The Ineffable Taj Mahal

I’m not going to try to describe the Taj Mahal. To do so is impossible. Far better writers than me have said so.

Confronted with it at dawn, and then at sunset, and again in the moonlight, Mark Twain declined to describe the monument except in an oblique way. The handful of pages he devotes to the Taj Mahal include the most candid passages he ever wrote about the limits of his skills.

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Dawn at the Taj Mahal

I was the first person at the ticket window when it opened at 6am. Once inside the gate I lingered briefly along the pathway to the portal that frames the Taj Mahal itself. I wanted a little more light before I encountered the view.

5:50am- waiting for the Taj Mahal to open
5:50am- waiting for the Taj Mahal to open

Birds in the trees that lined the tiled path were warbling musically to each other. The air was calm. The heat of the day had not yet intruded. A fountain splashed water on the flowers at its base.

As I passed through the portal, I saw a couple who had preceded me by a few minutes. They were on the raised marble platform that is halfway between the portal and the still higher platform of the Taj itself.

There was not one person between them and the monument.

For that moment, and forever thereafter too, they owned the Taj Mahal. Click on the photo below to see what I saw.

The Embrace
The Embrace

The sun was still ten minutes below the horizon of trees to the right. But there was enough light to capture the scene. Click on it to see the full-sized view from which it is cropped.

After the crowds behind us had pressed forward to the monument, after the intimacy of the moment was gone, I spoke with them. They are from Chicago’s North Shore. They were celebrating a wedding anniversary that I might have been marking with someone had things gone differently.

Yes, I envied them. They have seen a Taj Mahal I will never see.

Painting with Light – Part 1

Understand up front that I’m not going to fudge on my resolution to avoid adjectives to describe the Taj Mahal. But the photos in the mini-album embedded in this post deserve explaining. At times I may need a “word that describes a quality of a thing” to clarify what’s in those pix. Sometimes I’ll need to modify something in the experience, other than the building itself.

The genius and artistry of the Taj Mahal is not limited to placement, form and scale. The masterful exploitation of light, within and without the tomb, raises the site to a level not seen, before or since, anywhere in the world.

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Painting with Light – Part 2

Now the sun is rising, just clearing the line of trees to the east, sliding from behind one of the corner minarets. The richness of its palate is revealed. The warmth of the sun is displayed across the eastern surfaces of the monument in appropriately butter-bright shades of yellow. Click on the photos.

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Painting with Light – Part 3

Shoes must be removed before going up the narrow marble stairs to the plaza and into the dome. The quiet intimacy of the past half-hour is rapidly dissipating as more and more people arrive.

Now the shaded areas outside the perimeter of the plaza are attracting photographers seeking the right angle to capture the color.

Examine the two last photos above. They are closeups from one of the larger pix further above. The spots of color are polished jewels set into the marble shell. In the low rays of the early morning sun, when you are in the same visual plane as those rays, they sparkle, reflecting light back to you.

The white spots in the closest shot are sparkles thrown back at the lens. To the human eye, they shimmer as you move through each reflected beam. Curved surfaces present themselves differently to the moving angle of the rising sun with the result that different parts of the building, depending on where you are standing at any moment, pick up the sparkle.

Inside the dome, especially in the height of the day, when the sun is high above the shell, they transmit their colors across the opposite surfaces like a ballroom mirror-globe. But, because photos inside the tomb are not permitted, you’ll have to go there and see that for yourself someday.

I noticed that without a single posted sign or admonishment by staff – for there appears to be none but gardeners and tourist guides – most conversations were held in a subdued, respectful voice. Alone, or as couples, or in small groups, people sat quietly absorbed in the experience.

No one dropped a single piece of litter. Consider the significance of that.

Here, in the heart of a continent covered with cow dung and garbage and junk and refuse and rubble and shacks that tremble in the lightest breeze and open sewers and the public disgrace of entire families living totally exposed to the elements on orban traffic islands, in sum what must be the world’s most pervasively polluted and outrageous insult to the environment, there is not a candy wrapper or cigarette butt.

Nor, on reflection and after expanding and studying the incidental details in the hundreds of photos taken over the course of two days within the walls of the monument, can I recall seeing a single waste bin.

That may be the most amazing thing of all about the Taj Mahal!

Overnight Train Mathura (Agra) to Mumbai

By now, my fantasy of  “Overnight Train to x x x ” has been exposed as poor romance, frustrating adventure and less than ideal transportation.

Guess what?

pa2616711The overnight train from Mathura Junction to Mumbai reset the template. From the moment of arrival on the platform at the Mathura Station, to getting down on the platform in Mumbai Central, it was the train ride I’d been anticipating but didn’t find between Delhi and Varanasi – or between Varanasi and Agra.

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