Persian named Ustad Isa – some attribute Taj Mahal’s design to another Persian, Ahmad Lahauri – vanished into thin air, probably butchered by Shah Jahan’s executioners.
If I stray into Agra again, I will possibly skip Taj Mahal – a glamourised grave (not factoring in radical writer PN Oak’s claim that it actually is a Hindu temple named Tejo Mahalaya).
But if the world thinks the world about it, who am I to complain!