Tuesday, October 25, 2011

An Eternal Love

This week, I’m journeying to another country of my heart - India. If I ask you to think of something that best represents India, what do you picture? Tigers? Railways? The Himalayas? Chances are your mind focused on one of India’s most magnificent creations – the Taj Mahal. Not only is this mausoleum breathtaking, the story behind its construction and the subsequent death of its creator is intriguing as well as heart breaking.

For years, I’d pored over photographs and articles about this icon of India, hoping to one day make the trip there and experience this special monument for myself. So years later, when I sat on the steps at the end of the long, narrow pool, waiting for the mist to dissipate in the early dawn, I worried that my expectations of seeing the Taj Mahal in real life wouldn’t be met. I needn’t have worried. 

As the thick mist cleared and shafts of sunlight hit the pristine marble, my throat constricted and tears formed in my eyes. I’m still not sure if it was the beauty of the building or the story behind its creation that caused me to cry, but either way, it’s a sight I’ll never forget. 

The Taj Mahal’s creator, Shah Jahan, was the emperor of the Mughal Empire in the Indian Subcontinent from 1628 to 1658. A descendent of Genghis Khan, Shah Jahan’s name means “King of the World.” Considered by many historians as one of the greatest Mughals in history, his reign is often referred to as the Golden Age of the Mughals and is one of India’s most prosperous periods of their civilisation. Shah Jahan erected monuments such as the Pearl Mosque in Agra, and the Red Fort and Jama  Masjid Mosque in Delhi, he also commissioned the Peacock Throne that Heidi wrote about. He had a passion for fine arts and architecture and is credited with having commissioned 777 gardens in Kashmir, his summer residence. During his rule, he founded the imperial capital called Shahjahanabad, now known as New Delhi.

In 1607, Shah Jahan was betrothed to Arjumand Banu Begum, a fourteen-year-old girl born in Agra to a family with Persian nobility. They married five years later on a date selected by astrologers as the most conducive to ensuring a happy marriage. The Shah gave his new wife the name of Mumtaz Mahal, “Chosen One Of The Palace” and this is when their great love commenced. The Shah later took two more wives and countless concubines, but it was widely known he favoured Mumtaz and had little interest in his other women, even though he dutifully sired children with his other wives. Shah Jahan showered intimacy, deep affection, and attention on Mumtaz, and she returned his love in kind. 

Historians often write and speak of the erotic relationship shared by Mumtaz and Shah Jahan, and in their nineteen years of marriage, they had fourteen children together, seven of whom died at birth or infancy. In 1631 in Burhanpur, Mumtaz died while giving birth to their fourteenth child. The Shah Jahan had her buried temporarily in a walled garden called Zainabad, but he fell into a deep grief. Inconsolable, he mourned in seclusion for a year. After he reappeared, his hair had turned white, his back was now bent, and his face etched with wrinkles. His daughter, Jahanara Begum, gradually brought him back into the public eye and took the place of Mumtaz at court.

Burhanpur wasn’t the intended resting place for his wife, so Shah Jahan started planning a suitable mausoleum to be constructed in Agra for his wife. This resting place for Mumtaz, the Taj Mahal, took 22 years to complete.
The dome, the most renowned component of the Taj Mahal, is actually only one part of a complex integration of structures. Shah Jahan employed a board of architects, and thousands of artisans and craftsmen worked on the buildings under the strict guidance of the Shah. It all sounds romantic until you learn that upon completion of the project, Shah Jahan had his worker’s hands cut off so they couldn’t build a monument better than the Taj Mahal.

In 1657, Shah Jahan took ill and with his death looming, his sons went to war with each other to gain succession to the throne. His third son, Aurangzeb, emerged victorious and proceeded to declare his father as incompetent, resulting in the imprisonment of Shah Jahan in Agra Fort. The broken hearted Shah had access to a balcony every evening, where he would view the Taj Mahal across the Yamuna River. After eight years of incarceration, Shah Jahan died at the fort in 1666 at the age of 74. His body was taken quietly by two men and laid to rest beside Mumtaz.

I’ve stood in the exact same spot that the Shah Jahan gazed out upon the Taj Mahal. Goose bumps spread across my skin, and the heat of the day couldn’t warm the rapid drop in my body temperature. I have no doubt I was in the presence of the ghost of Shah Jahan. 

In 1983, the Taj Mahal became a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and even though this mausoleum is at risk of decaying from pollution and too many tourists, the reasons behind its creation will never lose its appeal. The love story of Shah Jahan and Mumtaz will live on forever in the hearts of romantics around the world.

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