Agra: The architecture of paradise
Someone once said that ‘the Mughuls began like Titans and finished like jewellers’ and the legendary pieces of Islamic architecture in Agra are supremely well designed.
I arrived at the gates of the Taj Mahal before dawn to see for a few minutes the sun piercing the pollution that cloaks the city of Agra. The vast marble facades catch the first, pink glow of dawn and then the golden light of the sunrise.
This play of light on the surfaces of the Taj Mahal is a deliberate decorative device – it symbolises the presence of Allah, who may never be represented in anthropomorphic form.
Tulips, roses, sunflowers and narcissi are formed from carnelian, onyx and lapis lazuli in mosaics of tiny precious stones. Relief carving on the exterior and carved marble screens inside catch and let in the light.
Islamic gardens of paradise embrace the Taj Mahal, surely the most iconic and famous visitor attraction in all of India. The Char-Bagh or four quartered garden is split by four channels of water represent the four rivers of paradise.
These are thought to be the Blue and White Nile rivers, the Tigris and the Euphrates that flowed from the Garden of Eden. They symbolically flowed with water, milk, wine and honey to a central pool – the celestial pool of abundance found in the Koran.
Whether Shah Jehan built the Taj Mahal in some incredibly romantic gesture to his dead wife or whether it was more a testament to his own overweening ego we’ll probably never know. I certainly felt humbled watching the workers employed to clean the Taj, crouching and polishing the beautiful marblework.
Just make sure to leave the Taj Mahal by 10am when the day coach loads of tourists arrive in Agra from Delhi on their Golden Triangle tours and the place is overrun. The garden is a saving grace where you can find a quiet corner or park bench from which to view your fill. And watch out for love birds in the trees
The river Jamuna further embraces the Taj Mahal and the river trickles past through Agra, reflecting the feat of Islamic architecture above its rubbish-strewn banks. From the opposite shore of the river the views are still impressive and not obscured by hordes of tourists.
In fact it’s like another world. People herd goats and in the flood path of the river women carry water to the tiny tendrils of pumpkin and cucumber vines – each sheltered carefully from the harsh sun by straw.
Here also you can find the ‘Baby Taj’. Itimad-ud-Daulah is the tomb of the Emperor Akbar’s wazir. He also happened to be the father of Nur Jahan, who became the wife of Jahangir Khan and the most powerful woman in Moghul history. And grandfather of Mumtaz , for whom the Taj was built.
She was described as the ‘Light of the World’ and wielded power for 16 years over the empire through her husband and father. She also designed this beautiful little tomb. Little, that is, in comparison to the Taj Mahal!
The colours of the stonework are soft and the exterior sports beautiful floral and geometrical designs. Inside there are paintings inside of cypresses, vases and wine jars – the Persian symbols of paradise.
For Itimad-ud-daulah was a highly sophisticated Persian refugee who had risen through the ranks of the Mughal court to become prime minister.
The walled Char-Bagh is a peaceful place to sit on the grass and eat a picnic, enjoying this inspired architecture – perfect in its design, exquisite in its detail and pristine in its lush garden setting.
From beyond the Jamuna the architecture of the Taj Mahal is just as impressive, although more poignant viewed form the perspective of ordinary Indian people struggling to survive beside these glorious structures in Agra.
The Taj Mahal is, of course, a Unesco World Heritage Site – read here to find out about other World Heritage Sites I have visited.
By Natasha von Geldern
What did you think of the Islamic architecture of Agra in India?