An Introduction to GUARDS AT THE TAJ
See that? Pretty amazing, isn’t it? Even in 2016, in a world that has seen modern man-made wonders as big as the Burj Khalifa and as small as a microchip, there’s something ineffably powerful about the image of the Taj Mahal. It is unique, mysterious, powerful, captivating — and utterly unique. Of all the famously wondrous things created by human beings on earth, all the symbols of progress, all the harbingers of advancement, all the sign-posts that tell us where we’re going, only the Taj asks us to look not forward, not upward, but inward. The Taj invites fundamental questions about beauty — a concept inextricably tied to humanity.
In 1628, Shah Jahan ascended the throne of Hindustan. His wife, to whom he gave the title “Mumtaz Mahal,” or “Chosen One of the Palace,” became Queen. Just three years later, however, she would die in childbirth. According to legend, with her dying breath, she asked her husband to build a mausoleum for her…a monument more beautiful than any the world had ever known. Six months later, Shah Jahan broke ground across the Jamuna River in Agra, to begin the process of building her memorial: the Taj Mahal.
It took 20,000 laborers 20 years to build, but by 1653 it was complete. In the classic Mughal style, it’s built of pure white marble, as well as 30+ varieties of precious/semi-precious stones. The tombs of Mumtaz Mahal and her husband are located under marble cenotaphs in the heart of the Taj Mahal, facing towards Mecca. Their cenotaphs together, one slightly larger than the other, represent the only visible example of asymmetry in the entire monument. Beauty, they seem to say, isn’t always perfect.
Neither is the process of creating beauty, it would seem. There’s another legend about the Taj Mahal and it’s construction, a darker legend: it is said that after the completion of the Taj, Shah Jahan ordered the hands of the craftsmen and artisans — even the chief architect, a mythic figure named Ustad Isa — who were involved in creating this fantastic monument to be cut off, to ensure that they would never be able to create anything as beautiful ever again.
It’s this story, this horrific fable, that Guards at the Taj grapples with and seeks to flesh out. The questions implicitly posed by these age-old stories are the ones that Rajiv Joseph challenges head on: what are the true costs of love, of empire, of beauty? In an inequitable society, who bears these costs? Ultimately, are they worth it?
The Taj Mahal is beautiful, but like many beautiful things in this world, its history is fraught and complicated. There’s more to its story than the tonnage of marble it took to build, or the number of precious stones it contains, or the way it seems to almost disappear in the white-hot heat of an Agra afternoon. Its story is about us — humanity and beauty, sometimes opposed, but forever intertwined.
— Justin McCarthy, Communications Coordinator