I am not ashamed to admit that the Taj Mahal has been a significant part of the draw of India for me. Ever since I read and reread Kathryn Lasky's rendering of Jahanara's diary during my historical fiction kick as a child, the story of the Taj has had an irresistible pull on my imagination. Happily, it did not disappoint.
Once inside the temple compound, we face an imposing red entry gate.
The Taj Mahal is not only the most exquisitely beautiful building I have ever seen, but it also functions as a museum for the glories of the Mughal empire. The Mughals were Muslim rulers of much of what is now modern India, and their religion shows in the Koran calligraphy engraved on the exterior of the buildings in the compound. The powerful Mughal emperor Shah Jahan built the Taj Mahal in memory of Mumtaz Mahal, his wife and the mother of my friend Jahanara. He was so heartbroken at her death that he built this for her tomb. Now the building is swarmed with tourists (it is a significant source of income for the Indian government, so much so that they went to great lengths to protect it from bombs during WWII) but I imagined Shah Jahan standing there by the reflecting pool, entirely alone, mourning for his beloved wife.
Shah Jahan and Mumtaz Mahal weren't buried in the upper room where tourists are allowed but down beneath it. Her cenotaph is exactly in the center, the core of all the symmetry in the entire design, centered on the line that runs throughout the compound architecture.
Today, the Taj Mahal functions as a draw for tourists. We encountered everything from camels pulling carts of people to little boys following you, trying to sell overpriced trinkets. Our tour guide was a Hindu man who clearly could not be bothered with the Muslim faith (or with the flocks of tourists for that matter), but he understands the source of revenue that is the Taj and he made it work for him. Like so many things worth seeing, the Taj is not the easiest to see, but as we realized, walking through the dark inner chamber of Mumtaz's cenotaph, it was worth all the trouble.