Taj Mahal : An Expression of Praise and Gratitude
So profound was Shah Jahan’s grief over the loss of his third wife, Mumtaz Mahal, that in 1632, the year following her death, he commissioned a magnificent monument to memorialize and entomb her. In all, the project took twenty-one years to complete. Twenty-one years of engagement, including design and planning, gathering of materials, tools, artisans and laborers, actual construction, grounds preparation and planting, and, surely, the dedication of the site to her memory. Of the Taj Mahal, Shah Jahan said:
Should guilty seek asylum here,
Like one pardoned, he becomes free from sin.
Should a sinner make his way to this mansion,
All his past sins are to be washed away.
The sight of this mansion creates sorrowing sighs;
And the sun and the moon shed tears from their eyes.
In this world this edifice has been made;
To display thereby the creator’s glory.
The first time I traveled to Agra, where the Taj Mahal stands, I anticipated visiting the site in much the same way I anticipated seeing the Eiffel Tower or the Blue Mosque in Istanbul or the Coliseum in Rome. Indeed, I understood the purpose of the Taj, and felt strongly that it, like the other sites I mention, possessed a distinct, memorable, and revered cultural value. I was totally unprepared, however, for the emotional magnificence of the place, or for how deeply it would move me. Just entering its gate and approaching it brought tears to my eyes.
The Taj Mahal is visually breathtaking from almost any perspective; even the views from our hotel rooms were stunning and picturesque, and the entire area reflects exquisite Muslim and Indian craftsmanship, with its ornate architecture, hammered metal objects and doors, and use of marble. But Shah Jahan took great pains to ensure that one’s physical, proximal experience of the site would unfold in stages. To approach the Taj from the south, one must walk through the Taj Ganji, a large bazaar, then pass through an elaborate and somewhat expansive gateway to enter an exquisite series of gardens. Past the gardens is the terrace area, where the main structures stand. Behind these, on the north side, is the Yamuna River, and beyond the river, the Moonlight Garden.
Consequently, a visit to the Taj Mahal is something of a pilgrimage. Getting to Agra is its own adventure, as traffic and road conditions can be unpredictable. But entering the grounds elicits reverence and an apprehension of grace; the very atmosphere of the place is striking and humbling and almost holy. Many visitors spend, as we did, a long while simply sitting in the gardens, contemplating the surroundings.
The woman to whom the monument is dedicated was truly the love of Shah Jahan’s life. In addition to bearing him fourteen children – she died from complications delivering the last child – she was also his confidante, political advisor and consultant in matters of state. Accounts of her suggest she was cultured, bright, politically savvy, diplomatic and she enjoyed the respect, favor and adoration of her emperor husband for the duration of their marriage.
When love, respect and gratitude are conceived, crystallized and constructed as a physical, poetic expression, the space that gesture creates seems transcendent. Clearly, Shah Jahan was deeply inspired to honor his wife’s memory, but also to express his profound gratitude to their creator for her life, and to offer his praise. He recognized that merely building a fabulous mausoleum – even one made of white marble inlaid with semi-precious stones – would not be sufficient; to ensure visitors to the site would understand the depth of his intended gesture, and experience their own emotional/spiritual reckoning, he designed the surrounding space so that it bordered, protected, led to and enhanced the focal structure – and, more importantly, its focal purpose.
Expressions of gratitude need not be made on the scale of the Taj Mahal to be perceived as genuine, profound and lasting, though I am very glad for its existence. Simple gestures can be deeply meaningful and memorable. Creating space and time for them is, in my humble opinion, what really counts. As we approach Thanksgiving, I wish for you the blessing of good space and the time you need to consider and express gratitude for the things that matter.
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