Sunday, April 28, 2013

India’s Golden Triangle–Taj Mahal

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The Taj Mahal, “Crown of Palaces,” is a masterpiece. I don’t think anyone who sees it is not touched by its beauty, tranquility, and perfect symmetry.
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Taj Mahal at dawn

They say that the most magical time to visit the Taj Mahal is at sunrise or sunset. At dawn, I viewed the Taj across the city from our hotel room, and Pradeep timed it perfectly so that we went to the Taj at the end of the day, when the sun was setting and the light was at its softest and most golden.

Artist's portrait of Mumtaz Mahal

The Taj Mahal is about eternal love, beauty, devotion and perfection. Pradeep told us that Shah Jahan met the love of his life,  Anjumand Banu Begum, a daughter of Persian nobility, when she was just 14 and he was 15. The young prince fell in love with her great beauty and wanted to marry her immediately, but they had to wait five years until an auspicious date that the court astrologers had selected as most conducive to a happy marriage. In the meantime, Shah Jahan married twice, and although each marriage produced a child, it was clear that the third wife was his first and only love.

Shah Jahan gave her the title Mumtaz Mahal, which means “Chosen One of the Palace.” They were inseparable companions. He showered her with jewels; she was his confidante in all things. While away from Agra on a military campaign with him, she died after giving birth to their 14th child. He was inconsolable. Her dying wish was that he build her a beautiful tomb, so that the all world would know of their love. You can read the story of Mumtaz Mahal at this link.

After the death of Mumtaz, Shah Jahan went into seclusion for a year, and emerged as an old and broken man. His eldest daughter stepped in to take the place of Mumtaz in the royal court, and after finishing the military campaign, Shah Jahan returned to Agra to plan and build her tomb. It was a 22-year project.

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West gate entrance

We entered through the west gate. There are strict rules about what you are, and are not, allowed to bring in. No gum, food, lighters, tobacco, computers, or loose batteries. You may bring in cameras, mobile phones, small bags, water bottles, books, and small flashlights. As with every place we went, there was a security screening upon entry.
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We entered, and there it was – possibly the most exquisite building on the planet. People were taking photos of it, posing in front of it, sitting on benches and gazing at it …

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A dog in the reflecting pool?

… and there was even a dog admiring it as he took a dip in the pool. I thought momentarily of our dog Snickers, may she rest in peace. And I wondered, they let dogs run around here?

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The Taj Mahal is intricately decorated with marble relief work and pietra dura stone inlay, with images of flowers and plants that are thought to represent paradise. It’s believed that 35 different precious and semi precious stones were used in the inlays.

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Inside the tomb, no cameras were allowed. Pradeep pointed out the cenotaphs of Mumtaz and Shah Jahan, which are really fake tombs decorated with jewels and inlay; the real tombs are hidden underneath in a vault that is closed to the public.
Surrounding both cenotaphs is a carved lattice screen made out of a single piece of marble, allowing sunlight to filter through, making delicate patterns of light.

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The recesses, called pishtaqs, give depth to the outside of the building. Carved marble lattice screens provide light to the inside of the mausoleum.

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The base of the mausoleum is square, representing the material world. The central dome represents heaven. Everything is lined up in perfect symmetry.

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Our hotel, the Gateway, is the only hotel visible from the Taj Mahal. We could see it from the plinth, or platform. It’s the white building in the distance, just to the right of the south entrance gate.

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Pradeep was from Agra, and he told us that when he was growing up, when crowds were smaller and before there was so much security, he came to the Taj Mahal and played on the lawns. It was like a park to him.

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The light was fading; it was time to tear ourselves away. As always, our driver Dularam was waiting for us outside the gate, with all of the belongings we had left behind safe in the car. We had skipped lunch, opting to just take a short break between Agra Fort and the Taj Mahal. We were ready to head back to the hotel, but Pradeep had just one more place to show us on the way.

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“It’s the marble factory,” he said. “There is no expectation to buy.” Ok, we agreed. What the heck. Pradeep had no doubt heard Mark and me talking about buying a piece of the marble inlay we had seen in the hotel.
Just a couple of minutes later, we were shown into a large warehouse. Would we like a cold drink? Beer, perhaps? Oh, sure, why not?

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We watched a short video about the marble, made by the tourism department. The power went out three times during the 10-minute film. Welcome to India! Then we went out into a hallway where we could see artisans at work.

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These are descendants of the original artisans who worked on the Taj. Using grinding wheels, they grind the pieces down to size. Some of them are so tiny you can barely see them. What happens when their eyesight goes, we asked? Then they cannot work any more. Also, their fingers are worn down by the grinding wheel. They can only work for short periods, then they must rest and drink tea.

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The cutting and grinding process reminded me a little bit of the stained glass pieces I used to make, using a glass cutter and grinder. However, I made patterns to cut from, whereas these artisans simply gauge the shape and fit by experience.

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The marble is carved using very sharp tools, and a special glue is used. The recipe is centuries old, and it’s a secret.

Would we like to see some pieces in the showroom? Oh, sure, why not. It was cool inside, and the beer was refreshing – and plentiful.

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The place was filled with all sizes of plates, and tables with marble pedestals. It was overwhelming. We knew that this kind of furniture just wouldn’t go with our house or our patio, even though our host kept talking about how weather resistant and unbreakable they are. Were we live in Nevada, we get 70+ mile an hour winds every year.

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“Let me show you something,” our host said, and he took us into a room with plates and boxes displayed like jewelry. Mark’s jaw dropped. Uh-oh, I thought. Here we go.

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We were inches away from buying a plate, but we finally backed off, realizing that we weren’t quite ready. I asked if I could take a photo – they generally aren’t allowed – so that we cold think about it overnight. We had some time in the morning before we had to leave for the train station; we could come back.

When we finally emerged from the building, Pradeep and Dularam were waiting patiently for us, just hanging out. Mark and I had a great Indian dinner at the hotel, trying not to think too much about the plate. It was a lot of money, I wasn’t sure that it was exactly the right one, and I wanted to look again at the hotel store, which we had learned was an outlet for the factory.

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The next morning, we could see that the quality and selection at the factory were better than what was at the hotel. After some discussion, and a sad look from the hotel shopkeeper, we asked the concierge to call our driver for us. Soon Dularam was pulling up in front of the hotel and Pradeep had appeared in the lobby to accompany us. We had pretty much decided that we wanted to buy something, and it would be a quality piece that we would put into our lighted china display cabinet at home. Rather than shopping and buying a lot of trinkets, I would be far more happy with something really beautiful. And Mark just plain hates the trinkets.

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We took a long time deciding. So long, in fact, that new things kept catching our eyes. It was excruciating, trying to decide. While the prices in the factories are generally fixed, they have some leeway to give you a good deal if there is motivation. While Mark wanted a plate, I fell in love with a malachite and mother of pearl box. And, you know, in the shadow of the Taj Mahal, it’s all about the love.

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Finally our host was able to offer us a price for both items that we accepted. While they were wrapping them up securely, there was just one more thing he wanted to show us. It was the carpets. Would that be ok? No need to buy anything. We still had some time, so what the heck.

We had been talking about buying a rug since we got to the Middle East, and had looked at some places. Again, it was overwhelming, but I had learned a few things and I felt I could tell a hand woven rug from a machine made one, and a really fine, expensive one from a less expensive one. Mark was not so sure of himself.

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After an introduction to rug weaving in the demonstration area, we were ushered into the showroom and, with a flourish, the proprietor began to unroll rugs before us, silk and wool, telling us about the designs, colors and dyes. What size do you want to see? Show us a 4 x 6, Mark said. And show us what the highest quality is. I was feeling apprehensive, but at the same time I had been wanting to see some really fine rugs.

India 271Finally we realized that maybe, just maybe, we wanted to buy one of these rugs. Mark was stressing out, because he still didn’t trust himself to choose. I felt that we were in a trustworthy place, and I knew what I liked. With most rugs, there is no one type of design that is more intrinsically more valuable than another, it’s mostly a matter of personal taste. The value of a hand knotted rug depends, among other things, on the number of knots per square inch, the number of colors and type of dye – it should be vegetable dye – and condition.

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There was one rug that stood out from the rest. It was made in Kashmir, a golden color – the proprietor said it was a saffron dye – and it had a beautiful rich floral design. Mark seemed consumed with anxiety, but he wasn’t getting up to leave. We stayed and stayed while we talked about the rugs, they brought us beer and wine, and we whispered to each other. Finally, I said to Mark, “As far as I’m concerned, it’s that one or nothing.” I was only interested in the saffron rug.

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Mark was on the internet on his mobile phone, reading up about rugs on a site called Then he began to negotiate a price. Time was running out; we needed to leave, check out of the hotel and head to the train station. Mark made a final offer, our salesman left to make a phone call, and came back and said, “We have a deal.” I could hardly believe it. What were we doing? I kept thinking to myself, “It’s an investment! An investment.”

“This is it!” Mark said. “We’re done! We aren’t buying anything in Jaipur!” Fine with me! I can’t disclose the actual amount we spent. Let’s just say that we could have bought a small herd of water buffalo.

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I have to admit that we had some serious pangs of angst and agony. Did we get ripped off? Did we overpay? I felt pretty confident about the rug, although it was definitely an investment. Mark felt good about the marble inlay, not so much about the rug. Finally, a few days after we got home, he got up the courage to do the online assessment on the Rug Rag site. To our relief, it looks like we did fine. The rug appears to appraise for more than we paid. And, most important, every time I look at the rug, the plate, and the box, I love them more.

Just like the Taj Mahal. The longer you look at it, the more you appreciate it.

Next: Train ride to Jaipur, and "Welcome to the Raj Palace!"

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