In the world I grew up in, this white marble edifice that rose to seemingly float against a brilliant blue sky adorned calendar images in every other kirana store. Its miniature versions in marble alabaster and soap stone sat on dusty shelves and pristine mantelpieces in homes all over the world. Ustad Vilayat Khan and Imrat Khan’s sitars composed ‘Night at the Taj’ as a jugalbandi that sold the idea of eternal love to the West. Actor Pradeep Kumar serenaded Bina Rai’s ghost with Jo vaada kiya in the movie Taj Mahal. Even the morning cup of tea was advertised with Zakir Hussain raising a toast, Wah Taj! It was everywhere — a singularly unique monument that magically appeared in mundane lives. It became, perhaps, an aspiration for the pristine amidst the grim drudgery of daily life in India.
However, besides a brief road trip to the Taj Mahal in my early childhood — I recall flicking orange pips out of the backseat window of my father’s white Ambassador more than the Taj itself — I had few associations with this wonder.
But when I applied to study architecture at a university abroad, I passionately described my ambition to save all the “Taj Mahals” on the roundabouts in India. A line, my professor later claimed, clinched my admission. It was only at the turn of the millennium, upon my return to the country, that I hastily decided to visit it.
Eager to bear witness to perfect symmetry and armed with the romanticism of newly-weds, my husband and I made our way to Agra. Purchasing tickets, we made our way into the hallowed red sandstone gateways. The red stone was such an antithesis to the idea of Taj that it made one wonder if it was an afterthought. But soon, we set our eyes on the magnificence in white, framed through the red archway. The Taj appeared and time stood still.
The magic continued as we made our way to it through seemingly endless rows of fountains, changing its pose with every turn on the path. As an architect, I could spot the physics behind the illusions, the carefully calibrated, outward tilt of its minarets that make them appear vertical even in perspective and prevent them from falling on the Taj in the event of an earthquake. Or the fact that the Taj was built on a 50-mt high square podium, perfectly symmetrical on all four sides. This plinth, proportional to the weight of the structure, is an engineering marvel stabilising the Taj by uniformly transferring its load and reducing its settlement. The symmetry continues in its embellished interiors, where each carving, down to a turn of an inlaid leaf, is carefully replicated on all four sides, and, even more remarkably, in its unique drainage system that draws the water of the plinth through intricate jalli covers, all crafted by almost 20,000 people over two decades. The unique harmony of phi, or the mathematical golden ratio, is exhibited in the proportions of its archways and windows.
But it was only at its podium that suddenly the Taj became “real”. Up close, one could see the open seams of its joints, the eroded marble and holes in the pieta dura work on its surface. Time and bureaucratic apathy had taken its toll. Unlike the West, India only recently felt the need to conserve its monuments; and, concerns over the stability of its foundations, the drying up of the Yamuna and the yellowing of the marble remain as fresh today as they were years back.
Evening drew near, the sun dipped in the distance, and the white marble edifice turned golden. The Taj became an image again. Perfectly poised against the setting sun, ready to be burnt into the annals of my architectural memory.
The Taj is undoubtedly beautiful, making it the most photographed monument in the world and the first with its own Twitter handle! Yet, surrounded by the cynicism of modern life, inadequate systems, eco-social divides and a “chalta hai” attitude, the Taj is also a reminder of the fact that if we can imagine it, we can make “world class” right here in India. The Taj Mahal is our symbol of hope. And, of faith in our innate abilities, goading us to try harder every day.
Suparna Bhalla is a Delhi-based architect.